Musings on the existential question, “what is art?”
Table of Contents
An Introduction To The Art Of Our Time
When I think of modern art, I am immediately thinking of this particular modern artist who exemplifies the modern human psyche, the abstraction of materialism and globalization of modernity, and who exercised his right to choose what art is to him (artistic pluralism); that artist is Mark Rothko.
“A picture is a poem without words.”Horace
Mark Rothko was an American Abstract Expressionist painter who had a successful career based out of New York, USA. Abstract Expressionism is known as the first globally popular post World War II art movement that began outside of Europe, specifically Paris. This art movement began in New York and put America on the map as an up-and-coming art hub, a first in the history of art culture as all eyes had always been on Europe; Suddenly, Europe and the rest of the world had their gaze fixed on America, a country growing not only in popularity but in political and socio-economic power, largely due to their role in World War II.
“I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.“Mark Rothko
Though he disliked being labeled to art movements, Abstract Expressionist, Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is known for his large and meditative planes of pigmented layers of colour and expansive paint strokes, suggesting our inner most primitive nature which divinely links us to the universe at all times if we but choose to acknowledge or explore it. His colour-field paintings was known to be one of the best once his artistic style evolved to this point of his career at around 1949. Rothko explored facets of humanity, spirituality and the question of “What is Art?”
In his work titled, Black on Maroon (see image above), the viewer gets a sense of Rothko’s demands for attention, meditation and reflection. The large flat planes hold the viewer with a feeling as if one is trapped and unable to move and it is most captivating. Most of his pieces are quite large in scale. The Seagram Murals at The Tate Modern are expansive and just one or two pieces fill up much of one wall alone.
The Seagram Murals
This piece is one of a series of paintings he was commissioned to create in the 1950s for the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. Rothko went through much preparation for this commission, even setting up a scaffold in his studio to match the dimensions of the restaurant exactly. During a family holiday tour through Europe, Rothko made a point of visiting Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence where he was so impressed by Michelangelo’s ability to hold, enthrall and captivate his audience powerfully, inspiring Rothko to achieve the same effect through his colour-field paintings.
Rothko’s earlier works consisted of bright and intense colours but the use of colour and the mood of his Seagram murals indicate a shift, reflecting the dark, somber and a brewing inner turmoil he was experiencing at the time. As a result of the dark and inappropriate mood of the murals suitable for a posh ambiance in a hotel restaurant, he withdrew from the commission and donated his Seagram mural collection to the British government, to express his love for the country and of its famous landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, whom Rothko held in very high regard. Sadly, Mark Rothko committed suicide shortly after.
The Birth of Abstract Expressionism
Rothko created Non-Objective Abstract Expressionist paintings while artists like Jackson Pollock, for example, were Objective Abstract Expressionists. Rothko explored unattainable and intangible forces like the universe, the spirit, God, clouds, death and the subconscious through his ethereal planes of colour, layered on top of one another, as if he was building a springboard for the viewer and artist to jump off from, to enter into the space of infinite mysticism, dynamism and dimensionality. The maroon, dark red and black themes of colour swallow up the viewer’s emotions; one becomes consumed by the deep sadness, doubt, anger, frustration, anxiety, loneliness and alienation that the colours emit. The fragile state of the artist’s ego is projected, made loud and clear with each layer of paint. The psychology of the colours is reminiscent of Antoine-Jean Gros’ sickly, deathly yellow/green palette of the decaying bodies in Napoleon in the Pesthouse at Jaffa, 11 March 1799 (1804).
The ominous black squared ring on top of the red is like a gateway or doorway to death, deep sorrow and great sadness. One gets a feeling of time and space slowing down and dissipating by the large brush stroke and blurred lines whereas compared to Jackson Pollock’s Objective Abstract Expressionist paintings were achieved with a quick gesture of the application of paint (all over painting) on canvas. Though not evident upon first inspection, there was a method to Pollock’s maddening technique, which was representative of the primitive, the psyche of Carl Jung’s studies and of American consumerism.
Pluralism of modern art allowed for Art to change from the accepted Academic style towards individual expression and eventually mainstream pop art. The twenty-first century was a time of social change, one in which art became the vehicle of choice for freedom of expression, contemplation, meditation and abstraction of the human subconscious.
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Art is the embodiment of the words within us that we can’t quite pronounce and it is the ethereal world within us that is elusive in this 3D world. What art will be like from today onwards is unknown but because we have the freedom and power to choose what art is; it will be powerful and progressive, nonetheless.
And this is what I think art is.