Revisiting Rothko

For many years I never cared for the works of Mark Rothko ( 1903-1970). While I have a strong affinity for abstract art, I never considered his work to qualify as art anymore than fabric swatches or Pantone color cards. Granted – art is subjective and its value can only be assigned by the observer. But, I balked for reading that someone paid $86.9 million dollars in 2012 for a few shades of orange paint on canvas (Rothko’s 1961 painting, “Orange, red, yellow”)

Google “Rothko” and the results show the images that come to mind when I hear his name. Over the years, I would walk briskly through museum rooms in which his work hung. I admit it is possible to look at an egg yolk and see a chicken. However, my imagination is enough; I do not need to look at the yolk with my eyes and certainly cannot conceive of paying more money for one than would be necessary to save a small country from bankruptcy after a natural disaster.

But I never studied Rothko from the perspective of art history, and never considered the fact that, like most artists, he went through various periods – perhaps crucibles. Furthermore I cannot blame a single artist for what collectors are willing to pay for their work.

Today, for the second time this year, I discovered an early Rothko work that I found arresting, beautiful and full of something extraordinary – I could study it for hours. Both times it happened to be the same painting, the “Rites of Lilith” created in 1945, and that is why I’ve decided that it is important enough to document it now.

Rites of Lilith Photo
Rites of Lilith, 1945 by Mark Rothko

It seems one has to become an art historian to appreciate the genius often dulled or obscured by an artist’s exposure to life’s tribulations and the passage of time. The first time I saw this image, it was accompanied by a quote of Rothko’s which I will include here:

“In art, as in biology, there is a phenomenon that can be described as mutation, in which appearances radically change at a tempo much more rapid than that at which they normally proceed. As in the case of biology, we have no means to determine the process by which this radical change occurs. Yet we do know that it is a reaction to a form of congestion. It is a desperate change due to the arrival at a point where the corollaries to a situation are exhausted, when the stimulus to additional growth is sluggish and a rapid rejuvenation is needed so that art, through disuse, does not atrophy in much the same way as an unused human organ. Here art must attain a new start if it is to survive. Then, assiduously, it renews its traditions by marriage with alien traditions, by the reexamination of its own processes, and by those means reestablishes contact again with its own roots. It is in this way that new plastic worlds are born. For art, like a race, cannot inbreed very long without losing its incentives to continue; it needs the rejuvenation of new experiences and new blood. These mutations, it must be clear, however, do not constitute a change in properties, or mean that art has discarded its past. On the contrary, mutation involves a more conscious evaluation of art’s inheritance and the redirection of that inheritance into channels where it can be continued with greater force.”
― Mark Rothko, The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art

It is hard for me to envisage the chain of mutations leading one from works like “Rites of Lilith” to those like “Orange, red, yellow”, which appear to be a banishment of dynamic geometry in favor of plain and vibrant color textures that seem to carry a much simpler message. The later work of Rothko seems to be no longer a complex product of alchemical processing, but a mere question: “what is it that you think you see here?” It’s hard to imagine the progression, but the National Gallery of Art gives us a brief look at the brilliance of Rothko’s early years.


I suppose I am now a Rothko fan.