I’ve always had a strange fascination with abstract art & what that abstraction means & what it is trying to achieve. I think two of the most common metrics for whether art is “good” are 1. Does it make me feel things? and 2. Is it doing what it set out to do? While the two overlap, the second gets tricky when you’re trying to wrestle with whether the intentions of art are valuable or not, not just whether they are achieved. How does intention create expectation? And what do we do with art that does so much more than it intends or knows? To whom do we ascribe that achievement? Is art still “good” if it doesn’t even know about most of its goodness? And then does that get “credited” to the artist, or the weird kind of amorphous idea of the “art” itself?
The thing with Rothko is he went so much further than just wanting his art to do certain things, he described and necessitated and created environments and essentially instructions for what his paintings were meant to do and I think it is really incredible that they do those things! He’s said he wants his paintings to make the viewer feel like they want to bang their head against a wall, he wanted windowless-ness, oppressive walls and big, scary colours, emotion distilled into weirdly soft edges where one colour not so much as bleeds but rather shuffles onto the next with strokes that resemble nothing but just, art. It is a movement and a pattern reminiscent of itself — of the art and form and act of painting, of the modernity of the painter and their audience and the strange embodiment of pure emotion that is created within the intentional manipulation of colour, a goal that was so strange in its newness and so brave and reckless with breaking conceptions of what art is meant for and what it can do. Rothko’s time was tinged with a self awareness of people attaching to movements and schools and endeavours of creativity, working towards self defined goals of what art could and was meant to achieve. Is it a valuable intention then, to make the viewer want to bang their head against a wall? What is so fascinating and compelling about the Rothko Chapel, a place where people feel god, or Rothko’s room in the Tate, where he insisted on darkness and gloom and separation and wanted the viewer to feel trapped, even afraid?
I’m not saying that that is in any way a dishonourable goal, and the 20th century certainly had room for a reckoning with art beyond what feels good. I wonder simply about the strangeness and specific desire for him not only to want his art to do something, and not only asking the viewer to comply, but creating an atmosphere of oppressiveness (physical, almost) within which the viewing must take place and insisting on compliance, bending the rules a bit about what a “painting” is allowed to do. The art, then, stops remaining confined to its object, and invades the space in which we breathe, exist, walk, see. It’s a sort of encroachment that happens entirely on the artist’s terms. It is difficult to look at a Rothko and then just look away, it is a hypnotising, compelling, magnetic, fascinating experience, because everything is blurry but simultaneously sharp, and every colour seems to know something you don’t and you are at the mercy of a force (created by a man who is now dead, crucially) of manipulation, essentially, and a weird sense of (culturally, socially enforced? conditioned? confused?) enjoyment in that feeling. It’s messy and weird to be drawn to something that essentially just gives you a bit of a headache and makes you want to be able to focus your eyes on something that won’t keep slipping in and out of blurry sharpness.
Curiosity is probably at the heart of a lot of good art, maybe even all good art, a sense of wanting and desire and maybe even illicit fear-stained admiration for a thing that makes you so deeply uncomfortable with no clear purpose for doing so. But there is pleasure too, so much pleasure, besides the headache-y environment and the confusion, a Rothko is plainly beautiful to look at, it is nearly always a gorgeous flow of one space into the next bordered with a softness that is impossible to find outside of a painting — it’s created its own self in its goal, it has established an emotion that exists nowhere else, and it stares at you with a disarming self awareness. There is still a strangeness in being subject to emotion like that, we all watch sad movies and read sad books, yeah, but that is different because someone else is sad and we can either relate or empathise but here? Nobody is sad. Nobody is stressed. Nobody external to you is experiencing that nausea, the confusion, the glaring defiance against pure pleasure, not even the artist. Especially not the artist, at least not with you. Yet this creation of displeasure is distinctly deemed Good Art & I think it is extremely fascinating why, & even more fascinating that so many of us keep signing up to be subject to this weird experience of stress and wonder laced brazenly with discomfort.