Mark Rothko and the Fate of Being
An Essay by John David Ebert
In a series of paintings executed in 1946, Mark Rothko, for the first time in his art, began to create a unique, signature style. For twenty years, he had been trying, and mostly failing, to discover a vision that persistently eluded him through a series of pastiches, first, of nineteenth century Impressionist masters like Cezanne, and then, from about 1940, of Modernist giants like Picasso, Miro and Matta. These early works, however, while sometimes brilliant, were almost never original, and it wasn’t until he began to melt down the Modernist iconotypes in those 1946 paintings known as “multiforms” that he began to articulate something truly new. Indeed these paintings are tantamount to a complete singularity, a rupture, not only with all his previous work, but with the history of twentieth century art, as well. For these canvases function like X rays to reveal the collapse and dissolution of Modernist art, an art that, by the time of World War II, had largely run its course.
But since Rothko’s art is all about the fate of the West’s understanding of Being, it will be necessary, at the start, to briefly review the history of that understanding.
A Brief History of Being
According to Martin Heidegger, Being in the West has gone through a series of epochs in which it has been understood differently in each age (this is not a Progress model of the Hegelian sort, in which Being has gotten “better and better,” but rather a series of metaphysical “turnings” in which it has undergone transformations analogous to what the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser has termed “structures of consciousness.”) In the pre-Socratic period, for instance, Being was understood as physis, not in the sense of “Nature” as it is usually translated, but nature as seen in a particular metaphysical way, that namely, in which entities arise, unconceal themselves as numinous mysteries, and then withdraw back into the self-secluding primordial darkness.
There were also specific understandings of Being, such as that of Heraclitus with his Logos, which is a cosmic ordering principle that shapes, gathers and organizes entities in a meaningful way. And of course, as any reader of even the most basic of Heidegger’s writings knows, he regarded Being as having been divorced from Becoming by Plato’s scission of the intellect from the senses, in which Being is understood as eidos, that is to say, as the ultimate Forms upon which the merely ephemeral shadows of the physical world are but imperfect copies.
With Christianity, though, the Heraclitean Logos which had been, for him, a general cosmic principle by way of which all beings could be understood, became incarnate in a single being, Jesus Christ, who was an avatar of the Mind of God. From the church fathers to the Scholastics, then, Being was understood as truth in the mind of God, from which the lives and imperfect intellects of sin-laden and wayward human beings were, to one degree or another, measured up.
In the Age of the World Picture, which attained its full clarity during the seventeenth century, Being was understood as a realm of Absolute Subjects contemplating Pure Objects in an abstract — and deworlded — three-dimensional phase space. To be was to be an individuated subject in a visually connected and rational space inside which objects were situated. This was the essence of the metaphysical age, which Heidegger insisted came to its end in the latter half of the nineteenth century, with Nietzsche as its last great philosopher.
After the metaphysical age, beings lost contact with Being. They became mere objects rather than Things laden with significance, while subjects became mere entities fallen into the mode of average everydayness. The age lost contact with Being, which became forgotten, although, with the rise of industrialization, a revised — and trivialized — understanding of Being as Gestell, or Enframing, was brought about by technology, in which Being became merely the technological extraction of resources from the earth, which were stored up and held on demand for future use. For Heidegger, Being, in the modern age, was no longer shaped by poets and philosophers, but by science and technology, and a gradual impoverishment of Western society was the result.
But it is clear that Heidegger, like his contemporary Oswald Spengler, neither sympathized with, nor understood, Modernity. It was left up to the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser who, in his 1949 book The Ever-Present Origin, had to confer, as it were, sythetic unity on the manifold of the various phenomena of Modernity with his idea of the integral consciousness structure, which Gebser saw as the sequel to the rational consciousness structure that had characterized the metaphysical age. Gebser envisioned this structure of consciousness coming into being in the middle of the nineteenth century at precisely the point where Heidegger and Spengler saw only a decline and disintegration into a “destitute time.” Gebser characterized this consciousness structure as having the shape of an “integral sphere” of curved space upon which all the artists, from Cezanne to Picasso, painted their forms (like cave men inscribing animal icons on the walls of their caves). The understanding of Being during this epoch, that of the Modernist age, was not just technological Enframing, but rather Multiplicity: the Modernist cosmos is a spherical world of multiple times, multiple spaces and multiple consciousness structures that could be accessed by any thinker, poet or artist gifted with a type of visionary mind which Gebser termed “veristic.” Such a mind could render all contemporary phenomena — paintings, buildings, literature, etc. — “diaphanous” to transcendent spiritual energies.
