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An Introduction to Mark Rothko Essay

Encounters with Mark Rothko’s ‘Light red over black’ (1957) Mark Rothko, ‘Light red over black’ 1957. In this essay I will explore ‘Light red over black’ (1957) by Mark Rothko. Although apparently simple, infact shows a wonderfully complex process of thought and throughout this essay I will interpret and get a better understanding of Rothko’s intention and meaning. Filled with shades of red, the upper part of the painting comes to create a strong opposition with the black area below it, itself encircled by a darker red.

This painting consisting of three floating rectangles in various colour combinations, creates a sombre mood conducive to spiritual contemplation. With the use of Rothko’s saturated colours the viewers are moved and as one’s eye adjust to the light that the painting emits. The colour field, I feel, embraces the mind, and the palette’s warm variety of tones mesmerises. Further analysing this painting, the two darker oblongs appear like two opening’s in the centre of the painting, creating a sense of freedom.

Conveyed in this painting is a sense that the oblongs are two openings in the centre of the picture, as the two darker rectangles are much more prominent in relation to the red tones. When first encountering this piece I questionned perhaps whether these oblongs were openings or whether in fact they were floating on the surface. In many respects it reminded me of of a stained-glass windows, except that there is no pattern or decoration. However, through it’s title, ‘Light red over black’ it seemed that perhaps Mark Rothko wanted the red to be more of a protrusive focus.

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However, with such contrasting colours it is definitely the black and dark blue that strick as the main aspect of this painting for me. On a chronological outlook, the shades from the upper half, the lighter red, move slowly downwards to a much darker colour. This could possibly be perceived as a means of human life, which has been said that Rothko tried to aim for TESHUVA, 2003:45 , the lighter red being an earlier life time ending with the black as the end of it evoking an endless enthrall. It is, in my belief, the energy that comes off this painting is a result of Rothko’s spontaneity nd improvising. Like many of Rothko’s work, ‘Light red over Black’ made in 1957 was created on canvas using the material, oils. Rothko’s techniques added further importance to the attraction of this piece. Rothko applied paint very thinly with sponges and cloths to avoid leaving any visible brushstrokes. (Auping, Karnes, Thistlewaite, 2002:286) Despite Rothko having the result of a controlled perspective, the edges of the rectangles are indistinct. The edges of the shapes are soft and blurred , and contributes to their ambiguity.

It seems that rothko wanted us to think only about colours and the moods they create, not about himself. This concept demonstrates what Rothko aimed at, the aspect of colour-field painting. ‘Light red over black’ takes the format of a pulsating rectangle with a vertical format, and is large in scale taking the dimensions of 2306 x 1527 x 38 mm. Rothko explained that the shapes in which he painted ‘have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognises the principles and passions or organisms’. http://www. studio-international. co. uk/archive2/causey_1972_183_943a. sp Furthermore, the development of Rothko’s work from surrealism to abstract interested me, interlinked with his change in the use of his colours over his artistic lifetime . After 1957, in which this painting was created, Rothko’s choice of colours tended to adopt a darker palette using more darker browns and blacks, which can be emphasised in the contrasting colour of red and black in this painting. (Comparision between earlier works to his latter works) When first encountered with this painting, I believed that Rothko’s work had moved away from more representational objects and moved more into the form of colour of abstract art.

Although Rothko’s use of colours, varying in only 2 shades of red, blue and black, they juxtapose together creating a deeper meaning to his paintings and questions the viewer to create their own theories on how to interpret the mood. Jacob Baal-Teshova wrote “Rothko always resisted attempts to interpret his painting’s. He was mainly concerned with the viewers experience” TESHUVA, 2003: 7 , and in contrast to this, the independant wrote, ‘ It’s too focused on the hit it will give its audience.

It simply doesn’t have enough world in it to be worthwhile art, enough complication, contingency, resistance, negotiation, argument – and abstract art can have these things as much as any other’. THE INDEPENDANT: 2008 I first encountered Rothko’s work at the Tate Modern gallery in London in 2008. When first examining his works, including other famous paintings such as Mural for End Wall’ it struck me as a simplistic style, yet with its luminous rectangles and saturated colour, a sense of mystery was conveyed in a modern era.

Moreover, on cream idilic walls, ‘Light red over black’ automatically illuminated from the walls in deep dark red, blues and blacks which led me to interpret his work as profoundly imbued with an emotional content that he articulated through a range of styles that had evolved from figurative to abstract. Furthermore, when examining this painting up close, the application of what seemed to be very thing layers of paint over each other, allowed the colours to radiate through, creating a sense of drama and light, despite the colours being much darker than others I’d seen in the gallery.

Suggested towards the latter part of his life, and through his means of depression, I first interpreted his work as a form of expression, which emplyed shimmering colour to convey a sense of spirtuality. However, after research it is perhaps more profound to say that this painting has a sense of depression with connotations of the red and black insinuating death, a mood of sadness, something Rothko was suffering from. HARRISON, 2003:230 The emphasis of his paintings are highlighted of course not only in colours but in it’s size.

When visiting the Tate modern, it was the pure size of these images that drew me in,with a seperate room in which to display Rothko’s work. Rothko I believe, intended his paintings to be seen up close so that the viewer could appreciate and be enveloped by the painting’s colour aura. The function of such a large painting was perhaps precisely because he wanted to be very intimate and relate it to human life itself and to his audience. The feeling of such an overwhelming large piece of art not only inspired but led ways to interpret why this size had been used.

If for example, Rothko had created these pieces on a smaller scale the simplistic outlook on them, I feel would have been lost. What struck me most about ‘Light red over black’ was the difference in his early works. Rothko was known for his use of expressionist landscapes, genre scenes, and still lifes. However, it was soon emphasised that artists could not longer merely copy photos or images to due the ever expanding artistic changes. Redundant, Rothko, and many other artists discussed conceptual changes and with this promoted the idea of using colour as a means to establish a relationship between the artist and the viewers.

This influence, occuring early in the 1950’s, led artists like Rothko to begin painting an entire canvas one colour. Moreover, the influence of World War II led many European artists to emigrate to the United States, including those associated with the surrealist movement. Sharma, 2006:35 They were a major influence on Rothko who began to attempt to apply theories on the collective unconscious to his work, and he started to orient his art toward a more abstract style and bring his colours to darker tones.

In my opinion it was the events occuring in World War II that evidently influenced abstract art and artists to experiment with exploring the connection between forms and colours. While the population visually saw colours simply on a canvas it was Rothko’s eternal interest in the human figure, character and emotions which led him to express himself indivually. Rothko believed, “The most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees’. (Breslin, 1993:261)

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