"Mark Rothko," Sept. 17-Nov. 29, 1998, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.
Two rooms of the dozen or so in this Mark Rothko retrospective will rock you. Maybe others will, too, depending on your susceptibility and appetite. Rothko was always onto something, usually an insinuating quality of light, even in his gawky early figurative and Surrealist styles and in his theatrically depressed, overbearing later phases. With more or less goodwill, you may like anything he did.
But the two rooms I mean, from Rothko's heyday of 1949 to 1954, go beyond questions of liking or not liking. The hovering, soft-edged rectangles of color go beyond art, somewhat. Are the paintings in those rooms transcendent? Sublime? Given experiences so humblingly intense, one naturally reaches for Sunday-punch superlatives, which usually are just gussied-up variants of "wow." With Rothko at his entranced peak, no words avail.
Words never do capture any reality. They are a subreality of their own, a shadow play in Plato's cave. We all know this intuitively. (The best writers know it best: as a fierce facetiousness, it is Shakespeare's master irony.) But we rarely have language's inadequacy jammed in our faces. When it happens, the cause is often supreme art.
What makes art supreme? It is an overcoming of conventions, such that a work ceases to be an example of anything and becomes rawly singular. We know when this happens because the work lets us recognize, as a fact, our own individuality. Normally, our sense of uniqueness is a superstition. We exist unexceptionally nearly all the time -- nothing being more common than the delusion, in each of us, that we are ones of a kind.
Pardon my philosophizing in place of a review. I want to put consideration of Rothko's feats where it needs to be, outside regular art talk -- before letting art talk resume around them, as it should. These are only paintings. You know what paintings are. People hang them on walls and look at them. But Rothko's best paintings are also instances of real spirituality made really public. To cope with that, we must speak from somewhere besides our educations.
A friend of mine and I once decided that Rothko is one of just two great Western artists who are never even remotely funny. The other is Michelangelo. Michelangelo and Rothko are mystics of the physical. The body has no sense of humor. It has something better: joy, life's ever-bubbling approval of itself. Humor is a rescue mission by the mind when this joy hits a snag. Michelangelo and Rothko don't know from snags. They regard all setbacks as tragedies. They have to be geniuses, because otherwise they'd be awful bores.
In those two rooms at the Whitney, something leaps in me like a flame. It is my body seeing its way clear. It is a recognition of my true uniqueness, which I usually ignore because it is abject: the brute solitariness of this fleshly thing, this clutch of sweat-and-piss-producing stuff that is me. The occasion is color. The dynamic is exaltation. Pure affirmation surges from my gut out the top of my head to the sky. Nothing resists it.
The exaltation is hardly continuous for me in the face of the art, though it's attended by a conviction of beauty as regular as a backbeat. The emotion is intermittent, lurching. It is anguished, as when you embrace a promise of happiness that you suspect is false. The concentration required exhausts me and leaves me jangled and anxious. I don't finish looking at the paintings. I break off, turning my back on their tireless radiance.
How did Rothko do it? Here art talk returns. Rothko's style was a professional, practical, technical matter, brought off with layered paints pigmented and deployed in certain ways. You can discern the ways, more or less, if you look closely. What's wondrous is that it's exactly while you are calmly inspecting Rothko's handiwork that his spiritual effect is most apt to erupt in you. Then it's as if the heat of your gaze set the picture off like gasoline.
I will tell you Rothko's secret so that you can forget about trying to imitate it: he was a holy fool for a while. He believed that a decision to suspend a "warm," imperceptibly yellow-laced red, say, next to a "cool," green-tinged zone of the same hue would transmit a precise datum of feeling from his soul to the viewer's. He invested the same faith in gradations of every other material scale: light/dark, rough/smooth, thick/thin, on and on.
Popular photographs of Rothko appropriately show him sitting and smoking, staring at a work in progress. He excruciated. He brainstormed. He was the first major painter ever to paint around the edges of a canvas and leave it unframed, and to hang canvases low. This was to emphasize physical fact in tension with ethereal imagery. Rothko gladly tortured himself to get every move right -- as if there can be any plain right or wrong in esthetic tinkering, aside from judgments of taste.
What Rothko intended was impossible on its own terms. When he triumphed, it was almost incidentally. Beholding his work, we identify not with what he does but with his will to do it. Everything that pines and sulks within us, wanting perfection or infallible love or immortality, bolts to attention, saluting like mad. This art goes farther than any other toward making our wildest, vaguest, most naive feelings seem concrete. Our excitement is cruel because it leads nowhere. But it sure can remind us that we're alive.
By the late 1950s, Rothko's evangelical drive had been crushed by proof that, like everybody else, he was terminally alone in his subjectivity. People kept grossly misunderstanding him even as they made him rich and famous. In a way, what occurred was a standard crisis of adolescence -- the comeuppance, certainly, of many an overconfident kid poet or rock star -- in a grown man who had fully mature powers of expression and a fairly total incapacity for compromise.
Rothko met the crisis badly. Though he could not remain a fool, he clung to being holy. He turned maudlin. After 1954, only an occasional throwback canvas bursts into classically delicate and astonishing , Rothkovian song. His late modes preach or whine. They condescend to us dummies, as if to browbeat us into prayerfulness. The bore in Rothko won, as he must have known at times. Them he put an end to himself. Yes, tragically.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this column first appeared.