It’s close to impossible to stand before these 21 paintings created between 1957 and 1969 and see them with innocent eyes. Rothko’s tragic biography, reams of interpretation, our own preconceptions and conceptions all encase the works in parentheses both intellectual and spiritual. To look at a Rothko is to look at familiar territory: the division of the canvas into two color fields, the overpainting, the subtle lines of color disappearing into the canvas. We come to a Rothko show with expectations, but we must not confuse expectations with clichés: each of these carefully chosen canvases presents another nuance in an oeuvre composed of nuances.
Rothko’s many “almost black” paintings—there are at least six here—eloquently enact two of the principles the artist enunciated in his famous 1958 Pratt Institute lecture: the need for tension (“Either conflict or curbed desire”) and irony (“self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else.”) Does the black abolish the latent colors below? Do the light fringes or frames that echo the painting’s actual frame constitute the encroachment of light onto darkness? These questions, supposedly about the tensions within the work, impose a narrative on Rothko’s icons, which are manifestly static. Verbs betray the images by translating them into something they aren’t: a story.
This situation is the hallmark of Rothko’s irony. The act of superimposing black on color ironically transforms the surface into a mirror that enables viewers to seek and lose themselves in the work. The paintings invite speculation, and speculation generates dynamic narrative, going “on to something else.” Ultimately, we are left with only the icon: masses of color superimposed on one another, the artistic conquest of the blank canvas. These ever-astounding works simply push the viewer further and further into interpretation. We want meaning, but the only meaning here is paint. We want emotion and spirituality when all we have is color.
Take Rothko’s Untitled (1954). Here the artist’s signature framing device, the smooth paint that constitutes a wall around the work, tempts us to imagine illusory depth and gently taunts us with geometric possibilities. But the only geometry here is the rectangle that is the painting itself. Yes, there is color beneath the blackness; yes, the painted frame imposes a control over the painterly space. But in the end we are left only with ghosts, those that haunt the paintings and those we bring to them as we stare blindly at these magnificent works.