But of course, Modernist art, as we know, was an art primarily characterized by mythic and magical iconotypes — the Jungian archetypes, more or less — painted on the curved walls of non-Euclidean space. It is these consciousness structures, rather than the rational consciousness structure, which predominated in Modernist art, and so, despite Gebser’s insistence on all structures being present in the integral sphere which integrated and united them, they didn’t all play an equally important role in the composition of its world space. But it was precisely the Jungian iconotypes — masked apparitions, tribal visions, myths, god and heroes — that Mark Rothko was busy, in his 1946 multiforms, wiping out of existence.
The Collapse of Gebser’s Integral Sphere
Gebser’s integral sphere, however, was already in process of deflating at just the time in 1949 when he was writing about it as the unifying cosmology of Modernism. (He saw it functioning in a way similar to one of Peter Sloterdijk’s macrospheres, the last one of which Sloterdijk sees as collapsing in the time of Copernicus). The period of its dissolution took place precisely during World War II: Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not only physically devastating, but they were ontologically devastating as well, since their white-hot clouds flattened not only those two Japanese cities, but also Gebser’s integral sphere right along with them. The implosion of that sphere, together with its liquefying mythic iconotypes, can be seen taking place in 1946 — one year after the detonation of the bombs — on Rothko’s canvases. One only needs to flip through the pages of his catalogue raisonne to watch it happen, step by step, as in the following series of paintings, Sea Fantasy, Vernal Memory and Untitled:
In doing so, one sees a sequence of untitled paintings (three examples are shown above) from the years between 1946-48, in which Rothko’s previous forms, which had been borrowed largely from Modernist iconotypes — gods, heroes and mythic entities — are melted down into the visual slag of blurred, indistinct chunks of color, light and indeterminate forms. In the multiforms of these canvases, the iconotypes shift and settle into blobs of glowing color that gradually give way to the cohesion and organization of squares and rectangles that begin sorting them out:
It is a world of light and dissolution that perfectly documents the shift out of the Modernist world sphere into that second Modernity which Zygmunt Bauman has called “liquid modernity,” in which no forms can crystallize or remain stable for very long. These blurry fragments of previous myth-figures are forms of light; they are no longer forms of entities and mysterious beings out of the collective unconscious.
So by 1946, the Modernist world sphere was collapsing, together with all its structuring forms, and the West’s understanding of Being as composed out of multiple times and multiple spaces, together with multiple consciousness structures — all articulated in the language of big philosophical metanarratives like Gebser’s or Hegel’s — had been liquidated and the slate, as Rothko once put it, “wiped clean.” Lacking not only grand metanarratives, but structuring forms with which to build them, the Modernist project, by the late 1940s, was over. Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin, then — one of the century’s last grand metanarratives — suffers from what McLuhan called “the rearview mirror effect,” that is to say that while the culture moves foward, the mind looks nostalgically backward and sees the present in terms of a past that has already vanished.
Contemporary art — which I see beginning immediately after World War II, and not, as most art scholars do, with Pop Art in the early 1960s — from henceforth will be about the quest for new forms (not forms, that is, recycled from ancient civilizations). Rothko’s art, in particular, shows the wiping clean of the slate of the West’s understanding of Being, and his famous rectangles of light, which he would discover in 1949, not only document the semiotic vacancy left behind in the wake of the collapse of Being, but also, like a Hebrew prophet, provide us with a glimpse of the understanding of Being in terms of self-luminous surfaces that was then on the way.
