“For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.”
“Bring forth what is true; Write it so it’s clear. Defend it to your last breath.”
—Ludwig Boltzmann, quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust
The bridge from the old ways of gods and monsters to the new of the mind is not without its fatalities. For those who are the first to cross it, there is often a heavy price to pay. This was particularly true as the early 20th century welcomed the dawn of modernism. Humankind was venturing beyond God and plowing the depths of the mind as never before. The mathematician Georg Cantor, and physicist Ludwig Boltzmann were the first to unravel classical ideas of science that had stood in place since Newton’s Principia. Cantor grappled with the very limits of math, attempting to describe infinity and Boltzmann began describing our modern ideas of probability theory. These were fracturing, revolutionary ideas that titled against the windmills of entrenched thought. Isaac Newton’s Principia, which defined classical science and mathematics until the mid-nineteenth century saw no contradiction between God and pure science. He once said “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” The underlying structure of the universe was ultimately defined and created by God — he was the unifying force underneath all. But what happens when you discover that underneath the mechanics of the universe is chance and unbounded infinite sets. How could God be irrational? If teleological God was dead then what philosophical binding now held the world together?
In the early 20th century unravelling classicism disintegrated in the conflagration that was the first World War. When the dust settled and the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the outcome writ large. God died in the poison gas clouds and trench warfare that killed nine million human beings and eradicated an entire generation of Europeans. If there was any doubt about finding a loophole in the cosmic mysteries that would reinstate the rational, the logical, it was obliterated in the devastation of the first world war. World War I had shown Cantor and Boltzmann to be right — any future attempt by mankind to define the universe with certainty was gone. If there was a God, it was us, and we were a merciless, vengeful, monster.
As the sentiment for war was fomenting in Europe, a ten year old Russian Jew named Marcus Rothkovich journeyed half way around the world to relocate in 1913 to the city of Portland Oregon. He was boy who was caught between two worlds — the world of Dvinsk, Russia and America. The world of Judaic traditions and the WASP controlled world of the U.S. A world of socialist isolation and burgeoning capitalism. Mark Rothko, as he would later be called, was a boy grasping for knowledge and certainty in a world turned upside down. After the death of his father, Jacob in 1914 at the start of Europe’s first Great War, Rothko was adrift in a conservative, provincial city in the pacific northwest where he was considered an outcast not even able to speak the language and isolated from the mainstream culture, living in the Jewish ghetto of southeast Portland. At about this time, Rothko abandoned his strict Jewish schooling, the cheder in favor of the local public school. He like his mathematics predecessors, Cantor and Boltzmann stepped away from tradition and classical pursuit and headed in the direction of the unknown, toward a pure truth. This remained his defiant stance throughout his life. The man who walked out on a Yale education because of its socio-political class pretenses. The artist who liberated himself from the traditional forms of the figure and ground.
Surviving the Great Depression working both for the WPA easel painter project and teaching at two separate schools, he understood sacrifice. Rothko at first made associations with the Surrealists and later the New York School. He was drawn to questions more than answers but he still sought acceptance in a world that he largely felt rejected by. His mathematics was one of emotion and its transference in paint on canvas. His key focus in painting became romanticism, tragedy and death the ultimate trio of human nature. In his book The Artist’s Reality writings he said;
The artist’s hand must reduce all of these experiences for man as well. His objective is different, however, for he must reduce all of the subjective and objective with the end of informing human sensuality. He tries to give human beings direct contact with eternal verities through reduction of those verities to the realm of sensuality, which is the basic language for the human experience of all things.1
Eternal verities? Irrefutable truths on canvas? Did Rothko actually believe that one could achieve a certain truth through the manipulation of pigments and their reactions to light? He did, and unfortunately as with Cantor and Boltzmann, and Rothko’s contemporary, Jackson Pollock, that lead him to an untimely and violent end. This idea of truth in painting was shared by many of the New York School artists from de Kooning to Barnett Newman. Robert Motherwell, one of the original abstract expressionists and a younger contemporary of Rothko’s once said, “I’ve made pictures that are failures, but I think I’ve made very few that are lies.”2
Much like the pursuit of pure mathematics and pure physics, abstract expressionism is taken as an esoteric and very little understood practice. Manipulating paint to conjure pure emotional responses that might nurture the emergence of absolute truths is no different than the research going on today at CERN in particle physics. In fact, the Higgs Boson that the LHC was built to find at a cost of $9 billion dollars is ironically referred to as the “god” particle. Georg Cantor thought he was doing God’s work when he uncovered his theorem on transfinite numbers and Pollock dabbled in the ancient mysticism of southwest Indian sand painting, which is closely related to Tibetan buddhist sand paintings — meditations on the nature of time and impermanence.
