Sunday, 21 July 2013

Letter to Mark Rothko

Dear Mr Rothko,

Like many of my contemporaries, I have come to love your later paintings. The huge mural canvasses that you painted in the late fifties, in particular for that Seagram building, are a great joy to me now, as indeed they are to many.

That's not to say I don't like your earlier work. I do. Especially the multiforms that came before you settled on this style for which you are now so famous.They remind me very much of the work of Clyfford Still, another artist whose work I admire, as I am sure you do.

I hear that you do not want your paintings to be seen as representations of real world objects. Rather, you want us to see the paintings themselves as objects in the world. I understand that. They are indeed objects of great beauty in themselves and need no explanation in order for us to admire them.

But I can't help myself from seeing things in these paintings, things that you certainly never intended.

Standing before one of the Seagram murals, especially on a gloomy day when the light in the gallery in not too intense, it is difficult not to see the image on the surface as an opening into the gloom. The dark colours you have used perfectly create this illusion.

I find myself drawn towards the painting. I move closer. Now the opening seems to be the edge of a solid object. I can almost see behind it. It makes me wonder.

How close should I stand? 

Someone told me that, when asked this question directly, you answered that they should stand very close. I understand that. The effect of standing very close, in the gloom, is overwhelming. If I had these paintings in my home, I'd install them in a darkened room and stand only a couple of feet away. I would be transported into another world when I did.

As it is, the paintings of yours that I have seen are in a more well-lit room than I would like, and they are mounted a little too high on the wall for me. I guess curators have their own view as to how these things should be displayed.

I am intrigued by the process you used to create these paintings. From what I have heard, they were created with many washes of paint, oil based paint I believe,  thinly applied and built up in many layers. Is this how you achieve the illusion of space? Is this why, what I see as an opening at one moment, I see as an obstruction at another? I am sure this is why your paintings are so compelling to many who see them. 

Your painting process was long, I am told. With long periods of contemplation between washes where you sat and looked at how it was and, I imagine, decided what was needed to get closer to your goal. How was that goal imagined? Did you know before you started each canvas how it should appear when you would finish it?

It's important too, I think, that the canvasses are as big as they are. Their effect on the viewer is partially as a consequence of their size in relation to the size of a person, I think.

Important too, in my experience, that I look at them with both eyes open. With only one eye, the effect is lessened, it seems to me. Why is that, do you think?

I discovered this two-eye thing in a strange way. I was trying to reproduce the effect of looking at you murals using a print in a book. I tried putting my face very close to the book and using a magnifying glass to try to create the effect of scale. This necessitated the use of just one eye. Failure. 

But next time I was in the gallery, I did my usual peering at you full sized canvasses, from afar and from very close, using one eye. The illusion didn't work then either. Not for me, anyway. I find this fascinating.

You may not understand my next point, and my main reason for writing. 

When I look at an artist's work, I look for the systematic elements. Indeed, I hope to find sufficient of a system in the works that I could explain to another person how they could reproduce an image of a similar type.

In the late works that you completed in the early sixties, I find myself explaining your system in terms of your geometry and your process. The geometry is that of symmetrically placed rectangles. The process is that of serially applied washes of very thin, transparent, paint. The outermost process is the usual, repeat until satisfied.

I would love to know whether this how you planned your paintings or if this view of them is one that you recognise.

I look for the systematic in all art. Music is trivial in this respect. Painting less so.

Looking for the systematic helps me appreciate the work. It doesn't in any way exclude me from the emotional and spiritual content of the work. If anything it enhances it.

If you are at all interested in my views I will expand on them in a later letter.

You might, for example, be interested in my appreciation of the systematic in the works of Mondrian, Pollock and perhaps Munch. 

With greatest admiration and respect, I am

Yours sincerely