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Studying for a test? Prepare with these 2 lessons on Abstract Expressionism & the New York School.
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Abstract expressionism is often divided into two classifications, one of which is action painting, which is the work typified by Bill de Kooning or Jackson Pollock, where you feel the action of the artist on the canvas. The other side doesn't really have a name, but you might call it still painting, because in fact, there's an absence of gesture, or activity, or angst on the canvas. Instead, what you have is quiet contemplation, a mood of deep immersion in color. In a Rothko painting, you have three or four zones of different thinly-washed layers of color all interacting with each other in a subtle way. Not like bold contrasts, but instead almost swimming into each other to get your eye and your brain working optically to almost immerse your consciousness in these fields that Rothko has created. They may look simple. On the other hand, to really figure out how he created those effects is far more complicated. And it's not easy to understand what colors are actually in which layers on the canvas. The mystery of the whole thing is actually appropriate to Rothko's goals. He's wanting to make a picture which advertises its own mystery, its solitary quality, its introspective quality. It's a quality that he felt was reflecting his own state while painting. And I think it's a quality that he wanted to inspire in the viewers who were in the space of his paintings. In the exhibition, we've installed an entire room only of Rothko, not only for the reason that we have many beautiful paintings to present, but because of this power they have to create an environment. You feel the intimacy of the atmosphere that he has made for you. The point of Rothko's art is to provide a universe for viewers that they don't have in the real world. There is definitely a spiritual side to what Rothko was doing. It's not at all an ironic art, or a kind of calculated, clever, sort of tactical art. In fact, one of the quotations of Rothko's that's repeated often is, "Silence is so accurate." What he was really doing was extolling the power of an abstract language to say so much more than words could do. I think when you look at a painting by Rothko, you also realize what is meant by the term "all over," which is often used in regard to Abstract Expressionist painting. It's not like there's a center point and the edges, or the corners, or the sides are of lesser importance than the core. In fact, the action of the painting, if there is action, is distributed equally from top to bottom, and from side to side. And there's no way that you can complete your experience of that picture without letting your eye wander, or even your body wander, all over the surface of that canvas. You end up feeling like you're in a zone with no gravity, almost as if there is not a weight. Rothko often said that he liked his paintings to be hung rather low to the floor. The reason for that is that he really saw these paintings as something that mattered in terms of the physical presence of the viewer. The physical presence of the viewer starts with their feet being on the floor. And he wants the paintings to not literally begin on the floor, but as close to that as is reasonably possible, so that you're almost standing in the painting, rather than admiring some kind of separate object on the wall. Your space is the painting space and vice versa. Like many of the artists in the Abstract Expressionism era, Rothko did not want his paintings to be framed. Paintings that were made on easels and then put on frames were understood to be illusions of another scene, of an imagined place. Rothko and his peers did not feel that they were alluding to another space, or place, or time with what they were making. What they were making was the reality that they wanted to present to the viewer. And for that reason, it didn't need the borderline of a frame separating its reality from their reality. What they wanted was the joint reality of spectator and painting.