Jun 3, 2012

What can Mark Rothko teach you about writing?

"If I have faltered in the use of familiar objects, it is because I refuse to mutilate their appearance for the sake of an action which they are too old to serve"

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was a Russian-American painter born in Dvinsk, a city so nice they named it nine times.

Russian-American is a simpler way of saying ‘born in a vassal state of the Russian Empire.’ In truth Mark’s family were Latvian Jews. Rothko’s father Jacob Rotkowitz, a pharmacist, gave his boys a mostly secular upbringing. Despite Jacob’s modest means, the Rotkowitz children learned to speak Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew.

When Mark came to America, in 1913, he picked up his fourth language – English – and, graduating from Lincoln High School in Portland, went to Yale on a scholarship that ran out after a year. He dropped out after two.

Rothko’s later paintings are offensively good because they resist interpretation and at the same time stubbornly refuse to be taken as mere decorative objects.

So what can Mark Rothko teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

“Silence is so accurate.

In 2004, I sat alone in a room the Tate Modern had dedicated to a small group of Rothko’s color field paintings. For half an hour I looked at the paintings but also at the people that came and went.

It was a Sunday and they mostly went.

Someone once said that contemporary art is a conspiracy between artists and the rich to make the poor feel stupid. OK. It’s my hypothesis that Rothko’s work makes people feel stupid. So they don't even want to stop to look at it. I can understand that -- Michael BublĂ© makes me feel stupid yet it doesn't occur to me for a moment that I might be missing out on something. 

You have two ways to shield yourself against art you don’t understand: Ignore it altogether, or smugly declare that “your kid could paint better than that.” There’s nothing revolutionary about either attitude.

You see, the problem with art is that everything’s been said and done and we’re still looking for answers. Nobody knows that they're asking the right questions but they keep asking. The pursuit is valuable of itself.

The difference between Rothko and a preschooler with a bunch of crayons is a) scale and b) the preschooler hasn’t even had time to decide that abstract art is the way to go. Little Cyndi is not an adult and doesn’t know what she’s doing, but never mind. To the uneducated and the indifferent, it’s all the same.

So the Sunday crowd at the Tate Modern drifted across the Rothko room like flotsam with eyes, and their eyes were radars to help them find an exit, no more. In the space of thirty minutes, nobody lingered, nobody else sat in that room. Maybe they were afraid of the weird loner in the tan coat and striped turtleneck staring at the canvases as if the colors were speaking to him? I don’t know.

I’m pretty sure I’d showered in the morning before I left the house, too.

Silence is inviting. It opens up places of the mind where you can look for good questions to ask. Whoever doesn’t have time for silence is denying themselves a fundamental human experience, one that we’ve had access to for hundreds of thousands of years.

Silence is the beginning of interpretation.

Silence is… slow. I can’t conceive of silence being fast. There is no speed to it. Yes, I said slow, not motionless. Silence is a movement toward verbalization: Start from a place of silence and fill it bit by bit with things that matter. A story, a character, a house on a hill.

Rothko’s paintings are vessels for your mind -- no, even better, they’re windows. But the guy who put the window there won’t make you look through it; that’s not his job. Remember that.

“We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.

You can paint/write/sing about the here and now as if nothing else mattered, or you can start from the here and now to turn loose the wild swans of your imagination.

Do you know what makes art great? Human cruelty mingled with overwhelming generosity. The best stories have liars, beggars, shape-shifters, and at least one person willing to do the right thing. (Maybe for the worst possible reasons; but that doesn’t matter.)

One of the best books I ever read is Primo Levi’s If this is a Man. How Levi could wring beauty out of his incarceration in Auschwitz I’ll never understand, but he did. That’s the sort of book that teaches you how to be humble and keep your mouth shut and appreciate what you’ve got.

Good art comes from unstinting dedication and personal sacrifice. Great art comes from burning love and absolute horror.

As Mark Rothko said, “without monsters and gods, art cannot enact a drama.

Interior of the Rothko Chapel in Huston

As I wrote last week, Rothko's paintings don't really make sense on the Internet. You have to get close enough to smell the canvas. So...
National Gallery of Art (US) || Tate Modern (UK) || Portland Art Museum (US) || Sheldon Museum of Art (US) || The Rothko Chapel (US)

Read more in Painting


What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.
In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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