On loving Rothko, and why abstract art matters
by Sonya Kinsey
It wasn’t until I moved to Germany that I had a chance to see Mark Rothko’s work in person. I certainly knew who he was. Even before art school, I was occasionally confronted by people who knew that I was an artist and (often angrily) demanded to know what I thought of him and other contemporary, non-representational artists and why this art commanded such high prices. In various art groups on Facebook, I frequently see people dismiss abstract art, often with Rothko as an example, even though they know very little about him as painter. Of course, I and others have explained how this type of abstract art came be and dominate the Western 20th century art market. It also pays to know that Mark Rothko had a very strong grounding in classical European art, and that he was very much aghast at how his own paintings were treated on the speculative art market. But it was when I finally saw Rothko’s work in a museum that I decided that I personally liked Rothko’s art. So why do I enjoy these paintings? Why can I sit in a gallery for 15 minutes staring at a square of colour? The simple truth is that Rothko’s art works for me. Those blocks of colours, pushing off against the gallery walls, compel me sit and watch. It’s more than just understanding how this type of art developed or reading an artist’s statement. It’s about my own sensibilities and tastes.
How does one create taste? Too many people assume it is about money and snobbishness, but really, anyone can have legitimate taste in art, if they make an effort. Taste is knowing why you like something and being able to think critically about your opinions and doing the research needed to form them. Very often abstract and contemporary art challenges the assumptions of viewers, confusing and frustrating them, and so are dismissed. We should consider that for the public, photorealism in art is often considered the be all and end all of quality. This is not the same as having taste and engaging in critical thinking. The idea that photorealist painting is somehow better than abstraction is tenuous. Photorealism is in fact an extremely contemporary idea, based on fidelity to a technology that is only a not even two hundred years old and is always developing. An oil painting, no matter how photorealistic, is also, in the end, mere paint on a surface representing a single moment on a single plane. Abstract art, whether decorative patterns or representations of animals on cave walls and masks, has far greater precedent. I have nothing against photorealism. My point is that to hold it up as the paragon of accomplishment in art risks missing out on a great deal of potential creativity. If art is meant to challenge us and move us, surely realistic and totally abstract art has a place.
Again, some of this can be remedied by studying art theory and history. Even then, you are not obligated to like everything. I don’t care for Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollock does nothing for me. I like about half of Jeff Koon’s work. It’s not about the quest for realism. I feel highly critical of the idea that any photograph or photorealist work represents ‘truth’. Photos have always been subject to editing by clever photographers, as the Cottingley Fairy Hoax of 1917 demonstrates. Today, when thousands of people take photographs for social media, carefully constructed to give the impression of a fulfilled, wealthy lifestyle, the idea of photos as representations of reality remains in question. Photos have never been ‘real’ and the quest to paint in a photorealist manner is akin to falling down a rabbit hole, chasing after an increasingly high-definition world that at its worst, reduces the artist to a human copy machine, offering art that prompts gasps of ‘That’s so real!’ and not much else. Perhaps this is why the Impressionists remain so popular. Their technique does not mimic the single lens view of the camera, but rather the double lens of human vision, attuned to motion and the imprecise, blurring colours of moment to moment changing light conditions.
Rothko’s art pushed that to an extreme, leaving aside the single lens and its false depth and pushing colour to its fullest. His work is colour at the very moment and the edge of the horizon. Mark Rothko’s painting are mirrors, but not the kind where a person stares back at you. Our human brains look for faces on any surface, but the Rothko canvas frustrates that biology, that desire to read and respond to something tangible and human. It helps that I understand how Rothko got to that horizon and the techniques that he used, but ultimately, my enjoyment of his art is not dependent on that history. I can find release from the single lens perspective, an increasingly digital and HD viewpoint that pervades our society. Open your horizons. Like whatever you like but know why you like it, beyond the mere gut reaction. When art inevitably confuses you, take that as an opportunity to navigate your own opinions. If the canvas is empty, then that is an opportunity for you to pour yourself in.
Sonya Kinsey is a Canadian artist and linguist living in Germany. She attended Alberta College of Art and Design and then spent three years teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. She went to Germany in 2010 for her Masters in English Linguistics and completed her Ph.D. in 2019. She writes and illustrates comics based on mythology, fairy tales and anthropology. She likes drawing horses the most.