No.3/No.13 by Mark Rothko (1949)

It is easy to misunderstand abstract expressionism. In its boldness, its apparent incoherence, and its lack of definite focus, many people shy away from the style, preferring the perfect figures of the Renaissance masters or the prosaic beauty of the impressionists. However, within the work of Mark Rothko, the value of abstract expressionism is undeniable. In his columned layers of colours, Rothko transfixes his viewer. From hope to fear to passion, Rothko aims to stir a whole spectrum of emotion, creating a physical reaction to his work. In ‘No.3/No.13 (indeed, it’s very name is ambiguous and nondescript) Rothko demands us to explore these emotions without guidance, allowing our imaginations to roam freely, and our response to be entirely personal.

In order to understand why Rothko was trying to call forth such an intense emotional response, one must first understand the time in which the artist was working. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Americans were exhausted. Many had seen atrocities that were previously unthinkable, while the growing power of the Soviet Union threatened the very world order upon which the American nation is based. In the American people therefore, contradictory primitive emotions were rife, from fear to passion, from hope to nihilistic despair. As a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, Rothko himself would have felt these powerful emotions more than most… This turbulent climate gave rise to abstract expressionism, a form that sought to artisitically express this complex spectrum of emotions, and provide creative refuge for a troubled nation.

Superficially, Rothko’s work is a beautiful collection of colours. The artist had an impeccable eye for colour, and colour contrast, and this fact is obvious in ‘No. 3/No.13.’ Notice, for example, how the deep blue is framed by a bright pink, creating a vibracy about the dark colour. Notice how the gentle green becomes fiery and given the orange undertones beneath it, which also create a kind of shimmer around the green paint. All of this contrast and reaction creates a gentle sense of movement in the painting, making it all the more mesmerizing to look at. In this way, Rothko’s use of colour is undoubtedly astonishing, creating a sense of space and movement. However, as the artist himself argued, “If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” 

When I look at ‘No.3/No.13,’ I feel two things; peacefulness and fear. The black and green rectangles in the bottom third of the painting, offset by that wild orange, make me feel very uncomfortable. That is not to say that this response is the correct one – each and every one of us will feel something different. What is clear, is that in a time of immense unease and uncertainty, Rothko painted to allow himself and his viewer’s to escape. He wanted us to stop puzzling over the scary realities of the 20th century, and instead allow our minds to be numbed, overpowered by the most forceful emotions in the human psyche.

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