Arts - Spring 2011

Seeing Red

Can we understand Rothko's work without decoding his favorite color?

By Robert J. Bliwise | March 2, 2011


A few summers ago, I was painted as an art-world rebel. I was in Assisi, a perfectly picturesque hilltop town in the Umbrian countryside. While feasting equally on Giotto and gelato, I was taking a short course in art making. From a glorious setting would come glorious creations. That was the program’s premise, and it wasn’t to be trumped by my own questionable—as if there really were a question—artistic talent. I did find that nothing beat the existential pleasure of mixing paints to achieve the color and perhaps even the gooey texture of marinara sauce. I thought of it as Assisi Sunset Red.

My fellow aspiring artists were finding inspiration all over Assisi, which in aggregate resembles a tightly packed, earth-toned Cubist composition. But I was laboring on a different kind of composition: horizontal forms in light red and black on a deep maroon field, with layers on top of layers of paint, so that the whole thing would look irradiated. Assisi, I explained to the perplexed but patient instructor, seemed quite red. The town’s medieval buildings glow in the red of every sunset. In the basilica, a Giotto fresco shows St. Francis, his arms extended heavenward, enveloped in a cloud of white and red.

Assisi is a place that cultivates its history. And I was paying homage to a figure who wanted to send history soaring along a new trajectory. That was Mark Rothko, who, in his own way, was another spiritual force.

Red and Rothko have long figured in a magazine-writing course I teach at Duke University. I hold up a print of a Rothko painting, Light Red Over Black (1957). The students, at first blush, don’t see much in it—a bunch of forms in a bunch of colors. I try to present it as a meta­phor for a written narrative. A Rothko is shaped like a good story. It’s strictly structured (those horizontal bands), but there’s also a playfulness and a turning away from the formulaic (those jagged edges). And there are multiple layers. Some of the shimmering shapes appear to rise above the canvas, others to recede into the depths. A narrative, too, should be multilayered; it’s “about” a particular quest, for example, but at a deeper level, it’s “about” the universal allure of the quest. A Rothko is also temporal. It’s a rhythm of shapes bumping into other shapes. Actions through time. A narrative flow.

One quality that flows through a Rothko is tension. Rothko saw a tragic sensibility in his work; the storyteller sees it in the human condition. The tension hinges on the charged color relationships. In a Rothko, the colors seem to be competing with one another, tearing at one another, fighting one another. Particularly all those reds.

A year or so ago, while in New York, I took in John Logan’s play Red. (It would go on to win six Tony awards, including the Best Play category for the season.) The play portrays the artist and his young apprentice, Ken, as Rothko was taking on a commission for the Seagram Building’s Four Seasons restaurant. That was a commission from which he would famously withdraw. The intended clientele didn’t square very well, he would realize, with his avowed socialist leanings. Early on in the play, Rothko gestures to one of his paintings and asks Ken, “What do you see?” Ken, after some hesitation, replies, “Red.” From there ensues talk about, among many other themes, abstraction as a spur to contemplation; the delicate balance between producing soulful art and responding to moneymaking imperatives; mediating between emotion and intellect on the canvas and the public’s enduring fixation with the banal—a fixation to which the art world was sure to respond wholeheartedly if cravenly. In one scene soaked in creative violence, artist and apprentice in tandem assault a canvas with splatters and splashes of paint until, as the stage directions put it, “the white canvas is now an even, flat plane of dark plum.”

As part of my Red-related research in New York, I met with Dore Ashton, a longtime professor of art history at The Cooper Union. For five years beginning in 1955, she was an art critic for The New York Times, where she championed abstract expressionism—an advocacy that didn’t sit well with her editors, she told me. (Neither, at the time, did her progressive political views.) Ashton recalls Rothko’s conviction that art could achieve a mystical power; that it could somehow move the viewer even as it enveloped him in, say, a red sea.

In her 1983 book, About Rothko, Ashton noted that the artist frequently went to the Museum of Modern Art to study Matisse’s The Red Studio, from 1911. It was his favorite modern painting. By the time it went on display at MoMA in 1949, Rothko had shifted from his surrealist stage to unfettered abstraction. “When you looked at that painting, you became the color,” he said. “You became totally saturated with it.” The Red Studio showed how forms could be streamlined, simplified, or merely suggested in a field of intense red. Objects in the studio—a chair, a clock, a bureau—break out of the red as wispy shapes; elements of the Matisse oeuvre—painting, sculpture, and ceramics—are depicted in fuller detail.

