Reflections on the Spiritual in Rothko

In: Religion and the Arts
Author: Rina Arya1
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  • 1 University of Wolverhampton
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Much has been made of the metaphysical aspects of Mark Rothko’s abstract art, especially his classic works of the 1950s and the Seagram murals. The claims for the spirituality of Rothko’s work are by no means unique either to his art or to art in general. Indeed there are many people who probe cultural forms, such as art, in order to reflect on life and broader questions that can be classed as spiritual concerns. The “revelations” that Rothko’s classic works give rise to, as described by visitors and commentators alike, reflect this phenomenon, and, taking this view further, explain why secular institutions such as art galleries can be spaces for spiritual experience. Rothko presents an interesting case as his work can be understood as spiritual in a broadly numinous way with recourse to the concepts of the sublime and the mystical as well as reflecting aspects of his Jewish identity. The intention of this article is to discuss the different spiritual aspects of Rothko’s work, particularly of his later career, in order to argue for the coexistence of these different strands, as well as to show the progression of his ideas.


Much has been made of the metaphysical aspects of Mark Rothko’s abstract art, especially his classic works of the 1950s and the Seagram murals. The claims for the spirituality of Rothko’s work are by no means unique either to his art or to art in general. Indeed there are many people who probe cultural forms, such as art, in order to reflect on life and broader questions that can be classed as spiritual concerns. The “revelations” that Rothko’s classic works give rise to, as described by visitors and commentators alike, reflect this phenomenon, and, taking this view further, explain why secular institutions such as art galleries can be spaces for spiritual experience. Rothko presents an interesting case as his work can be understood as spiritual in a broadly numinous way with recourse to the concepts of the sublime and the mystical as well as reflecting aspects of his Jewish identity. The intention of this article is to discuss the different spiritual aspects of Rothko’s work, particularly of his later career, in order to argue for the coexistence of these different strands, as well as to show the progression of his ideas.

Much has been made of the metaphysical aspects of Mark Rothko’s abstract art, especially his classic works of the 1950s and the Seagram murals, the latter having been brought to public attention by the installation of the “Rothko room” at the Tate.1 The sheer size of the canvases, the scale of forms, and the coloration prompt reflection on the relationship between the finite and the infinite, the significance of the rectangular voids, and the consequences of being enveloped by fields of color that intrude into the personal space of the viewer—all of which bring about meditation on the deeper questions of life that take us beyond the mundane. Anna Chave cites many instances where people have commented on the “mystical, spiritual, or religious terms of Rothko’s art”:

“Rothko: Art as Religious Faith” is how Hilton Kramer headlined a review in the New York Times of the major Rothko retrospective exhibition held at the Guggenheim Museum in 1978, and a correspondent from the London Financial Times concurred that seeing the show “was like nothing so much as going to church” … Art Digest’s staff reviewer referred to “the vaporous, mystical Mark Rothko” in 1950, for instance, and John Canaday was writing in 1961 that “the weightiness of the color and hugeness of the surrounding rectangles” in Rothko’s pictures “suggest the ritual symbols of a harsh and primitive religion” [notes omitted].

Chave 1

The “mystical, spiritual, or religious terms,” to use Chave’s phrase, reached their apogee in the Rothko Chapel, which was one of his final commissions, accepted in the 1960s. The commission itself was actually premised on the spiritual effects that his abstract work gave rise to, the intention being to create a bespoke place of contemplation. The claims for the spirituality of Rothko’s work are by no means unique either to his art or to art in general. Indeed, there are many people who probe cultural forms, such as art, in order to reflect on life and broader questions that can be classed as spiritual concerns. The “revelations” that Rothko’s classic works give rise to, as described by visitors and commentators alike, reflect this phenomenon, and, taking this view further, explain why secular institutions such as art galleries can be spaces for spiritual experiences. Graham Howes comments on the non-specific nature of spirituality that is found in contemporary art. While religious art before the Enlightenment conveyed creedal or dogmatic beliefs about religion, for instance the incarnation of Christ displayed in Grünewald’s masterpiece The Isenheim altarpiece (c. 1512–1516), contemporary art more commonly seeks to convey ideas that are not wedded to theological beliefs but that instead create a sense of the “broadly numinous” (Howes 134). Rothko presents an interesting case as his work can be understood in a “broadly numinous” way as well as reflecting aspects of his Jewish identity. The intention of this article is to discuss the different spiritual aspects of Rothko’s work, particularly of his later career, in order to argue for the coexistence of these different strands, as well as to show the progression of his ideas. Recent commentary has argued for the Jewishness of his art, and while the recovery of the Jewish Rothko is a well-needed addition to scholarship, this should be positioned in a more inclusive understanding of spirituality that combines spiritual and aesthetic traditions.

