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The Sublime and the Spiritual

Abstract Expressionists used color and scale to create a sense of spirituality and the sublime


No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black)

Mark Rothko
(American, born Russia (now Latvia). 1903–1970)

1958. Oil on canvas, 8' 10 5/8" x 9' 9 1/4" (270.8 x 297.8 cm)

In 1943, Mark Rothko, with his friend the painter Adolph Gottlieb, wrote several philosophical statements that would continue to guide their art for years to come. The two painters wrote, “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”1

The scale and surface of this painting reflect these ideas. Rothko abandoned traditional Renaissance three-point perspective, which conceives of the canvas as a window onto another world. Multiple glazes of dark pigments of varying opacity make the picture’s surface feel flat, yet it quivers and vibrates, offering a sense of atmospheric depth. Rothko hoped that these compositional strategies would invite visual and emotional contemplation on the part of the viewer, creating the conditions for silence and reflection.

James E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 193.
Mark Rothko in Glenn Phillips and Thomas Crowe, Seeing Rothko (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2005).

Cotton or linen woven cloth used as a surface for painting.

The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.

The ratio between the size of an object and its model or representation, as in the scale of a map to the actual geography it represents.

A substance, usually finely powdered, that produces the color of any medium. When mixed with oil, water, or another fluid, it becomes paint.

In art, a technique used to depict volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface, as in a painted scene that appears to extend into the distance.

Impenetrable to the passage of light.

The shape or structure of an object.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

Rothko once said to a friend, “Often, towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration—all of these at once. I would like my paintings to have the quality of such moments.”2

Multimedia

VIDEO: The Painting Techniques of Mark Rothko

SLIDESHOW: See Flickr photos of Rothko’s “color field” paintings, taken by MoMA visitors. Contribute to this Flickr set by tagging your own photos “MoMA Rothko”