Rothko’s Cosmology of Light
At just the time, then, when nuclear physics was splitting the atom open in order to release the enormous quantities of energy bound up inside of it, so too, Rothko was cracking open his earlier material (both physical and subtle) forms in order to liberate the light trapped inside them. This began in 1949 when his cosmos stabilized and crystallized into a world of glowing, incandescent rectangles arranged into stacked tiers, beginning with painting No. 15 which depicts a single large rectangle of purple framed by a greenish border which hovers in the upper half of the painting beneath a stratified series of blurred, indistinct lines:
In paintings like No. 30, in which a short burning rectangle rests, like a candle flame, atop a slender gold column:
or White Center of 1950, in which a vanilla-colored slab rests in between a mauve rectangle and a yellowish-red rectangle that rests atop it:
or in the Untitled of 1954, in which a cream white square floats, disembodied, against a deep crimson ground:
in all of these works, Rothko has created a realm of dematerialized lightforms, a universe of limpid, serene and healing visions of light from another world that calms and reassures one of the reality of the Spirit. Indeed, Rothko’s cosmos — despite his insistence on being a materialist — evokes images of the disembodied soul in the Afterlife beholding a world of subtle forms made only out of delicate sheaths of light.
These paintings also function as difference engines that power the machine of Rothko’s art: in this metaphor, Rothko himself becomes a sort of Maxwellian demon who reverses entropy by separating realms of light into regions of potential energy. His ever more firmly developing horizon lines perform this primordial act of Gathering and Separation, in this case, not of material forms — like Yahweh separating an archaic Pangaea from an oceanic Tethys — but of light forms. The Untitled of 1950, for instance, is the first of these paintings to evidence such a firmly chiseled horizon line that differentiates a yellow top half from a darker, sedimentary bottom half. Another Untitled of 1950, likewise, shows a solid line in the center dividing an emerald green upper rectangle from a coffee brown lower one. Indeed, the evolution of these horizon lines is more and more suggestive of primordial cosmic activities, of separations of regions of light from one another, as though some demiurge were organizing them in order to begin the first phases of his process of world formation.
Thus, after the implosion of Gebser’s integral sphere as chronicled by the multiforms of 1946-48, Rothko’s light forms evince the earliest morphological stages of cosmic formation of a new world that is to come but one which Rothko never actually managed to finish, since he didn’t return to the material world in his work again. Just as the formation of light precedes the material cosmos, so Rothko sets about organizing light into cosmological patterns as though in preparation for the formation of a new cosmos that he intends to construct in order to fill the semiotic vacancy left by the dissolution of the previous world sphere.
This parallels the collapse of the Christian macrosphere at the end of the sixteenth century — in which all the iconotypes of Nativity, Ascension, Last Supper, Crucifixion, etc. ceased to function in a world building manner — which was followed by an opening up of space in the discovery of vast expanses of the sky with the Dutch canvases of the seventeenth century, as for instance:
in Rothko’s case, with the collapse of the Modernist world sphere, his canvases unveil a sudden and unexpected world of light that opens up and unfolds around the viewer, expanding and surrounding him with glowing forms of photoluminescent energy: burning reds and searing oranges; cool greens and ice blues and frozen slabs of white. Just as the Dutch world was a realm of three-dimensional space that lay beyond and outside of the Christian cosmos, so Rothko’s cosmos is an expansive realm of pure forms of light beyond the Modernist world sphere.
These rectangles and squares are what I would term “elementary units of Being,” and they begin to shift and drift and reorganize in the wake of the collapse of a world horizon, just as ice floes shift to accommodate the sudden collapse of glaciers into the sea. They are images of the semiotic vacancy that is left at the center of the West’s understanding of Being after that particular understanding has collapsed, but before a new one has taken its place. (A similar sort of disorientation and anxiety is evident in the paintings of Caravaggio, where the issue is one of forms darkness, rather than forms of light, that are shifting around in the wake of the collapse of the Christian macrosphere).
