The Artist’s Reality: Mark Rothko’s Little-Known Writings on Art, Artists, and What the Notion of Plasticity Reveals about Storytelling
“While the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done.”
By Maria Popova
“Artists have no choice but to express their lives,” Anne Truitt wrote in her endlessly insightful diary. If it’s true that what everybody wants more than anything is to be understood, then artists need that understanding more than anyone else and yet run the greatest risk of being misunderstood with every work they put into the world. What E.E. Cummings called “the agony of the Artist (with capital A)” is thus a product of being constantly haunted by the specter of that anguishing potential for being repeatedly misunderstood.
Few artists create work that embodies Leo Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” more perfectly than Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903–February 25, 1970). People frequently weep before his paintings — something Rothko saw as the same spiritual experience he was having while painting them, the ultimate act of understanding. And yet he knew all too well the other side of this coin, which he articulated beautifully in a 1947 interview in Tiger’s Eye magazine: “A painting lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.”
Unbeknownst to the world, and rather contrary to the Abstract Expressionist notion that paintings should speak for themselves, Rothko had begun crafting his own hedge against this death-by-misunderstanding several years earlier, in a series of philosophical reflections on art. Even his children were only vaguely aware of the manuscript, which was written sometime in 1940 and 1941 — long before Rothko reached critical acclaim — but wasn’t discovered until after his death three decades later. It was eventually published as The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art (public library) — a remarkable and revelatory catalog of the ideas that preoccupied the legendary artist’s mind, setting forth his views on beauty, reality, myth, sensuality, the artist’s dilemma, the role of unconscious processes in creative work, and more. What makes these writings especially interesting is that Rothko produced them more than a decade before the paintings for which he is best known, at a time when he was still swirling around his own center and finding his voice as an artist — and yet the seeds for what he would blossom into are so strikingly evident in these texts.
Christopher Rothko — the artist’s son, who was six at the time of his father’s death — considers the book’s significance in the introduction:
Like music, my father’s artwork seeks to express the inexpressible — we are far removed from the realm of words… The written word would only disrupt the experience of these paintings; it cannot enter their universe.
And yet these writings compel and fascinate us in a way that my father surely would have wanted… His words might be outside his artwork, but they communicate philosophies he still held dear even after paint became his sole vehicle for expression.
Although Rothko was “explicitly a painter of ideas” and his works held “only the most general clues,” his son likens the magic of this book to “being given the keys to a mystical city that one has been able to admire only from afar.” And yet he cautions that these writings were never intended, nor should they be interpreted, as a guide to understanding Rothko’s own art:
Divining meaning from a painting is not so simple that it can be codified in a book, and Rothko certainly would not have wanted such a guide to his work. So much of understanding his work is personal, and so much of it is made up of the process of getting inside the work… He cannot tell you what his paintings, or anyone else’s, are about. You have to experience them. Ultimately, if he could have expressed the truth — the essence of these works — in words, he probably would not have bothered to paint them. As his works exemplify, writing and painting involve different kinds of knowing.
I think he kept the book to himself because he feared that by offering people the beginning of an answer, or the illusion of an answer, to his artwork, they would never find a more complete one, perhaps never even ask the necessary questions. Regarding his own work, at least, he would have been concerned that he could set people running down the wrong paths, moving blindly with their little bit of knowledge, when ultimately, if carefully regarded, his painting spoke for itself. He knew of this danger and was therefore guarded in discussing his work, often finding that, the more he said, the more misunderstanding he generated. He did not wish to short-circuit the process by which people came to know the work [because] he knew just how rewarding the process could prove when one was fully engaged in it.
This might explain why the artist never made the manuscript public in his lifetime, although he did promise it to his chosen biographer — an expression of Rothko’s ambivalence, which his son captures elegantly:
Even as he feared the public, he desperately needed them to bring meaning to his paintings. [And yet] even after he had received significant adulation, he still feared, constantly, that his painting would be misunderstood and ultimately violated by an uncaring public.
That is perhaps why one of the book’s strongest undercurrents is Rothko’s nostalgia for Renaissance art, coupled with almost an envy for the veneration conferred upon those artists by their culture and “the way in which [they] could draw upon a cosmos ordered by its own internal logic.” His son writes:
This is what Rothko wished for: to paint the truth as one feels it and to win love and respect in one’s own time. He, too, wanted, a world where the artist is king and his output a matter of great expectation and excitement.
My father was first and last a painter… His painting always was, and would remain, about ideas. The writing of the book was simply a different way to get them out into the world.
He discusses art as an observer, not as one actively engaged in the processes he describes.
And yet the book is all about his artwork.
In the first essay, titled “The Artist’s Dilemma,” he considers the cultural stereotypes surrounding the artist:
What is the popular conception of the artist? Gather a thousand descriptions, and the resulting composite is the portrait of a moron: he is held to be childish, irresponsible, and ignorant or stupid in everyday affairs.
