I was introduced to the paintings of Mark Rothko by my composition instructor in grad school because Rothko was an important influence on the music of Morton Feldman, whose work we were studying - and which I've grown to love (and, of course, hate...so it goes). His paintings are majestically depressing, and exactly the sort of minimalist expression that opponents of contemporary art (you know who you are) find maddening. I usually show a piece or 2 to my modern music students, to illustrate Feldman and to generate discussion on minimalist art. Try as I might to present it as inspiring and beautiful and haunting, I always get an overwhelming majority of sneers and chuckles, disbelief and a chorus of some version of "I could do that..."
To stand in front of one of his signature works up close is to feel almost toppled by his bending rectangles of swirling color. Large vertical canvases ask you to lean your head back to see the top. He intended for these pieces to be spiritual experiences, to re-create the intimacy of quiet religious knowing through an overwhelming space, one in which to become lost, for the sake of that urge that craves the divine. That's the part that makes my students most roll their eyes - the allegation of spiritual intent - since all there seemingly is to see are shapes and colors.
Maybe it was the childhood memories of death-pits of murdered Jews in his Russian hometown. Maybe it was the loss of his father when Mark was 10, just months after the Rothkowitzes emigrated to America to escape the call of the army of the Czar. Maybe it was the conflict of being the only religiously educated Jew in a family of secular Jews - in an age where to be a Jew of any kind was to be fearful, hated and ostracized. Whatever it was, his work longs for the intimately human and spiritual, but does not find it in stories and mythologies, or in the images of things known. It seeks that experience even as it seems, on the surface anyway, to deny it under panels of abstraction.
The more fame he achieved, the more misunderstood he felt. Rising prices of his work seemed to be accompanied by acclaim for his sense of form and color, when what he wanted to be known for was his sense of ecstasy and tragedy and humanity. And why try to paint those things? Because you overflow with the spiritual? or because you lack it? Because you have so much to offer? or because you need it so badly - that drop of water to cool the tongue?
Abstract expression is never just that - abstract. It is not the voice of the sterile or the inhuman or, certainly, the unimaginative. In Rothko's case, he bubbled over with the needs and desires for transcendent aesthetic experience. Ultimately marked by alcohol and drug abuse, chronic illness and broken marriages, his life - which ended in suicide in 1970 - was one of turbulent humanity, not of a technician's cold distance.
I bring this up now because last night, at a Sotheby's auction, misunderstood or not, Mark Rothko's "White Center" sold to an anonymous bidder for $73 million, the most ever paid for a post-war artwork, by far. You can take a look at an itty-bitty version of the work, which in reality stands almost 7 feet tall, here.