I. The Jewish Rothkowitz

Born into a Russian Jewish family in Dvinsk, 1903, Marcus Rothkowitz’s early experiences were marred by the constant danger that Jews lived under in the Russian Empire. His father’s outlook was socialist and antithetical to religion, but the growing oppression that Jews in the “Pale of Settlement” experienced with the eruption of violent pogroms led to his change of sentiment about religion and belief. During this change Rothko’s father chose to send Marcus to a Talmud Torah school from the age of four for about five years, where he was taught to read Hebrew (Cohen-Solal 10). In 1913 the family moved to the United States where Rothko resumed his studies in a secular school and broke with his earlier period of orthodoxy. One of the defining aspects of Rothko’s identity as an artist came from the different tensions, and at times incompatibility, between his Jewishness, which for him was mediated through his experiences of marginalization, exile, and displacement, and his experiences of modernism and the avant-garde in the United States.2 The intensity of his orthodox Jewish schooling set up a further contrast with the relative liberal nature of American culture. He found a supportive environment with fellow Jewish artists, as indicated by the formation of “The Ten,”3 but he was never forthright about his Jewishness, a fact attributed to what Matthew Baigell regards as the caution and fear that many Jewish artists lived with in the 1940s (Baigell 251).

Looking at his oeuvre it is apparent that Rothko was more overtly drawn to Christian imagery, such as the Crucifixion and also the Pietà and the Entombment, over specifically Jewish motifs. We can interpret Rothko’s use of the Crucifixion symbol in several ways—perhaps he was using the symbol generically to represent tragedy, suffering, and torture, and this would certainly chime with his tendency to focus on the abstract and universal rather than the historically specific. The rich art historical tradition may also have appealed, with the Crucifixion being one of the most widely used subjects of artists over the centuries, many who had in their own idiom explored its significance. His Crucifixion (1935) adopts compositional elements from Rembrandt’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1637–1638), including the placement of two crosses at the extreme left and one in the center (Anfam, Mark Rothko 30). Rothko was interested in the language of mythology, and combined ideas and themes from different mythological traditions. His interest in the Crucifixion was in the generic ideas that it communicated about sacrifice, suffering, and death, rather than the theological event in the New Testament.4 The 1935 work bears some resemblance to a crucifixion scene but in later works the theme is displayed less explicitly, through recourse to fragmentation. In Crucifix (1941–1942) there is no cross, or body, but rather a collection of fragmented or dismembered body parts. In Antigone (1941), a similar work from this time, Rothko uses the outstretched arms (signaling a crucifixion) to separate the two top layers of form and to convey suffering. Andrea Pappas comments on how wrapping up the motif of the Crucifixion in Greek mythology is a strategy: the “classicizing image of Antigone functioned as a site of displacement, repression, or substitution for his Jewishness” (417).

In representing Christian and classical Greek subjects, we can make a distinction between the public persona of Rothko vis-à-vis his art and the private beliefs of the Jewish man, who did not want to convey overtly Jewish symbolism in his work for fear of how it would be received in his artistic milieu. The additional fact of his departure from faith is also relevant; he was only steeped in religion for the duration of his attendance at the Talmud school, and was not a professed believer after this time. As a secular Jew, Rothko identified with Judaism as an ethnic and cultural phenomenon more than he did with its religious doctrines, and the motifs he uses to convey the plight of the Jewish people are in keeping with this. Rothko’s interest in the Crucifixion and the Entombment point to the physical body, and specifically the Jewish body, and he used Crucifixion imagery to explore the violence inflicted on the Jewish body (Pappas 414), thereby setting up a parallel between the sacrificial violent death of the scapegoat and the destiny of Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia who faced pogroms and then mass extermination in the Holocaust.

