Mark Rothko: the power of color, a spiritual sensorial path to abstraction

By Béa Aaronson

How do I speak of Mark Rothko when all he craved was silence… the accuracy of silence where one’s soul can breathe, feel and understand? How do I write about Mark Rothko when words seem to be so empty of meaning? How do I tackle depth and surface in their physical and spiritual lives, ecstasy and doom, joy and sorrow, strength and frailty? Certainly not with an academic magicless abracadabra ostentatious jargon. Because “art is a miracle” as Rothko said. No. With Rothko, I must find a simple yet powerful, humble yet glorious way of probing, understanding and translating his visual thoughts, his artistic legacy. Yes, he is an icon of American Abstract art. Yes, he was part of this multi-dimensional American artistic blossoming known as Abstract Expressionism, alongside Pollock, Milton Avery, Clifford Still, Barnett Newman, de Kooning, and so many others. But Rothko was not an abstractionist! He furrowed the psychic reality of human emotions and created a unique visual field of color vibrations which require from the beholder a concentrated gaze and stance…Only then can the miracle happen…You pause, you feel, you spiritually and physically ingest, you cry.

“Mark Rothko: the Power of Color, a Spiritual Sensorial Path to Abstraction”
Mon, Aug 4, 4:30 and 6:30pm
La Ostra Roja
A Casa Verde Annex
San Jorge 45
Colonia San Antonio
130 pesos
Reservations 121-1026


In this presentation, I shall of course offer you a succinct yet substantial account of his life: his birth September 25, 1903, in Dvinsk, Russia, born Marcus Rothkowitz – a rise of Nazi sympathy in the United States heightened Rothko’s fears of anti-Semitism, and in January 1940, he abbreviated his name from Marcus Rothkowitz to Mark Rothko. His emigration from Russia to Portland, Oregon; his poor beginnings; his Hasidic, Talmudic upbringing, without which you simply cannot understand his artistic path; his early work – expressionist, mythological, multiform; his two wives, Edith, and Mary Ellen “Mell” Beistle, his children; then unravel for you the political activism of his anarchist left wing sensitivity, with the unavoidable connection to Emma Goldman. I shall also highlight his loquacious, exuberant, hot-tempered, philosophical, erudite, neurasthenic personality.

I shall present you with many juxtapositions, some obvious, some more startling, revealing his sources of inspiration and artistic affinities: Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Turner, the French Impressionists, Caspar Friedrich, Matisse, to name but a few.

I shall tame his signature style of hypnotic, transcendental, floating, vibrating rectangles of color, hovering like a mirage, through an understanding of the latest data concerning the psychological, physiological, vibrational power of color. And of course…his fuzzy edges, ever so soft, which reject the hard edge wounding effect of a most destructive technologically-obsessed 20th century. Let me just say this: these fuzzy edges visualize the primordial dimension of doubt, which visually discard the arrogance of clear-cut answers. There are no answers…just choices… possibilities of choices…and the responsibility of these choices. Rothko’s fuzzy rectangles seem to breathe indeed… Like a muscle, like our own lungs, they contract and expand. A printed reproduction, even of high quality, will never induce this sensation. You have to see them in the flesh so to say. I had this privilege at the Tate Gallery in London. I “experienced” Rothko. One must take the time, give time to time, to let his huge blurred rectangles penetrate your retina and then your very soul. They do indeed vibrate, live inside of you… The size is very important. As Matisse said: “A square meter of blue is more blue than a square centimeter of blue!”

I shall of course discuss the 1958 Seagram Four Seasons saga, which can be best summed up in Rothko’s own words: “I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” a saga which will result in his annulation of the contract! Rothko fought against the mercantilism of art.

I shall enter the poignant intimacy of his ultimate towering artistic statement, his testament, his 1964 ominous cycle of Black Paintings inside the Houston Chapel, which he never saw completed. What one could do after that…but end one’s terrestrial life… Rothko committed suicide, on February 25, 1970, with an overdose of anti-depressants and slicing his wrists with a razor blade.

And then, you may ask me…”But what about Rothko’s link to Nietzsche?” All art historians mention their affinity…but nobody actually puts in simple words what it was all about. So…I shall attempt to connect these two thinkers – because Rothko was foremost a thinker, a thinker who not only used words, but also visual art, to express his thoughts – and you will see clearly, I hope, that through his passion for Greek mythology, it is tragedy, the recognition of this existential wound of pending doom, that connects Rothko to Nietzsche.

I invite you to meet, feel and understand Mark Rothko, Monday, August 4, not Wednesday as I usually do, as it will allow you to better savor the Santa Ana production of Red, a play on Mark Rothko’s Four Seasons drama, directed by Kate Rowland, produced by Mary Norquist from the Player’s Workshop, with Michael Gottlieb in the role of Rothko, and Martin Grapengeter in the role of his assistant, Ken. The play opens Wednesday, August 6. I had the immense joy and honor of painting for its staging, two Rothkos from the Seagram series. It felt as if — ah…this magic “as if”— as if I were connecting beyond time and space with Mark himself, as if I knew him personally, as if his colors and vibrations were entering me… a true miracle indeed!

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