Thursday, September 02, 2004

Some writing about Rothko

Rather than produce a post original to this site, I thought I'd cut-and-paste some writing I've done in conjunction with my Honors Comp class. The invitation at the end is extended to my readers here as well.
For those who might care: The semester has begun well. I like my students and they, at this early stage, seem to like me. But the first batches of papers come next week, so the honeymoon may end soon.
Anyway: here's what I posted to the Honors Comp class's website:

I hope that by now you have had a look at the painting I've chosen and have read my description of it. Here now is my response to what I see.
As I said in class on Tuesday, I'm very familiar with this painting, having had a large framed poster of it for 4 years now and, even after all that time, still looking at it every once in a while (as opposed to just seeing it as I walk by it). And, as I said, one of the reasons I chose to write about it was that, aside from liking its combination of colors, I wasn't completely sure why it still can hold my attention as it does and that maybe writing about it might lead me to understand that. I've done some thinking about what I'll say here, but I'm still not sure that what follows will explain everything. I think that all good art--visual art, literature, music, film--keeps on revealing bits of itself the longer we look at and think about it, and I happen to think this particular Rothko is "good."
I mentioned in class that the fact that the Rothko is divided into three bands of color reminded me of a basic rule for most landscape paintings: that the final image divides the canvas into three horizontal bands. That doesn't mean that I think Rothko is trying and failing to paint a traditional landscape, but I DO think, for reasons I'll explain, that I think his painting is creating, rather than depicting, a space.
Although Rothko names his painting for the dominant colors in it, I don't think his painting is "about" those colors. There are painters, called color-field painters, whose subject is color and, sometimes, form, the most prominent of them being the American painter Ellsworth Kelly (here is a link to a picture of one of his most famous paintings, Red, Blue and Green). But whereas the color-field painters usually employ hard edges and even, solid depictions of color, Rothko, as I've noted, has distinct but fuzzy borders between his colors, and within the bands themselves there is actually quite a range of colors that I can see in my poster. I feel certain, based on having seen other Rothkos in person before, that if I were to see this one in person as well, I'd see even more color than I can in the poster. It's the lack of sharp boundaries and the range of colors within the bands themselves that lead me to say that the Rothko's subject isn't the colors themselves. But neither is it about form. The bands are fuzzy rectangles, but that seems more coincidental than the point.
So, then, I have to conclude that this painting is creating a space. I almost said "depicting" instead of "creating," but the former term implies that Rothko is painting something that exists somewhere in the world. One could argue--and I suspect Rothko might (though I don't know why; it's just a hunch)--that what he's painted DOES exist . . . in his mind. After all, isn't Dali "depicting" dreamscapes from his imagination? But, for me at least, "creating" has connotations that its making is still on-going. As I've said before, this painting appears very differently to me now since I've begun writing about it. Dali's paintings, though, are done--they don't evolve (for me, anyway).
In rereading what I've written so far, I see that I've not really "responded." I've done some interpreting, but that's not quite the same as a response.
So here we go:
This painting engages me because its fuzzy edges and uneven colors invite me to explore those "imperfections." The Kelly I linked to is powerful, forceful, but when I look at it, I feel as though it does all the "talking." It hogs the conversation; it's as though it's a visual command, like a street sign. It's an aesthetic dogma. A spot in the Kelly where the paint is ever so lighter/darker than the rest would "weaken" it--the aesthetic equivalent of finding an inconsistency in that dogma. The Rothko, though, is not nearly so insistent. Its variations and gradations create space for me to see what I can find in addition to what its title tells me there is. Moreover, I get the feeling that what I have to say about it is just as valid as what it has to say about itself. It doesn't judge, even though its very existence implies that boundaries DO exist. As opposed to dogma, the Rothko feels more like the concept of concept.

The above feels rather mushy and imprecise--in part, that's because I realize I'm talking about mushy, imprecise things. I don't yet know how to say this more precisely, though. I invite you to ask questions and even suggest other ways to say what I'm trying to say.


Alex said...