Rothko saw an underlying mathematics in painting, clearly and logically based on the physics of light. In fact, he saw himself in exactly the frame in which I’m casting him, a man pursuing truth through the language of art, as opposed to mathematics or science. He said, “Yet the function of the artist or mathematician or the scientist is not to produce the wherewithal for gadgeteering or, for that matter, even more important functional developments.” Here Rothko was driving at a defense of pure knowledge. He goes on,
The sciences all work within their specific scopes: mathematics deals with generalization of quantity, geometry with generalization of positional shapes, physics the mechanical properties of matter, chemistry with the composition and the interaction of substances, psychology with the mechanics of the sensual apparatus, etc. And we must remember that ancient philosophy included all these sciences.
Now, we have stated that the function of the artist is similar to that of the philosopher, and that the kind of generalization each makes is alike because of its comprehensiveness or synthetic quality — in contrast to the specialized generalization of the scientist.3
We are unlikely to find a clearer definition of the artist and their role in society than Rothko makes here. Artists are akin to philosophers yet their tools are visual as opposed to verbal (admittedly, sometimes both, but I’m not going to split hairs here). Great artists are in pursuit of “eternal verities” because they are contending with both the “objective and subjective” simultaneously. The occult and mysticism are equally as relevant as ecology and chemistry in the eyes of the artist because they all contend with the fundamental nature of what it is to be human.
Rothko wrestled with the infinite in a different way than Boltzmann and Cantor, he took on the properties of light. He saw as Turner, Rembrandt and Caravaggio did, light being the core to painting’s potential to connect directly with our primary sense — seeing. The eyes are indeed windows to the soul, the subconscious, the billions of synaptic connections that make up our minds. A painting can place a viewer in direct confrontation with the properties of light because it is removed from the plethora of visual information otherwise encountered outside of the white cube. How often have you taken the time to observe a small collection of leaves in the sunlight or the painted surface of a building as the sun tracks across the sky? Rothko’s paintings honed in on these isolated singular moments in light-time and enlarged their presence to a scale where one could have an intimate relationship with color.
We have a common phrase in our modern vernacular that we substitute for what defies our common, immediate knowledge. We call moments ‘a religious experience’ not because what we witness is define in the true spiritual sense of the world or that we believe that the divine hand of God has reached down and reminded us of our minuscule existence, but rather because we witness something sublime. We know in our daily lives filled with advanced technology principles of science that there is an underlying mathematics, a set of rules if you were, to our usual interaction with the world. For all its attention, the stuff of quantum mechanics simply doesn’t play into the overwhelming majority of people’s everyday lives, but classical physics, the physics of the large does. Even if you comprehend that your smart phone contains billions of tiny circuits, many of them approaching a scale very close to a few atoms across, you can feel the brick of the phone in your hand and relate the vibrations of the miniature microphone to the simulation of the person’s voice on the other end. However, when we encounter an experience outside of the rational constraints we have neatly packaged the modern world into, we first look to a rational explanation. In the absence of one, we assimilate the experience by drawing metaphor to what people like Georg Cantor actually assigned to the voice of God and we call sublime religious experience. We don’t have the vocabulary to adequately define or describe such experiences and short of fracturing our minds with a temporary psychosis we draw an analogy to the closest thing we can — a supreme being. These are fleeting moments, often experienced when witnessing acts by sufficiently advanced athletes or observing heroics. They are not the stuff of our day to day lives. For artists like Rothko, confronting this idea of the sublime and its underpinnings was his everyday life.