The picture does not necessarily involve censure or unkindness. These deficiencies are attributed to the intensity of the artist’s preoccupation with his particular kind of fantasy and to the unworldly nature of the fantastic itself. The bantering tolerance granted to the absentminded professor is extended to the artist.
This myth, like all myths, has many reasonable foundations. First, it attests to the common belief in the laws of compensation: that one sense will gain in sensitivity by the deficiency in another. Homer was blind, and Beethoven deaf. Too bad for them, but fortunate for us in the increased vividness of their art. But more importantly it attests to the persistent belief in the irrational quality of inspiration, finding between the innocence of childhood and the derangements of madness that true insight which is not accorded to normal man.
Of course, based on what the decades since Rothko’s writings have revealed about the relationship between creativity and mental illness, we now know that behind society’s “persistent belief in the irrational quality of inspiration” is a more complex reality. But Rothko’s most urgent point has to do with a different kind of myth surrounding the artist — society’s often ungenerous assessment of the artist’s legitimacy as a worthy member of it, which Jeanette Winterson touched on in her brilliant remarks about “the arrogance of the audience” and which Amanda Palmer captured in asserting that “when you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy.” Rothko writes:
The constant repetition of falsehood is more convincing than the demonstration of truth. It is understandable, then, how the artist might actually cultivate this moronic appearance, this deafness, this inarticulateness, in an effort to evade the million irrelevancies which daily accumulate concerning his work. For, while the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done.
Reflecting on his previous eras — particularly his beloved Renaissance period, which he saw as “an age when the rapport between the artist and the world seemed to have been ideal” — Rothko considers how the role and status of the artist differed then:
What abetted the artist in his little game was the dogmatic unity of his civilization. For all dogmatic societies have this in common: they know what they want. Whatever the contentions behind the scenes, society is allowed only one Official Truth. The demands made upon the artist, therefore, issued from a single source, and the specifications for art were definite and unmistakable. That, at least, was something … one master is better than ten, and it is better to know the size and shape of the hand that holds the whip. In a master, definiteness and stability are preferable to caprice.
In a remark doubly poignant today, amid our culture of countless self-appointed critics broadcasting their individual dogmas from countless platforms, Rothko contrasts this uncapricious unity with the schizophrenic truths to which contemporary art is held accountable:
Today, instead of one voice, we have dozens issuing demands. There is no longer one truth, no single authority — instead there is a score of would-be masters who would usurp their place. All are full of histories, statistics, proofs, demonstrations, facts, and quotations… Each pulls the artist this way and that, telling him what he must do if he is to fill his belly and save his soul.
For the artist, now, there can be neither compliance nor circumvention. It is the misfortune of free conscience that it cannot be neglectful of means in the pursuit of ends. Ironically enough, compliance would not help, for even if the artist should decide to subvert this conscience, where could he find peace in this Babel? To please one is to antagonize the others. And what security is there in any of these wrangling contenders?
This explains much of our modern people-pleasing epidemic and its soul-crushing effects. Two decades earlier, Georgia O’Keeffe touched on this toxic aspect of public opinion in her exquisite letter to Sherwood Anderson, as did composer Aaron Copland the year of Rothko’s death. But Rothko points to one particularly perilous side effect to our culture’s fracturing of artistic and moral truth:
In matters of art our society has substituted taste for truth, which she finds more amusing and less of a responsibility, and changes her tastes as frequently as she changes her hats and shoes.
In another of the essays, Rothko’s reflections on plasticity — which he defines as a sense of movement, a quality that “gives the sense of things going back and coming forward in space” — actually offer a potent analogy for the key to great storytelling in all forms. More than half a century before what we now know about the psychology of flow in everything from writing to game design, Rothko writes:
In painting, plasticity is achieved by a sensation of movement both into the canvas and out from the space anterior to the surface of the canvas. Actually, the artist invites the spectator to take a journey within the realm of the canvas. The spectator must move with the artist’s shapes in and out, under and above, diagonally and horizontally; he must curve around spheres, pass through tunnels, glide down inclines, at times perform an aerial feat of flying from point to point, attracted by some irresistible magnet across space, entering into mysterious recesses — and, if the painting is felicitous, do so at varying and related intervals. This journey is the skeleton, the framework of the idea. In itself it must be sufficiently interesting, robust, and invigorating. That the artist will have the spectator pause at certain points and will regale him with especial seductions at others is an additional factor helping to maintain interest. In fact, the journey might not be undertaken at all were it not for the promise of these especial favors… It is these movements that constitute the special essentialness of the plastic experience. Without taking the journey, the spectator has really missed the essential experience of the picture.
The Artist’s Reality is a magnificent journey from beginning to end. Complement it with this rare interview with Rothko on the transcendent power of art, then revisit other timeless reflections on art by Jeanette Winterson, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Henry Miller, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, E.E. Cummings, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Published February 17, 2015