But, as I have already hinted, Rothko’s paintings do foreshadow the coming of a new, postwar conception of Being, one which Heidegger, with his understanding of technology as industrial technology, completely missed. This cosmos of self-luminous squares and rectangles already points like a vector to the world of electronic video screens, also composed of self-luminous squares and rectangles, that currently surround us today, and which have shaped a completely new understanding of Being, for in the age of liquid modernity, to be is to be an avatar on a luminous video screen. Today, you are nothing if you are not a phantom in the electronic universe of video surfaces. It is difficult to look at a painting like the Untitled of 1949, which resembles a television screen with the power turned off:
or Light Over Gray of 1956 (below), which resembles a cell phone, and not be reminded of the swarm of video screens that currently surround us:
Artists, as McLuhan always said, function as the Distant Early Warning System of a society, and Rothko is a classic case of that sort of visionary pre-vision in which coming cultural developments are already glimpsed on their way over the horizon before they are seen by anybody else. This should be contrasted with the rear-view mirror orientation of the philosopher such as Gebser, who is always one generation behind the current developments.
And so, Rothko’s light paintings chronicle the semiotic vacancy left by the collapse of one understanding of Being as it is wiped clean off the walls of the vanishing Modernist macrosphere, but also simultaneously point the way to the coming shift from texts to surfaces, as Vilem Flusser has described it, in the subsequent epoch.
The Seagram Murals
In 1957, Rothko’s art begins to be infected with an element of darkening from which it never recovers. It is at this time that his color palette shifts to dark browns and blacks and maroons; earth tones, in other words, which represent the missing material element in his cosmos of light. Indeed, black rectangles begin to appear with a sudden frequency in works like Black in Deep Red, Deep Red and Black, Black on Red or Light Red Over Black.
It is an ominous sign, indicating the invasion of his cosmos by an alien and intrusive element that begins slowly, ever so slowly, to destabilize his world of elementary units of Being.
In the famous Seagram murals that he was hired to do for Philip Johnson’s Four Seasons restaurant (and which were never used, ultimately, due to Rothko’s withdrawing of them, fearing their degradation into the visual equivalent of Muzak), this new element of darkening becomes pervasive: murals such as Black on Maroon depict single, or sometimes double, forms of empty rectangles outlined in sinister black bands,
or else dark maroon bands which highlight a central, vacant square that no longer presses against the borders of the canvas, pushing out toward the viewer as the lightforms had done, but begin rather to act with gravitational force to pull him into and toward the canvas, irresistibly. A different sort of cosmos is beginning to surface in these murals, an anti-cosmos that reacts against his earlier light cosmos with a sucking and dissolving effect that pulls it centripetally toward its disintegration as though these new semiotic vacancies — and they are now, indeed, vacancies, rather than pulsing, throbbing cells of living light — were acting now as basins of attraction rather than fields of radiant energy.
And indeed, these central rectangles with their curved sides, such as Red on Maroon (above) are negative — and not, like the earlier rectangles, positive spaces — vacancies inside which, in the past, one would have expected to find a Western iconotype: a Crucifixion, say, in the time of the Medieval cosmos, or a portrait study of some aristocrat in the metaphysical age. But in the post-metaphysical age, those iconotypes are gone, and before new ones have come to take their place, Rothko manages to capture the semiotic void left at the heart of Western Being, a void that will soon be filled in with the idiosyncratic images of contemporary art as broken signifiers unplugged, like Heidegger’s mere objects, from all systems of Being whatsoever.
The earlier black rectangles that had begun to appear in the midst of his light rectangles in 1957, however, now begin to invade these canvases as borders, surrounding and encompassing their central vacancies with a hostile and alien black nothingness, as though they threatened to swallow his rectangles completely. Indeed, in Maroon on Blue (below), this darkening spreads across the entire canvas, leaving only a thin burning rectangle at the lower center that glows like a coal inside of a furnace:
That Rothko senses some kind of an impending threat to his cosmos is evident in the Harvard murals of 1962, in which he begins to connect these elementary units of Being together into chains, like polymers: in Panel Two, for instance, or Panel Four, dark Stonehenge-like rectangles are linked together in series by connecting filaments that make chains out of them:
Polymerization is a sign that a membrane is beginning to form, as in the case of the polymerization of lipids joining together to form a bilayer in cellular evolution to form the cell wall that acts to keep alien molecules out. Rothko, in these Harvard murals, is joining his elementary units of Being together to form an ontological bilayer, as it were, in order to keep out the Black elements that have, since 1957, begun to infect his cosmology like a virus.