What is more readily digestible to us is that which is easily hidden. What does it mean when we speak of the singularity in black holes, disclose the dynamics of of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem or argue the effects of recombinant DNA? These concepts are as abstract to the vast majority of people as the surface of Rothko’s Light Red Over Black (1957). The difference lies in our observation. Deep concepts of modern science and mathematics remain largely abstractions in our minds or simplified computer generated illustrations we watch on the Discovery channel. To observe a Rothko in a museum is to confront the visual abyss directly. Rothko wanted the viewer to see beyond metaphor and irony, and stare directly into the core of what it means to be human. The idea that photons could interact with pigment on canvas was enough to unsettle us because pure color abstraction forces us to see that which is normally hidden — that the universe is ungrounded, built on layers of infinite sets that can only be reduced to probabilities. Rothko was in essence, interested in the underlying mathematics of painting. Vibrating beneath the color forms of Rothko’s Tate/Seagram paintings, the window shapes open up space so vast that it shatters our reasonable conceptions of reality. This is not something you can do quickly. You cannot understand a Rothko by walking up to it and ‘reading’ it as you would other paintings. Being with a Rothko painting is like lying on your back and staring up at the sky and watching the clouds float past, just as you did when you were a child. “The real sky is (knowing) that samsara and nirvana are merely an illusory display”4 to use the words of the Buddhist Mipham Rinpoche.
In 1964 Mark Rothko was commissioned by the art patron Menils to create paintings for a meditative space situated outside of Houston, Texas. The commission gave Rothko full artistic license and took him three years to complete. The chapel opened posthumously, filled with enormous canvases nearly monochrome in nature. The triptychs and single canvases act more as a meditation on death than living. The ultraviolet near black canvases push the viewer into a deep void precisely emulating Rothko’s favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, “If you look long enough into the void the void begins to look back through you.” This is what it truly means to contemplate the infinite, the abstract, the profound. We are systematic, tool-making animals. We design systems to describe and define our environment and in turn shape it to our needs and wants. But what happens when our systems break down? Language is a system for communicating our experiences and knowledge but it is one we bend often to conform to all sorts of irrational compulsions, (a list much to long to grapple with in this essay, requiring a litany of references to the history of semiotics and linguistics) like slang and metaphors and yet we harden our existence in its rules. Within the language of mathematics lies the rules for defining the concepts that describe our universe, but like conventional language it is ill suited when it comes to describing fundamental underlying concepts, like infinity. As the mind struggles to understand how it might be possible to describe ‘sets’ of infinity that are interrelated the only rational strategy becomes one of abstraction in order to avoid this deeply troubling schizoid. In children this dilemma takes on a very simple form, pure emotional response. Children cry, scream, laugh etcetera in order to contend with notions that are outside of their intellectual capacity at that time. For adults, it’s not so easy because we have layered on top of are so-called rationality the laws of social convention which prevent us from expressing ourselves in such emotional outbursts. However, we have found other ways of coping. The most reliable of these is art. At the heart of a Rothko lies the desire to allow one to address the infinite without losing one’s mind because his best work is so purely emotional. The fuzziness of pure color and form is awash with our full compliment of emotional range, fully present and open to what we bring to it. A Rothko painting provides us with an opportunity to live with uncertainty in a world of overwhelming complexity. His brilliance was in the affirmation of life, even when confronting the epitome abstraction, death.
