I have always been a Mark Rothko fan.
There is no telling why. That is part of the deal. It is supposed to be an emotional experience, reasons can’t be given.
(I have always thought it had a lot to do with the game Candyland, a game I think I played a lot growing up. In that game, you didn’t roll dice and use the total to know how many spaces to advance, you used color. Each square on the board had a color, and you would draw a card, which would have a block of color on it, and you would advance along the board until you arrived at the next square of that color. Sometimes, though, it seemed like only very rarely, you would get a double, a card with two blocks of the same color on it, and so you would be able to advance two instances of that color on the board. I suspect that Rothko’s paintings, on some very deep level, struck me as the world’s most gigantic version of the Candyland cards I coveted most.)
There is an exhibit of Rothko’s paintings in the Tate Modern in London. I have been lucky enough to visit London a fair amount of times, usually on my own, and I have been free to walk around wherever I chose. But every time I am there I go to the Tate to see the Rothkos. It would be easy to object to this, to say what are you thinking, there are an infinite number of things to see and do in London, don’t re-see something you have already seen. But I don’t even really think twice. I go straight to the Tate. Unlike most galleries, in which Rothko’s pictures are mixed in with others in a series of rooms devoted to a theme or a school of painting, at the Tate there are 9 Rothkos in one room, one very dimly lit room.
It takes time to see them, both because your eyes have to adjust to the low light, and because the paintings are very subtle. They are made almost entirely of blacks and maroons, and the forms on the canvas make themselves visible to you only gradually. At first the pictures look like mostly indistinct fields of dark. But over time, if you wait for it, the windows appear.
The windows. Or maybe they are frames. Or scaffolds of some kind. As I sat there at length, and the pictures presented themselves to me, it became clear that what was going on was that Rothko was trying to create for us a way to contact chaos without getting hurt. Let me try to explain that one. The paintings are huge, 8’x8′ or so, and the basic set up is that there is a field of dark red on which Rothko has overlain black rectangles, each of which is bisected, making them look like window panes. The dark red is clearly the background, and the black is laid down on top of the red. In the ones that struck me most, the red background is darker at the edges of the canvas and lighter in the center, so one has the clear sense of an almost infinite depth receding into the middle of the picture. It is like staring into the void, or looking into a blizzard, or peering over the edge of a very, very deep chasm. But for the windows. They provide a frame, a defense, a buffer that somehow keeps you safe, that somehow prevents the terror of the chaos from fully reaching you. The frames of the windows vary in thickness. In some pictures we are relatively more exposed to the chaos than others. Sometimes the frames take up most of the picture, and the sliver of red background is more occluded. Other times the frames are thinner, more delicate, and we feel far more nakedly exposed to the chaos.
I know from being a big fan of the movie Six Degrees of Separation that Kandinsky has a two-sided painting, with chaos on one side and control on the other. What Rothko is doing here is offering both on the same side of the canvas, setting down one layer that is chaos, and then making sure it is muted or mediated or moderated or by a layer of control, the latter of which is closer to us, protecting us, keeping us safe, standing between us and chaos. But at the same time it allows us to see chaos, to connect with it, to really *feel* it.
The drama here isn’t really one of good and evil, of the destructive force of chaos against the control that keeps us safe. That would be a Hobbesian imagination. If we are to believe Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari who followed in his wake, chaos is not evil, it is everything. It is both destruction and production. And it contains within it all of those forces, all at once, all in one place. It is all of life and all of death all mixed together. It is not a negative power, power as a threat, but power in general, force that can change the world. Chaos is the source of life, of energy, of creation, but also the source of death and destruction. We absolutely must have it to live, to survive. But of course it also brings death as well. If we confront it nakedly, without mediation, if we are immersed in it fully, it will overwhelm us, swallow us up into its swirl. But, again, we must contact it, must connect with it, must draw from its power in order to continue living and growing. We must figure out a way to draw creative/productive energy from chaos without getting so close to it, so immersed in it, that it swallows us up.
These paintings, if they were all frame, would lack any connection to the chaos, and thus lack life. If they didn’t have any frames, they would precipitate us into chaos, and shut us down. But they are neither. They connect us to chaos without overwhelming us. I sat in the room for an hour, and I was intensely alive emotionally the whole time. But I never broke down and cried, the way Rothko sometimes claimed people did when confronted with his paintings. I was always on the verge of that, but the frames always brought me back. I was feeling alive, as intensely as possible, without being overwhelmed by it. It was a powerful and sustained sense of wonder. Maybe these pictures are great pictures because they find that balance, a semi-stable mix between the inspiration and vivacity that comes from chaos and the calm and reassurance that comes from control. For me, Rothko got it just right because I felt exhilarated and secure at the same time, in a constant play of forces where one never overwhelms the other. It was an incredible experience.