Reconsidering Rothko

Moobinah, 2nd year B.Hum Biology Student

March 31, 2021

How do you feel about the artwork of the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, dear reader? Simplistic paintings overvalued by pretentious art snobs, or true works of art? Before taking HUMS 2102 (a HUMS art history course), I believed Rothko’s works belonged to the former category. Today, I must thank Professor Klebanoff for expanding my horizons. Learning about the aims and techniques of Abstract Expressionism has completely changed my mind about Rothko’s works.

Through our class materials, I’ve learned that like previous avant-garde movements, Abstract Expressionism rejected traditional painting conventions and subjects.* Instead of depicting naturalistic scenes and figures, Abstract Expressionists aimed to convey universal truths about the human condition through primal, abstract imagery. In other words, these artists were concerned with revealing truth. They believed the best way to do so was by focusing on the basic elements of painting as a medium—e.g. colour, or the flatness of paint application—instead of realism.

I must admit, I have a slight bias in favour of artists who showcase their ability to depict their subject matter realistically. As a result, Abstract Expressionism’s contempt for realism did not impress me. In fact, I initially felt that Rothko’s coloured bands were rather unremarkable. “Anyone could do that,” I thought when taking my first look at Rothko’s No. 210/No. 211 (Orange). After all, this “artwork” was just orange blocks on a lavender background.

Despite my opinion, Professor Klebanoff’s lecture convinced me to at least try immersing myself in the Abstract Expressionist perspective, no matter how strange it seemed. As a demonstration of my sincerity, I took another look at Orange. Looking with an open mind revealed that what seemed to be a uniform background of lavender actually consists of multiple shades of lavender. Similarly, the orange blocks are various splendid shades of orange. The technique is so effective that the resulting saturated orange blocks seem to glow with light. The more I look, the more I begin to see the cloud-like nature of the orange blocks, as described in our online Smarthistory textbook. Just like a cloud imperceptibly moving along a bright summer sky, the blocks seem to slowly push in and out of the canvas, creating a surprising feeling of depth in the rather flat artwork. Suddenly, Professor Klebanoff’s description of Rothko’s works as “sublime meditative statements” makes complete sense; the sense of movement of the glowing orange blocks in Orange calms my mind.

After tentatively immersing myself in the Abstract Expressionist agenda, I am glad to say I have changed my mind about Orange. My dear readers, I encourage you all to examine your most fervent art opinions. Who knows? Maybe you’ll change your mind like I did. As the saying goes, don’t knock it till you try it!

*What kind of student would I be if I didn’t link my sources? In addition to Prof Klebanoff’s HUMS 2102 lectures (used with her permission), the following Smarthistory articles are referenced in this post: