On Rothko (1998)

Philip Taaffe on Mark Rothko

The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1998

I have slides that I will show but I wanted to say a few things in advance of that. I have been on panels before, and usually the panels have been with other artists discussing a theme or topic on contemporary culture. This is one of the most difficult panels I’ve ever had to participate in, I think primarily because of the closeness that I have always felt to Rothko—throughout my student years, and working as an artist, it’s really almost too close for me to be able to say what I need to say about him and his work. He is certainly one of the most difficult artists to say anything about that is as significant as the work itself. For me, Rothko is a canonical figure. He is one of the last philosophers of painting. The closest I ever came to having a sense of Rothko’s community was through my teacher Dore Ashton at Cooper Union. Dore Ashton knew Rothko reasonably well for many years, and has written quite brilliantly on his work, often based on talks that Rothko had given and panels that he had participated in. So I have received much of my information from my friendship with Dore Ashton, listening to her discussions about the direction of American art, and being at her house and seeing an oil sketch that Rothko had given her–it was in her living room near the piano. As students we went over to her house on a couple of occasions. She gave a seminar concerning the development of twelve tone music, and the cultural precedence involved in understanding Schoenberg. She brought various pianists in to play, and there was an oil sketch that Rothko had given her, hanging near the piano. So that was a very keen familial experience that I had.

I think that Rothko has always been an artist who embodied severe contradictions in terms of his opposition to a cultural and political reality that he was a part of, and trying to make work out of a sense of desperation based on trying to protect his existence in the world as an artist. Somehow this sense of vulnerability was always very keenly felt as well. Maybe I’ll just show these slides and I will somehow describe why I chose them.

This is a work called Glyphic Brain. I made a series of works based on this kind of image-forming activity, in 1980-81. They were prolonged automatist drawing sessions, and they are made from picture-binding tape, which is used to frame the corners of photographs in scrapbooks it’s an older colored paper tape that I melted the glue off of and found a way of re-applying onto this surface. It’s just straight lines that are structured in such a way so that the paper is lacerated, and it ended up becoming this emblematic enclosed imaginary space. I think the reason I see a connection to Rothko here had to do with feeling a sense of biological necessity about the decisions the brain waves that were inducing this space and how they became attenuated and brought together; somehow these straight lines and their scale were meant to suggest a kind of infinity. When I was making these decisions there was something I was touching upon—some archaic area that I felt related to some of the works by Rothko that I’d seen from the 1940s.


Glyphic Brain (1980–81)
Collage on paper. 47 x 56 inches (119 x 142 cm)

Immediately after that group of works I started using found imagery. This is a fairly large-scale collage called Martyr Group. This is from roughly 1984, and was inspired by Roumanian frescos that are painted on the exteriors of churches in the Moldavian valley from the sixteenth century. I found these police targets in a waste-paper dump in New Jersey. The idea was to bring a previous art historical or architectural idea to a contemporary reality. It was my effort to try and stagger the figures in a way to give them a sense of flatness, but also the space is receding—the figures recede somehow. It was one of the earliest large-scale collages that I made. Earlier I said that for me Rothko was a canonical figure, by which I mean he was an artist who operated much in the same mode as a religious thinker. His was a standard for me in terms of scale and surface and the strangeness of the color that had an openness to it and a primordial sense about it that I felt I needed to try to somehow come to terms with.


Martyr Group  (1983)
Mixed media on canvas. 104 x 104 inches (264 x 264 cm)

This is quite a large painting from 1989, twelve to fourteen feet tall, titled Screen With Double Lambrequin. One of the contradictions I see in Rothko’s work is a sense of geographical and cultural loss that is woven into the spirit of his work. This was my effort to make some kind of reference to the multiform divisions of his work and yet link it to very specific architectural and cultural realities. It was testing the possibility for including this kind of specific architectural reality into a pictorial fiction. So it has a certain architectural weight but at the same time it’s commenting more upon this sense of cultural loss, I think.

Screen with Double Lambre

Screen with Double Lambrequin (1989)
Mixed media on linen. 145-1/4 x 112-1/4 inches (369 x 285 cm)

A short while later when I was living in Naples during the Gulf War I made a painting called Desert Flowers. I don’t want to dwell on this issue too much but there was a desperation over the sense of potential loss of civilization, loss of humanity. Somehow I felt that with these strange sharp flower-like elements, that I was bringing together in this work, it was a way of declaring a certain opposition, or a certain dwelling upon that situation without being dogmatic about it. As with Rothko, it is just trying to shape something out of the barest elements.

This work is called Zone of the Straits. For me it is a kind of navigational painting. It has a sense of voyage and a sense of moving through time and space in a certain large way. I see this large scale as providing a theater of entrance into a work. Rothko once said his reason for working on such a large scale was to promote a sense of intimacy, and when one experiences this work it does have a sense of an inward or interior space.

