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Color and Spirituality

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

A legendary Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko was insistent that his art was filled with content, and brimming with his ideas..
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Rust and  Blue

Mark Rothko, No.61, Rust and Blue, 1953

Noli me tangere, (Do Not Touch Me)

Titian, Noli me tangere, (Do Not Touch Me), 1511-12

Rothko said of himself that he was 'no colorist,' and he seems to have regarded color as a tool of conventional composition, and to that extent distrusted it. However, his devotion to enriching the color effects in his work shows that it was important to him. In particular, he seems to have learned from the techniques of the Old Masters. Titian realized, in the 16th century, that modulating the use of color - in particular, using tones both darker and lighter than the dominant hue - could deepen and enrich the appearance of the hue. This insight seems to have motivated the layering of color in Rothko's work. Rothko wanted to lend his pictures what he called an "inner light," a quality of luminosity that suggested vivid depths - one might also compare the experience of contemplating one of his works to staring tinto a fire. This, he hoped, would encourage an experience for the viewer not unlike that of an encounter with another human being. Although the proper context for this idea is Abstract Expressionism, it is thought that Rothko may have borrowed the phrase from a contemporary book on the techniques of the Old Masters. Just as Titian may have labored over his colors in order to produce particular qualities of beauty that would complement his often religious subject matter, so Rothko did the same to lend a spiritual quality to works that had no ostensible subject matter at all.

NOTE: The ideas in this comparison are drawn from John Gage, "Rothko: Color as a Subject," National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998.

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