Another way of thinking about his use of imagery is that he was using the Christian symbol as a way of expanding its reference. Pappas uses the term “slippage” with reference to the “repeated slippage between … narratives” inherent “in the transition—from one set of cultural references to the other” (413–414). Although Pappas uses the term “slippage” with reference to particular works, I apply it more loosely within the context of Rothko’s use of Christian symbols where it is an apt way of describing his strategy for negotiating the different levels of meaning in his work. The symbol of crucifixion then is a slippage from its use in the Christian narrative, which focuses on Resurrection, and a refocus on the Jewish identity of Jesus. Similarly, the suffering undergone by the crucified is articulated as a suffering of the Jews. In a similar modulation, the Christian subject of The Last Supper, which has been depicted by a host of different artists throughout the centuries (most notably Leonardo da Vinci, whose The Last Supper has been cited as an influence for Rothko in terms of iconographic similarity), is transposed as Rothko’s A Last Supper (1941). The substitution of the indefinite article changes the context, for we are not looking at the biblical event but rather the Jewish ritual of the Passover Seder, which Jesus would have observed (Pappas 421).

Recovering the Jewishness of Rothko’s art, as seen in studies by Matthew Baigell, Andrea Pappas, and Aaron Rosen, enriches extant scholarship and also reveals the problematic relationship between modernism and organized religion.5 As a cultural movement modernism bracketed the significance of religion in art, focusing instead on the formal concerns of the aesthetic, and it is only in recent studies that Jewish identity has been discussed in the histories of modernism (Pappas 402–403). Rereading the Jewish influences in Rothko’s work is an important move because it expands the scope for Jewish imagery in Western art history, especially in Jewish-American art, and it gives a fuller picture of Rothko’s identity as an artist, accommodating the nuances of how Jewishness informed Rothko’s art without defining it.6 It also allows for the possibility of refining the subject of Jewishness in Rothko’s art, thereby quashing spurious or tenuous claims, one of them being that Rothko’s development from figuration to abstraction was motivated by a Jewish anti-representational stance.

II. Rothko—The Myth Maker

Rothko’s departure from figuration in the 1940s coincided with his emerging interest in mythical subject matter and a desire to move away from the particular (which he identified with figuration7) to explore the universal. He drew from different sources during this period including archaic and tribal art, Surrealism, and the poetic language of the unconscious, as represented by Jungian archetypes. This interest developed into a preoccupation with the study of mythology, as seen in his choice of subject matter in the 1940s, which drew on different mythological traditions, especially those of the Greeks. Together with fellow-minded artists, the Myth Makers,8 he interrogated the basis of mythology, which involved studying the intersection between the historical and the unreal (in the sense of the subconscious or the dreamlike). In his writing of that time Rothko makes frequent reference to myth, as being pertinent to the modern day. His writing echoes the attitudes presented by anthropologists such as George Frazer who talked about the critical foundation of myths in society and culture. From generation to generation myths are altered in their particular manifestations but the underlying significance of symbolic archetypes and narratives persist. The parallel between archaic myth and the modern was encapsulated in Gilbert Murray’s Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy, which was published in 1940, and was acknowledged as a source of influence for Rothko (Anfam, Mark Rothko 63). Adolf Gottlieb’s statement of 1943 summarized the collective view of his contemporaries and was a call to explore the relevance of myth in the modern world, a thesis that had been anticipated in the “transhistorical parallels” drawn in Murray’s text “between archaic myth and modern cataclysm” (Anfam, Mark Rothko 63):

All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life. That these feelings are being experienced by many people throughout the world today is an unfortunate fact … That is why we insist in subject matter, a subject matter that embraces these feelings and permits them to be expressed.

Chave 99

The underlying terror and violence at the heart of humanity was something that was of personal significance to Jews. Rothko strove to find his own expression of an ultimate symbol or myth that would encompass the tragic incorporating “intimations of mortality”9 which would also resonate with the public. He was inspired by Nietzsche’s promulgation of the tragic art form in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which explored the tension of the dual forces of the Apollonian and the Dionysian within the tragedies of Ancient Greece where the Dionysian willed the impulses of violence and destruction and complemented the Apollonian’s will to form.

Rothko’s concern with the fundamental aspects of mythology—that is, violence and death—can be used both to explain his interest in the Christian symbols of the Crucifixion and Entombment as well as a means through which to interpret his imagery. Crucifixion (1935), Crucifix (1941–1942), and Untitled (c. 1941–1942) are typical works of the period in that they contain images of dismemberment, as seen in the stacking or ordering of body parts, in tiers or layers, as seen in Antigone (1941). Anna Chave comments that “the multiplicity is perhaps best understood … in light of the thesis of The Golden Bough; in Frazer’s scheme, there is no single privileged martyr, and the crucifixion of Christ emerges as no more than a footnote to millennia of religious or ritual sacrifices” (Chave 148). This chimes with the point made earlier that Rothko used Christian symbols in order to explore fully existential themes rather than with specific reference to the New Testament narrative.