Before sitting down with Ashton for lunch at a café, I was stung by a bee, quite a marvel in March in downtown Manhattan. The back of my neck was turning a deeper and deeper shade of red. Coincidentally, Ashton mentioned that one of her unfulfilled writing projects was a history of the color red in the visual arts.

There is at least one cultural history of the color, A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield (whose last name embraces the complement to red). The book traces the path of cochineal, a red dye derived from the cochineal insect and shipped to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors. Of course, red has an earlier aesthetic history. Ashton, in our conversation, mentioned that Rothko took a tour through Italy that included Pompeii. There he encountered Pompeii red, the bright color associated with Roman painting; today, an online fine-art store characterizes Pompeii red as “hot, glowing, and luminous”—an apt description of a Rothko work. Rothko is also believed to have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s frescoes from the villa at Boscoreale. (Boscoreale, along with Pompeii, was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 a.d.) “The reds and blacks of Pompeii seemed to haunt him,” Ashton writes in her book.

Last fall, MoMA installed Abstract Expressionist New York in its fourth-floor galleries. I was to meet with Ann Temkin, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, in the exhibition’s Rothko gallery. According to the wall plaque, one of the gallery’s eight works, No. 10, from 1950, was MoMA’s first Rothko and was considered “so radical for the time that a trustee of the Museum resigned in protest.”

A media representative told me how to pick out Temkin in the crowded gallery: She has red hair. Of course.

Temkin suggested that we take in No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black), from 1958, not from a distance but from just a few feet away. In this Rothko space, she pointed out, we were just one floor below the gallery where The Red Studio is a permanent fixture. She talked about the questing after Truth (decidedly with a capital T) that drove Rothko and the other abstract expressionists to launch what they took to be an assertive rebirth of painting in the wake of the devastation of the Second World War. What draws her to a Rothko, she told me, is that so much seems shifting, elusive, and amorphous in a work like this, including the color red. The red in No. 16 appears to be an element of each of the three rectangles, and of the field in which they float. It’s a pervasive, unifying, all-encompassing red, but it’s also a red that metamorphoses into something different as the eye moves across the painting. “That’s part of what makes the whole thing mysterious.”

“Their moment was fixed in time,” Temkin said of the abstract expressionists, “and it’s always the case that the culture marches on. But they worried needlessly that their work would, over time, lose its following.” In fact, she reminded me, the abstract expressionists were dismissive of mass culture. One statement they were making with their large canvases was that these were big ideas that demanded contemplation rather than surface encounters, ideas that couldn’t be contained in a small frame—certainly not in an electronic screen of any kind.

Just beyond MoMA’s sprawling, unsettling Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition was a small gallery devoted to pop art. Pop art was the culture-embracing movement that would displace Rothko and his colleagues from their primacy (though its themes might appear small by comparison). A crowd gathered around a MoMA staple, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can, from 1962. Warhol reproduced 32 soup cans—with red as the dominant color.

The soup cans have always struck me as cold. Rothko’s red-saturated compositions have quite the opposite effect. David Fitzpatrick, director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, told me that it is not well understood how the brain processes color and how color contributes to emotion. But it is clear that color perception is about more than a wavelength of light being perceived by the eye. A color will be perceived differently in a different context, depending on what’s around it. Part of the context for perceiving color hinges on associations that have mattered for the individual. In Logan’s play about Rothko, we learn that the apprentice is haunted by a bloody past: his past colors—his perception of red.

A recent article in the European Journal of Social Psychology considers red in the context of bad tidings. “Because the color red is implicitly associated with avoidance and failure, and red pens specifically have long been associated with errors,” an encounter with a red pen probably “activates the concepts of errors, poor performance, and evaluative harshness.” Abraham M. Rutchick, of California State University, Northridge, and his colleagues tested that proposition in three experiments. In one of them, college students were asked to fill in the missing letters of a series of words, a so-called word-stem completion exercise. An example would be to complete the word fai_. The blank could be filled to complete the word fair or fail. Students using red pens completed a disproportionately large number of word stems with words related to errors and poor performance, like fail. In a second experiment, subjects marked errors in punctuation, spelling, grammar, or word choice on an essay. Those who used red pens marked more errors than those with blue pens. Finally, subjects evaluated an essay—in this case, free of grammatical or spelling errors—and awarded a grade. Those who wielded a red pen assigned lower grades.