Zone of the Straits

Zone of the Straits (1991)
Mixed media on linen. 114 x 114 inches (289.5 x 289.5 cm)

This is a painting called Passionale Per Circulum Anni, (1993-94), which is a reference to a liturgical calendar. It is made up of larger spirals and these smaller wrought iron-derived shapes, going in opposite directions. It’s a kind of disembodied architecture, and at the same time it refers to this sense of time lost, time as we pass through it. The last image I will show is of a totemic work, titled Stele. It’s an effort to make a series of monolithic gestures that are enterable – although it has this strong frontality of towers and the carapace, it is enterable somehow.

Passionale Per Circulum Ann

Passionale Per Circulum Anni (1993–94)
Mixed media on linen. 137-1/4 x 116 inches (348.5 x 294.5 cm)

I suppose the last thing I should say about Rothko is that I always derive from his work a tremendous sense of place –the canvas as an inhabitable pictorial situation, that I could almost live inside his paintings. There is a sense of personal geography or cultural loss in his work, or sometimes just this sense of place that makes itself felt as a very intensified or compressed geographical location. This imaginary location, that sense of what his work does on that level, is perhaps what I feel has been his biggest gift to me.

Rothko’s paintings are very, very demanding. Not only were risky to make but they’re risky to look at, because you don’t know exactly quite what you’re letting yourself in for. The thing I liked about the installation in Washington D.C. was it’s cave-like quality. The shape of the exhibition was quite wonderful, with these hairpin turns: it was labyrinthine in a very beautiful way. I was just in Texas last week, teaching at the University in Austin, and I drove to Houston to see the Rothko Chapel. The paintings reverberated for me, just as this cave-like quality in Washington—it’s as though they’re the final palimpsest: as if the cave had reached its point of no return. It is almost as thought every gesture and image and icon and work of art that Rothko ever thought about is somehow embedded into those works. They are fading into blackness due to the density of the experience that this man felt in his life and which was somehow being put down onto the canvases. That was the feeling I had.

I have always thought of Rothko as an artist who somehow embodied a standard. I don’t know quite how to describe this. It has to do with the way he used paint: the materiality of the work, the scale, the scratching into the surface, the labor, allowing the weave of the canvas to come through, drips going in the wrong direction. All of these details say so much to me about this man, his sensibility, as someone who is almost – I don’t want to say guru, but it’s something like this. He had this supreme thoughtfulness about making the work. I’m speaking only from my own practice, just in terms of my own sense of what I wanted to do with a surface.

This issue of the spiritual in art is a very tough question. You almost have to approach it in a negative way. Rothko’s work is affirmative of the spiritual but in a negative way. It would be dangerous and even foolhardy to address such issues in a direct way. It’s got to be indirect, so there is always this remarkable sense of indirection to what he does This is very tough work. If you think of Rothko’s painting in its own historical context, it’s very tough work to make, to behold, to have a relationship to.

[Audience Question to PT about Rothko’s personality.]

PT: Well you know I said that the closest I ever came to meeting Rothko was meeting Dore Ashton. I had no personal history with Rothko so I’m loathe to judge the personality of someone that I have never encountered in my life.

Audience: But painting is a physical act!

PT: I’m not forgetting that at all. I wouldn’t dream of forgetting that.

Q: Earlier there was a discussion about a stroke in the red square that goes outside the shape. do you think that’s a mistake?

PT: No.

Q: Do you feel he just played out this formula over the last 20 years? Other artists have said he repeated himself quite endlessly…

PT: I always had the sense that he was living out a kind of ritualistic practice, the repetition and the continuing of the same format. And it became ritualized because he wanted to break that ritual, because he wanted to find ways of what it meant to go through with this practice, day after day, year after year. This was an important experiment for him. That’s how I read it.

Q: How do you see his work in relation to color field painting?

PT: Well I think this raises an interesting question because another thing that I admired about Rothko was the fact that he always denied that he was an abstract painter, or that he was an abstractionist—this was the word he used. He was more interested in subject and myth and emotion and I would say that color field painting is something that emerged afterwards that had a kind of systematic approach to understanding how a painting could be made, so it’s mechanical in the sense that it’s taking into consideration a whole different set of principles. These are not like that at all. No.

Q: Rothko’s late work is sometimes described as nihilist—do you agree with this?

PT: I think that it has to do with the negativity in affirmation. It’s a psychological and emotional reality that one has to unravel and come to terms with in the work. There is something scathing about them – searing. There’s a mind that is trying to arrive at something. He’s worried about a lot of things. And it’s something that you either get or you don’t. You have to feel these things, you have to devote a lot attention to trying to come to terms with them. I think it’s the uncompromising nature of the work. I feel like these things we are saying are clichés … it’s hard to talk about them. It has to do with what you expect from a work of art. That has a lot to do with it…