III. The Move to Abstraction

Satisfied that figuration could no longer satisfy his yearnings, and seeking a growing clarification of his subject, Rothko turned to abstraction after experimenting with Surrealism. His myth-influenced paintings, which consisted of amalgamations of human and animal body parts gradually metamorphosed into abstract forms that have become known as “multiforms.” Rothko believed that the figure was limiting because it distracted from the main goal of seeking what lies behind the external, particular, and contingent; abstraction was the appropriate pictorial language to configure the “tragic and timeless” (Baigell 252). The figurative also created narrative possibilities that may have led to a less immediate and intense relationship between painting and viewer. In 1949, his multiforms developed into a more defined and paradigmatic idiom, which came to be known as his classic work—what Dore Ashton describes as “his more daring painting gesture” (5). The classic idiom consisted of a particular compositional format of one or more rectangular forms with blurred edges that were suspended one above the other against a different monochromatic colored background. They often have rectangles of color that are quite distinct from one another (red and black, blue and yellow, green and orange, etc.) and these vary in distinction from the ground color that frames them individually and as a group. The relationship between foreground and background sets up a contrast that can be explained by way of an analogy with music. The paintings are comprised of various tones, some of which are vibrant, others more somber. Although abstract, traces of the figurative remain. Rothko conceived of the small rectangles as substitutes for figures (Chave 114–115); they in fact have what Chave describes “a portrait-like aspect” (119–120). Robert Rosenblum viewed Rothko’s geometric forms as abstract distillations of the wide open spaces in the sublime landscapes of the nineteenth century; in that respect, they operate as visual counterparts to the figurative tradition. Rothko’s intention was that these works were to be viewed metaphorically, rather than formalistically, as intimations of human emotions, tragedy, or death, for instance.

From 1958 to the early 1960s, Rothko worked on the Seagram murals, which were different in form, articulation, and palette from his classic works of the previous eight years. One of the main changes was in articulation—the horizontal rectangles were now turned on their side, which meant that the horizontal bands take on the appearance of frames or open voids. Furthermore, the paintings that were destined for the Seagram building had a different chromatic range. Instead of the luminous contrasts and sensuousness, we have a more reductive but nonetheless visceral palette of dark reds, maroons, browns, and blacks.

IV. The Sublime in Rothko

One way of approaching the abstract work from the 1950s onwards, which contributes to a different level of understanding, is to examine the phenomenological encounter with it. Standing in front of a monumental, color-saturated canvas that is on the same scale as the body can induce a sense of the sublime, where one feels transported to a state beyond the self, causing emotional and linguistic turbulence. The overwrought nature of the encounter means that it is an experience that can only be felt at the time and rationalized later. Rothko was conscious of the potential of his work to elicit religious responses, but he did not confirm what he means by this even though he talked freely about the emotional outpourings that might result:

the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.10

In Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (1975) Robert Rosenblum traced the sublime in the Northern Romantic tradition from the nineteenth century to modernist artists such as Rothko. As part of his enquiry, he visually juxtaposes Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1809) with Rothko’s Green on Blue (1956) and draws attention to the commonality of the “renunciation of almost everything but a somber, luminous void” (Rosenblum, Modern Painting 10). The comparison extends beyond the formal affinities to the content, that is, the landscape. Rosenblum argues that “the basic configuration of Rothko’s abstract paintings finds its source in the great Romantics: in Turner, who similarly achieved the dissolution of all matter into a silent, mystical luminosity; in Friedrich, who also placed the spectator before an abyss that provoked ultimate questions whose answers, without traditional religious faith and imagery, remained as uncertain as the questions themselves.”11 In Rothko’s paintings the viewer becomes the Rückenfigur who is situated on the edge of the abyss and encounters the vastness, infinity, magnificence, and vacuity of the colored vistas—characteristics that Edmund Burke maintains in his treatise on the subject as giving rise to the experience of the sublime.12 The inability to represent the sublime in positive (figurative) terms created the need for the language of abstraction, which included the dissolution of form in the presence of voids and the feeling of boundless space. In the lineage of Friedrich to Rothko, however, there is a shift in the tradition of the sublime, from the Romantic sublime to what Rosenblum terms the “abstract sublime” in his 1961 article of the same name. What occurs here is a translation of forms from the figurative to abstract pictorial language. The emotions remain identical and the awe felt by the natural landscape is recreated in the vastness and silence suggested by Abstract Expressionist works, as Rosenblum puts it “the abrasive, ragged fissures … of real and abstract gorges [are replaced with] a no less numbing phenomenon of light and void” (Rosenblum, “The Abstract Sublime” 241–242).

