By Monica Kaufman
It is often the easy way out to look at certain abstract contemporary paintings and pass them over with apathy, maybe even an eye-roll and a mumble of “I could do that.” It is easy to assume that as the 20th century progressed into the future, conceptual depth and meaning within art were left in the past. But in reality, though these paintings may exhibit simplified visual forms, their depths reach just as far into humanity’s roots and toward the divine as paintings of the Renaissance and Neoclassical eras do, though in quite a different way.
Mark Rothko was an influential painter who worked during the onset of the latter half of the 20th century during the Abstract Expressionist movement in Contemporary art. The Abstract Expressionists, including Rothko, strived to reveal an essence of humanity as it faces the sublime, that which is infinite compared to man. Rothko’s paintings are composed of huge, flat fields of pure color layered on top of one another and placed next to each other. Though it may not be obvious upon first experiencing his paintings, Rothko was actually influenced by some of the most fundamental elements of the Western human tradition — especially Greek mythology and literature — and aimed to reveal the true heart and essence of these elements of Western culture within his artwork.
Rothko is best known for his paintings of flat, layered rectilinear planes of color covering large canvases. However, Rothko’s earlier work depicted not these purely abstract forms, but images from Greek mythology. Rothko agreed with Nietzsche that the tales of Greek mythology reach into the core of the human condition, bearing a timelessness that allows them to continue to touch people centuries later. With the onset of World War II, depictions of models and still life objects in art were no longer adequate to represent the modern world, but the depths of Greek mythology had the power to convey the tragedy of the human condition that was becoming more and more evident in the world. One example of Rothko’s myth paintings is “The Omen of the Eagle” (1942), which depicts the omen of oncoming war in the Greek tragedy “Agamemnon.” Rothko was not aiming to depict the ancient story with exactitude, but rather to convey the essence of the timeless moment of foreboding fear, the significance of the omen, the “Spirit of the Myth” as he called it.
So how did Rothko get from this representational imagery to his later Abstract Expressionist paintings? As his career progressed, Rothko seemed to reach further and further toward this “Spirit” underlying the myths he was portraying. Rather than create a representation of the Spirit through figural and narrative imagery, however, Rothko made artwork meant to create an experience of the Spirit itself. He reached for the transcendental, eternal truths buried within the Greek myths that had been with humanity for centuries, pulling them out of their narratives and allegories to reveal them in the most direct way. Rothko accomplished this by floating planes of rectangular colors arranged in different compositions in order to evoke certain moods and experiences.
Ultimately, they are meant to connect with the human interiority of the viewer in a silent but powerful way through the effects of color itself. There is something sublime within these paintings, overwhelming and bigger than any person, and yet they affect the viewer so intimately that something within them is pulled to experience the work before them.
The stories of Greek mythology have been translated again and again for centuries, though not always linguistically. Mark Rothko explored the depths of Greek myths, finding something that words could not explain, but that images could. He translated the essence of humanity and tragedy, the roots of Greek mythology, into his wordless language of pure communication.
The timelessness of Greek mythology becomes even more immortal in Rothko’s paintings, and the experiences he creates in his artwork can affect viewers as if they were in the emotive midst of Homer’s poems themselves.