On the whole, however, modern art is not a denial but an affirmation. Like most of our scientists, the process of disintegration or analysis is not a wanton act of destruction but part of a process for the evolving of more comprehensive synthesis. And therefore modern artists have not left us merely with the members of the body of art strewn about, but they have reassembled them and revivified that body with their own breath of life. In short, they have attempted to regain a synthesis as complete as that of the primitive, based, of course, upon contemporary considerations and point of view.5
In the end it doesn’t always play out the way we would like. The intangibles of abstract thinking inevitably give way to the practical, in this case of our own physicality. In 1968, after years of heavy drinking and almost certainly a severe case of bipolar disorder, Rothko suffered an aneurysm while walking home from dinner. After two weeks in hospital he returned home, considerably weaker and warned off alcohol and cigarettes, both of which Rothko was addicted to. At the time little was understood of antidepressants.Only his studio assistant and a few close friends really knew the extent that alcohol addiction had taken control of Rothko’s life. His concession to quit drinking and smoking did not hold, and Rothko’s condition worsened. His friend, the poet Stanley Kunitz, relays “He wasn’t working very well that summer. He was in very bad shape. He was drinking a great deal. He was terribly sloppy personally in his habits, and got fat and confused. And then he had these terrible quarrels with Mell that were ugly in every way. I just had the feeling that he was going completely to seed.”6
The constraints of the physical body had given way and no amount of mental acuteness or abstract thinking could alleviate the reality of his condition. For Rothko the conditions of his exploration of the void were inextricably linked to his own physically virility, both literally and figuratively. Left impotent by the aneursym and self-medicating with potent doses of Sinequan, Vallium, whiskey and nicotine, he could no longer hold the schism at bay. In February of 1970, on the very same day his masterful set of Seagram’s paintings arrived for their installation in a site-specific room at the Tate in London, Rothko slashed his forearms and bled to death. After a life long pursuit of imagination, Rothko fell prey to the most human of conditions — a need for logic. He could not find a comfort in the uncertainty of his own physical reduction and therefore saw no other recourse than the one chosen by some of the great minds before him, he took his own life.
G. K. Chesterton once said; “Poets do not go mad; but chess players do. mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”7
The inability of Cantor and Boltzmann to rectify logically within the constraints of their known world what they had uncovered caused them both tremendous suffering. Cantor died in an asylum, broke and alone while Boltzmann hung himself. Rothko had lived his life acting as a bridge between the classical and the modern. When his health turned south and Pop art emerged as the dominant form of the later 20th century, Rothko took refuge in death. His imaginings of the blocked windows of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, which he imagined in his Seagram paintings, became a barrier rather than infinite regress. In Rothko’s own words; “And men are therefore gathered together in a common action no through some human interaction but rather in the abstract symbolization of the heroic quality of man’s response to insecurity and the impending specter of death. It is to this threat, in proportion to risk, that we experience genuine excitement.”8
In the end, Rothko gave way to his insecurities in a most un-heroic manner and stifled forever the career of one of the most brilliant painters ever to have lived.
1 Rothko, Mark, and Christopher Rothko. The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2004. Print. p. 25
2 Motherwell & the New York School: Storming the Citadel. Dir. Catherine Tatge. Perf. Robert Motherwell. Kultur, 2009. DVD.
3 Rothko, Mark, and Christopher Rothko. The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2004. Print. p. 24
4 In: Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light. Edited and introduced by Michael Katz, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, NY, ISBN 1−55939−007−7, pp. 117.
5 Rothko, Mark, and Christopher Rothko. The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2004. Print. p. 61
6 “Mark Rothko | Robert Motherwell | Barnett Newman | Dada, Surrealism Heritage.” Andy Warhol. Web. 07 Aug. 2011. <http://www.warholstars.org/abstractexpressionism/timeline/abstractexpressionism68.html>.
7 Wallace, David Foster. Everything and More: a Compact History of Infinity. New York: Atlas Book, 2003. Print. p. 6
8 Rothko, Mark, and Christopher Rothko. The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2004. Print. p. 36