Is Rothko Creepy?

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(Mark Rothko, Light Red Over Black, 1957, Tate)

So in my Cognition and Learning class today, we watched a clip from a PBS special, Brain Fitness 2: Sight and Sound.  There was a Harvard physiologist on the show who talks about the biology of sight, and how it affects the way we see art.  She said something about Rothko’s lack of solid lines and clear boundaries in his paintings added to their “creepiness.”  Everyone else just took it in, but I let out a sort of embarrassing guffaw.  Do you think Rothko is creepy?  Personally, I think he’s lovely.  And I do think that his paintings have an emotional effect on me.  I remember standing in front of my first at the Tate Modern, and…  just feeling.  No creepiness.  Maybe a tear or two.  Kind of like the visual equivalent of feeling yourself sing in harmony with someone (I know many of you doubt my abilities to sing in harmony with anyone, but as kids my sister and I used to do this for fun, and it worked, maybe only because we essentially have the same voice. Anyway.).  I think she’s onto something, I just don’t think “creepy” is quite right.  Her book, Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, is on my list…  And if the image above doesn’t win you over, maybe others will.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Is Rothko Creepy?

  1. bryce

    Rothko has always been one of my favorite artists for his ability to evoke so much emotion. I always want to put someone who substantiates abstract art as “invalid” in front of one of his paintings and say “take it in”. His works are like Steel Magnolias; if you don’t get emotional from seeing them, then your some kind of robot.

  2. I agree…I think that’s a very imprecise and off way of describing it.

  3. Lindsey

    I also think Rothko is lovely. I can think of a lot more things, that are a lot more creepy. Like neurocysticercosis for example, over which my co-resident and I got into a shouting match about the appropriate treatment :-). I am a nerd.

  4. You’re kidding right?
    It’s 2 colors of paint blobbed on sloppily with a paint roller.
    Someone told you to think of it as art and now you believe…

  5. Just in case this isn’t a prank: I’m not kidding in the slightest. It’s way more than two colors (even this poor reproduction shows that much), and I love how it makes me feel. To each his own, though — just don’t block my view.

  6. JAH

    I too get emotional when seeing this painting. It makes me double over with laughter that someone actually thinks this is something worthy of being displayed in a museum.

    And, yes, there are more than two colors, it is clear that there are about four- red, light red, and two dark greys.

    Art is the expression of ideas and emotions, just like any other form of communication. In order to be effective, it must speak the language that the viewer is most likely to understand. When anyone who has not been brainwashed or intimidated into thinking that Rothko’s work is something magnificent, sees his work the only message they understand is in this instance is “red, black, piece of junk painting that even a monkey could do.” That means that his painting is not an effective form of communication, or that he did not take the time to learn to speak the visual language enough to be able to express his ideas of emotions in an understandable way.

    Let’s take the language of a one year old who wants candy as an example. The child screams and cries but no one knows what it is that he wants. But suppose a ten year old comes along and reads a poem extolling the virtues of giving children candy. Which form of communication is more effective? Which child most likely got a piece of candy?

    It is the same with art. The only way to gather some kind of meaning out of this painting is to read a book about it or to listen to an art critic’s explanation in which case, you are not getting the artist’s message directly through him but through an interpreter who evidently is so much smarter than the average mortal because he can understand the incomprehensible.

    Art speaks in a visual language but when you must read a book to understand it or hear a lecture, you are not getting your understanding through a visual language but through verbal means.

    I contend that if one has to read a manual to understand a piece of art, it has failed as a piece of visual art.

    Far too many people have been conned into believing that this kind of art actually means something more than a paycheck for the shysters who sell it and the critics who promote it. In fact, sometimes it is a form of intellectual bullying. When people look down on someone for not understanding and say they are not intellectual enough to understand, it makes other people afraid to point out the fact that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. Well, be honest. The emperor is stark naked. And anyone claiming to get something from this is not being truthful for fear of upsetting the art hierarchy’s party line or they are in cahoots with the charlatans.

  7. My reaction to his painting is visceral. There are plenty of “fine art” pieces acclaimed by others that I don’t like at all, and I’m not afraid to say it (nor should you be). The thing about people is that they react differently to art and literature; what moves one may not (and need not) move another. I don’t care if it’s “art,” if it’s at the Tate, if it sells, if it’s taught in survey courses, or none of the above. Sure — all of those things played a part in my ever being exposed to it, and perhaps in my liking it. So what? I also think this is beautiful: http://vimeo.com/368367. And not because someone told me to. Maybe the emperor, stripped down to his skin, is actually kind of lovely in his fleshiness once we get past the idea that it’s obscene.

  8. jose

    JAH, Rothko started as a conventional artist. Look at his early paintings. Then he experimented with surrealism and made a long way into abstraction. It’s not like he woke up one day and thought ok, let’s

    The idea that if an image is not self-explanatory, then it’s failed as a work of art is ridiculous. Knowing what you are looking at will enrich your experience with all kind of paintings–Leonardo, Goya, Hyeronimus Bosch, any painter. The fact that you can see an actual dummy in a painting doesn’t imply that you’re getting its meaning.

  9. jose

    **ok, let’s do a little abstract expressionism for the rest of my life!

    (I hit Enter acidentally)

  10. jose

    I mean, I could stare at Lady with an Ermine for two minutes and say ok, so here we have a girl with an ermine. Cute. So? What’s the point? You might start talking about technique, but that’s not the meaning of the painting. There’s a reason for the ermine, and there’s a reason why the girl is not looking directly to the viewer. Just an example.

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