Red pens may be ubiquitous in classrooms, concluded Rutchick and his colleagues, but “they are not inert objects; they are laden with meaning.” And “by virtue of their strong association with failure and error-marking,” red pens can influence how teachers regard student work.

Research of red takes a few variations. For animals, “the presence and intensity of red coloration” correlate with “male dominance and testosterone levels,” according to the Evolutionary Anthropology Research Group of the University of Durham. Would wearing red, then, influence the outcome of sports contests, areas of human endeavor that reward dominance (and that often are testosterone-fueled)? In a 2005 Nature paper, Durham researchers Russell Hill and Robert Barton wrote about how contestants in four Olympic combat sports—boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling—were randomly assigned red or blue outfits. For all four competitions, there were “consistent and statistically significant patterns in which contestants wearing red win more fights.” In the matches where one side dominated the other, outfit color made little difference. But in close matches, combatants in red won over 60 percent of the time. All other factors being relatively equal, red ruled—something implicitly acknowledged by Tiger Woods’s donning a red shirt on the final day of tournaments.

Other research suggests the presence of a red-induced biasing effect on referees. In one study, summarized in Psychological Science in 2008, experienced referees were shown videos of tae kwon do sparring rounds, each round featuring competitors of similar abilities. One competitor wore red, and the other wore blue. (To guard against bias beyond color-mindedness, the researchers occasionally used digital graphics to reverse the colors.) Referees assigned more points to the competitors dressed in red than to those dressed in blue. Good sportsmanship, the researchers concluded, would forbid red sports attire.

One of the most persistent red-oriented researchers is Andrew J. Elliot of the University of Rochester. In a 2008 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he and Rochester colleague Daniela Niesta found that men view women wearing a lot of red (or women whose black-and-white images are framed by a red border) as more attractive and more sexually desirable than women presented in other colors. They preface that finding with a few historical references: red ochre applied as face and body paint (a testimony of female fertility, one of “the earliest rituals known to anthropologists”); Nathaniel Haw­thorne’s Scarlet Letter; and red as a Valentine’s Day marker—associations that echo in Logan’s Red. “What does red mean to me?” Rothko shouts at Ken. “You mean scarlet? You mean crimson? You mean plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral?” That red-tinged tirade launches a battle of associations. “Red is heart beat. Red is passion. Red wine. Red roses. Red lipstick. Beets. Tulips. Peppers,” offers Ken. Rothko’s associations are more biting: “Lava. Lobsters. Scorpions. . . . Viscera. Flame. Dead Fauvists.” Ken suggests “Santa Claus.” Rothko counters with “Satan.”

The difficulty of decoding red, Dore Ashton reminded me, gets to the challenge of wrestling with a Rothko. You find your own truth in it—a truth (or Truth) that can be teased out only by fully opening yourself to the work. It’s all about the dialectic. Emotion and intellect. Hot and cold. Apollinian restraint and Dionysian exuberance (Rothko knew that Nietzschean dynamic). Shapes that suggest geometric purity and that interact organically. A red that has strong associations, good and bad. In About Rothko, Ashton describes the artist teasing his viewer into “a state of receptivity and inquiry.” Bold juxtapositions of color or color tone “challenged not only the eyes of the beholder but his entire psychological and motor being.” What a Rothko work gives the viewer, she added, is “a chance for metaphor, a chance for indeterminate feeling, a chance for mystery.”

I liked that notion of Rothko’s red-suffused canvases—mystery, metaphor, and mixed feelings. Fitzpatrick, the Duke neuroscientist, asked why Rothko’s works draw me in, why I seek them out in museums from San Francisco to London, why I don’t just linger over them but mentally melt into them, why I deploy them in teaching—taking quite an imaginative, or metaphorical, leap in the process—as a guide to narrative writing. (They seem to appeal quite widely. On May 12, 2010, the Times headlined a story “Purple Warhol and Red Rothko Go for Lots of Green at Sotheby’s.” The Rothko, an untitled abstract red canvas from 1961, fetched $31.4 million.)

I stumbled for an explanation to Fitzpatrick’s question. Maybe I even turned red from embarrassment.

I have come to realize, though, two things about the red on which Rothko’s compositions are so often built. The first is that red is ambiguous. The second is that red is powerful. In the play Red, Rothko worries about being overtaken by pop art—and about his work being seen as fixed in time rather than traveling through time. But his red will always stop us in our tracks. It will demand our attention. It will make us wonder. It will make us worry. All of that makes Rothko forever maddening, and forever alluring.

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