In order to optimize spiritual viewing Rothko issued instructions about creating certain viewing conditions, notably the use of large canvases as they demanded attention in a direct way, were more dramatic and created more intimacy with the viewer who became part of the narrative (Rothko 128). The paintings were to be hung low thereby drawing the viewer in, and the lighting and even color of the background walls was prescribed. The colors and forms of the paintings were used evocatively; the physicality of the paint creates a sensuousness that facilitates engagement. The viewer reacts to the vastness of the paintings that impart a sense of infinity. The rectangles have varying degrees of transparency and opacity and play with the viewer’s perceptions. Irving Sandler describes how “the blurring of demarcations dislodges the rectangles, causing them to hover in and out” (12). Chave employs various metaphors to describe this effect of being on the threshold between two states, suggesting that the rectangles could stand for windows, doors, mists, fog, veils, and screens (32)—motifs which Anfam traces back to Rothko’s earlier works (Mark Rothko 89). In the Seagram murals the configuration resembles frames, which are effective in dramatizing the viewing process, especially because of their kineticism—they open up, close down, and flicker, oscillating between the alternating sense of fullness and emptiness. The etymology of the sublime provides another entry point for interpretation: “Derived from the Latin sublimis, a combination of sub (up to) and limen (lintel, literally the top piece of a door)” (Shaw 1), the sublime involves a negotiation between the ground and the edges of the painting/frame. However, unlike in the Romantic sublime where the vistas give rise to the religious, here the open spaces and luminosity of paint points only to itself. This “confirmation of immanence” (Shaw 3) is described as the postmodern sublime. The desire to overcome the self, to exceed the limits of reason and expression, to experience what lies beyond the limits, is thwarted by an impossibility to exceed the limit. The viewer confronts not the numinous but the here-and-now as heralded by and in the creative act. In “The Sublime is Now” (1948) originally published in The Tiger’s Eye, Barnett discusses the futility of escaping the materiality of the canvas and the unremitting materiality of the paint. The boundlessness of his canvases is broken by the “zip,” the vertical strip of another color, which extends infinitely above and below the canvas. Mark C. Taylor observes how Newman “translated the Kantian dynamic sublime from nature to culture” (89), a fact humorously captured in Rosenblum’s quip, “What used to be pantheism has now become a kind of ‘paint-theism’ ” (“The Abstract Sublime” 244). Instead of being deflected into an other-worldly realm, Newman asserts that the sublime is here, is now: “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings” (139). Although Rothko’s mesmerizing configurations give rise to a sensation of overcoming, this does not affirm the glory of the transcendent but instead reinforces the presence of the painting as is confirmed by blurry, scumbling, or scrubbed surfaces. Viewing problematizes the absent presence of the forms, raising the ambiguity of inception, and prompting the viewer to ask: Are we witnessing rectangles that are in the process of being erased, or absent but with the perceptual awareness of residual brush marks confirming former presence?

V. From the Sublime to the Mystical: The Rothko Chapel

Rothko’s most representative statement of spirituality, and his only “religious” commission, was the cycle of fourteen13 paintings for a chapel in Houston, which is now known as the “Rothko Chapel.” In early 1964, following an earlier visit two years before, Rothko was commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil to produce works for a purpose-built chapel for the University of St. Thomas in Houston, where it was believed that his paintings would function as a contemplative and meditative sanctuary. Set within an octagonal plan, reminiscent of the form of a Catholic baptistery and an Eastern Orthodox church, the Chapel opened up a sacred space which had features from particular religious traditions but was non-denominational and ecumenical in spirit, in keeping with Rothko’s own spiritual views (fig. 1).14


Figure 1

Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas, USAPhoto: David Van Horn