I was tooling my way through your blog and was abruptly brought up short by your comment "I mentioned in class that the fact that the Rothko is divided into three bands of color reminded me of a basic rule for most landscape paintings: that the final image divides the canvas into three horizontal bands." I'm certainly no artist, but your comment fascinated me because in one of my early blogs I was advancing the theory of "The Law Of Threes" which said that most everything revolved around the number 3. In fact if you remember Sesame Street you could almost hear the Count saying "This Universe Has Been Brought To You By The Number 3". Anyway my fascination continued when I next read your comment that "It's the lack of sharp boundaries and the range of colors within the bands themselves that lead me to say that the Rothko's subject isn't the colors themselves. But neither is it about form. The bands are fuzzy rectangles, but that seems more coincidental than the point." because I have also been toying with the idea that our world is essentially based on three structures, Objects (single things), Structures, (like bands etc.) and Time which is the universal randomizer. Perhaps the three main things in art are points, lines (joined points) and structures (rectangles, circles,etc.) The objects are "traveling" randomly within the "structure" like Brownian Movements. I know it sounds a bit silly on first reading but the concept tends to grow on you the more you think about it. Maybe it it something your Honors Comp class could write about!!

Rooney said...

My current blog is located at :)

John B. said...

Thanks for the heads-up.

3 is a recurring number in narratives, especially in folk stories. The theory is that 3 allows for repetition and, in the third instance, some variation on that repetition (think, for example, of the structures of "The Three Little Pigs" and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"). As for Rothko in particular, while many of his paintings have the 3 rectangles, many others have 2; many others have more than 3. You ARE right, though, in sensing that Rothko is trying to do something spiritual in his paintings, in that he's trying to evoke a 20th-century version of what the Romantics would have called the Sublime.
Now: as to the question of how far to pursue such things, I'm not as certain of that because of my relative ignorance of them. But you're right that 3 is a recurring number in many different artforms.

Anonymous said...

Yes, three is a bit of an 'odd' number, isn't it? :-/

I've just come up with a personal theory as to why this is, and I've not checked to see whether it's bollocks and/or has been mentioned before, but I just thought I'd mention it on the spur of the moment: one reason for why the number three might be considered 'magical' is that it is profoundly un-human. One, two, and five are all characteristic of the human body, whereas almost nothing in nature seems to come in threes. At least not within a single organism.
To bring this back to painting and landscapes, if you wanted to include living beings in your picture, one would be solitary whereas two would create a sort of intimacy, and idea of sharing the world, as it were. Three, on the otherhand, is the proverbial 'crowd', i.e. once you have three people or animals in a picture they become almost part of the landscape.
Also, another hare-brained thought: perhaps the image of a solitary figure is often so striking because there is a trinity of sorts at work, namely the object, the artist, and the viewer?


Alex said...

I couldn’t resist adding my comments to what fearful_syzygy said under "Anonymous". The number 3 is the "attractor" number for stability in our universe. Nature tries to coalesce around the number 3 for stability. Random events out of the blue tend to come in groups of 3 over time before events are stabilized (end of sequence). If 3 people are present there is less chance for hanky panky from intimate number 2. That’s why chaperones were all the rage for courting 2’s . Number 1 is for the contemplative single thinker / object in most paintings. It is rather fascinating that our universe contains 3 measurements length, width, height. If you look at the unit’s column of prime numbers when more than 1 column is present they will only contain the numbers 1, 3, 7, and to a lesser extent 9. 9 = 3 X 3 or 3 (squared). Perhaps paintings can only be "balanced" if they have 3 connecting parts. Maybe that is why the Mona Lisa is so fascinating because there is only 1 center of interest which is her as a portrait. 2 things in paintings bring intimacy / strife / danger and 3 things stability / peace / contentment.

Anonymous said...

fearful, do you remember Chapter 63 of Foucault's Pendulum? That's the part where Lia explains her theory that "archetypes don't exist: the body exists".

I hope blog_meridian will forgive me for besmirching his pristine journal with vulgarities:

We move on to the magic numbers your authors are so fond of. You are one and not two, your cock is one and my cunt is one, and we have one nose and one heart; so you see how many important things come in ones. But we have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, mu breasts, your balls, legs, arms, buttocks. Three is the most magical of all, because our body doens't know that number; we don't have three of anything, and it should be a very mysterious number that we attribute to God, wherever we live. But if you think about it, I have one cunt and you have one cock - shut up and don't joke - and if we put these two together, a new thing is made, and we become three. So you don't have to be a university professor or use a computer to discover that all cultures on earth have ternary structures, trinities.-Raminagrobis

John B. said...