The Black is, of course, the ancient and primordial enemy of Light; it is the Nothing that is opposed to, and threatens the very existence of, Being itself.
Rothko’s art has now become a desperate battle to keep his cosmos from being swallowed up by the Nothing.
The Rothko Chapel in Houston
As Heidegger points out in his Introduction to Metaphysics, the Nothing introduces an oscillation into Being; it destabilizes Being by factoring into it the possibility that an entity that is might not, at some point, be any longer. Being can no longer be taken for granted, since everything that is will eventually be not.
And so it is with Rothko’s cosmology: in the years between 1964-67, when he was commissioned by the de Menils to paint a series of murals for a chapel dedicated to his art in Houston, Texas, he produced a series of completely black canvases in which the Nothing has, at last, triumphed over his cosmology of Light:
These canvases are tantamount to a confession that the Nothing has won: for the black element that emerged in the 1957 canvases as a stain, more or less, had grown steadily larger over the years, becoming ever more pervasive, and despite his abortive attempts in the Harvard murals to construct a membrane defending his cosmos from assault by the Nothing, the Nothing, nonetheless, had by this time completely overtaken it. Rothko’s cosmos, in these canvases, has vanished, and been replaced by the empty signifier of the Void, for what he has painted is not the semiotic vacancy left behind by the vanishing of older ideas of Being in the Western tradition, as had been the case in the Seagram murals, but the vacancy left behind by the vanishing of his own cosmos. The Houston murals are images of the semiotic vacancy left behind by the complete dissolution of his cosmos into the Nothing.
In the art of early Indian Buddhism, the Buddha could not be represented directly: one could only indicate the semiotic vacancy left behind by his absence, his vanishing into Nirvana, with a chakra or a footprint. Rothko, likewise, at the end of his development as an artist, leaves behind the signifier of a black monolith which has drained, like a black hole sucking light from a star, his cosmos of light away into nothingness.
Rothko’s art, at this point, had entered into a pralaya, that is to say, the interm of chaos between World Ages in ancient mythology into which one age has disintegrated and from out of which the age to come remains as yet unborn.
As an artist, it would have made perfect sense for him to stop painting at this point, since the evolution of his art, like Pollock’s with the later drip paintings, had exhausted its possibilities. But he wasn’t quite finished.
The Blacks on Grays
Instead, after an aneurism that nearly killed him, he resorted to a series of acrylic paintings in which Being, once again, begins to reassert itself against the Nothing. These final canvases feature a cosmos that is more or less directly bisected into two halves: an upper half of dark black and a lower half of grayish-white that pushes upward — rather than outward or sucking inward — against the void of nothingness hanging oppressively above it.
In these canvases, Rothko has returned to his difference engine, retrieving the horizon line that first appeared in 1950, but using it in a more final, absolutist manner. These canvases are equivalent to a Manichaean vision that captures the contending forces of Being and Nothing that have been struggling for possession over his cosmos all along, and distills them from the actual protagonist color squares so that they become reified as powers of Light and Darkness unto themselves.
And so, Rothko’s cosmos ends with a complete and final separation of the powers of Being and Nothing, of Light and Darkness, from one another. It is uncertain, though, which of the two has won, despite the victory of the Nothing in the Houston murals. These final canvases, made not long before Rothko committed suicide by slicing into his arms with a double bladed razor at the kitchen sink, could just as well represent the beginnings of a new cosmos as the ending of one, especially since the myth of the Separation of the World Parents, of the heavens from the earth, is primordial and marks the start of the cosmogonies of all the high civilizations.
The two powers remain poised in these paintings, in direct opposition, a stalemate.
Who can say which has won?