Besmirch away. Apparently you haven't noticed my poor parody of Koyaanisqatsi?
Some general comments--and thanks for all of yours, by the way:
3 seems to have, simultaneously, elements of balance and of unbalance. I can't remember now who wrote the book Alone, which is about an Antarctic explorer's months of living by himself in a cabin somewhere down there. Somewhere early on in that book, which I of course haven't read but have read a little ABOUT, the writer says that for such prolonged stays, the ideal number of people is NOT 2--the recommended number is either 3 or 1. With 3, if a dispute arises between 2 people, one remains to arbitrate. So, balance. But existing alongside balance is a kind of upsetting of the status quo (why, for example, we here in the U.S. could use a viable 3rd political party): each has to look not just at one Other, but at TWO Others.
The obvious triad is the triangle: balance is created not by locating oneself on a continuum between two points but by locating oneself OUTSIDE that continuum.
Boy, am I rambling.
I just find it interesting, in thinking back on the remark that triggered all this, that landscape artists divide their canvas into three bands as a design principle, as a sort of scaffolding for their compositions . . . and now we're noting 3's UNnaturalness even as we see it everywhere in human endeavors, if not in Nature. But we do tend to speak of design in human terms--that is, in implicitly artificial ones. A landscape painting, after all, purports to be a record of a scene encountered in nature, but its appearance is shaped by a human agency.

John B. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, I knew I must have got it from somewhere. It's been a while since I read FP though. I expect it sounds less rude in Italian, but then of course most things do. The only times I've seen The Exorcist and From Dusk till Dawn they were dubbed into Italian, and I'm sure the experience was somewhat lessened by the mellifluence of the language. If you watch La Haine, (or use public transport) it's evident that the supposedly beautiful French language can sound harsh and bitter, but that simply isn't the case with Italian. Even "Vaffanculo!" spoken by as hairy and malodorous a Roman as you like, really can't help but sound like a vaguely attractive proposal. :D


Anonymous said...

As if to prove my point, here is the passage in Italian:

E adesso passiamo ai numeri magici che piacciono tanto ai tuoi autori. Uno sei tu che non sei due, uno è quel tuo affarino li, una è la mia affarina qui e uni sono il naso e il cuore e quindi vedi quante cose importanti sono uno. E due sono gli occhi, le orecchie, le narici, i miei seni e le tue palle, le gambe, le braccia e le natiche. Tre è più magico di tutti perché il nostro corpo non lo conosce, non abbiamo nulla che sia tre cose, e dovrebbe essere un numero misteriosissimo che attribuiamo a Dio, in qualunque posto viviamo. Ma se ci pensi, io ho una sola cosina e tu hai un solo cosmo - sta' zitto e non fare dello spirito - e se mettiamo questi due cosini insieme viene fuori un nuovo cosino e diventiamo tre. Ma allora ci vuole un professore universitario per scoprire che tutti i popoli hanno strutture ternarie, trinità e cose del genere?Now, I confess that I found that online, since I don't have access to a copy of the original, and thus I can't be sure that this isn't some bowdlerised version, but to me "affarino" and "cosina" translate as "thingy" and "whatsit" rather than "cock" and "cunt". :-Curiously, it doesn't actually say anywhere in my copy who translated it, although I'm assuming it was William Weaver, since he's translated everything to have been published in Italian in the last thirty-odd years. Apparently, there is a theory that he actually got his students to translate chunks of these books for him, so perhaps this is simply the handiwork of a disgruntled undergraduate...

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to say that first of all, I have no idea what happened to the line breaks in the previous comment, and secondly, I went into a bookshop and stole a glance at chapter 63 of an Italian copy of Il pendolo di Foucault, and sure enough it does say "affarino" and "cosina". Also, where it says "cosmo" it should of course say "cosino". It had struck me as odd at the time but since two different people had that on their webpages I accepted it. Clearly it is an OCR error which will run rampage about the Internet unless someone corrects it, so that's what I'm doing.