Citation: Religion and the Arts 20, 3 (2016) ; 10.1163/15685292-02003003

The Chapel paintings were designed to evoke spiritual feelings and marked a shift in thinking, both in emotional tenor and palette from his classic works of the 1950s (fig. 2). The darkening of palette, use of forms, and overall finish are three distinct ways in which they show a development from earlier work. In 1957 he started producing works with a darker palette, which was developed in the mid-1960s with his Black-Form paintings. In these late works Rothko also painted in series, focusing on the motifs of repetition and variation, which enabled him to explore the nuances of color changes. In the Chapel paintings he adopted the triptych format, which was traditionally used for religious works, but the intention here was to use the three panels to explore the tonal range. In these later works, as Achim Borchardt-Hume observes, there are “no floating color fields, no atmospheric haze, no view into the ‘beyond.’ Instead, two horizontal fields of brown, black or grey, framed by a white edge, are thinly painted with the brush marks clearly visible, their surface dryly confronting the viewer’s gaze” (“Shadows of Light” 25–26).


Figure 2

Interior, Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas, USAPhoto: Nicolas Sapieha, Art Resource, New York. Art 129459. Mark Rothko: © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Citation: Religion and the Arts 20, 3 (2016) ; 10.1163/15685292-02003003

The Chapel paintings in particular deviate from the classic works in at least two respects. First, the formal and architectural relationship between rectangle and frame as present in the earlier classics gives way to a single surface. Second, there is a development in the facture of the surface, as we move from opposition, to oneness and relative uniformity. The painterliness of Rothko’s work in the 1950s, as present in the textured surfaces, acts as a barrier to the viewer who negotiates the fuzzy frames of the rectangles. There is an opposition between the viewer and the expanse set before him/her, in a relationship that resembles the Rückenfigur atop Caspar David Friedrich’s mountain or at the edge of the sea. In the encounter with a raging storm or shipwreck the viewer is humbled and reminded of his creatureliness, to adopt a Schleiermacherian motif. In front of a Rothko classic work the viewer is confronted with a pulsating stream of color that spreads outwards and beyond. The relationship between the floating colored rectangles on a ground can be configured formally as frame/figure against ground. In the Seagrams these are mediated as an exchange between the frame and what is “interior” to it. Metaphorically, these conflicts are played out with dramatic charge between pairs of opposites—small and vast, here and the beyond, finite and boundlessness, form and formlessness—and place the viewer on the threshold of an experience of opposites—presence and absence, fullness and emptiness. Given Rothko’s interest in Nietzschean thought, especially The Birth of Tragedy, the tension can be construed as a play between the Dionysian impulse to disrupt Apollonian form. In the sublime experience the tension of opposites is reinforced in their meeting, so the smallness of the human is contrasted with the vastness of the sea, and so on. In Friedrich’s work, the Rückenfigur faces various exigencies that the viewer does not but in Rothko the Rückenfigur becomes the viewer and s/he has to brave the surface of the canvas without mediation. The situation becomes different in the Chapel paintings; the velvety darkness presents no haze, frames, or boundaries that need to be overcome. The more or less monochromatic surface shows very little (often very little or none in the Chapel’s relatively dim light) scumbling or scrubbing. Gone are the fuzzy backgrounds, and many of these are very dark and have relatively hard edges on what is often a single rectangle or square positioned more or less in the middle of the canvas. There is no view into the beyond; the immanent is all we have. There is no struggle or confrontation, only emptiness in the sense of the withdrawal of figuration and silence. Rosenblum describes this point as a “numbing emptiness in which all matter has been dissolved” (Anfam, “On the Sublime” 650).

One could argue that actually blackness is not simply synonymous with emptiness and requires a different type of response. Various commentators recommend a different way of looking as a mode of interpretation. Briony Fer states that “[t]o look cursorily will only show an all-over black painting; looking takes time. As you look, depths of colour emerge in the black …” (38). Speaking about the Black-Form paintings, but applicable here as well, Achim Borchardt-Hume describes the black canvases as operating like “blank cinema screens.”15 This provokes a different type of encounter, which to quote Borchardt-Hume, opens up perception, “generates a new kind of seeing,” and “takes us to limits” of viewing and knowing (“Rothko and Tate”). This opening up can be described as mystical because it involves an absorption leading to union. Notwithstanding the variation between different religious traditions, Steven Payne claims that modern philosophical discussions have tended to concern “mystical experiences” which have variously been characterized as: “ ‘consciousness without content,’ ‘the experience of absolute one-ness,’ ‘union with the transcendent,’ ‘immediate consciousness of the presence of God,’ and so on” (Payne). Viewing Rothko’s Chapel paintings leads to an experience that is encapsulated by the theologian Rudolf Otto’s trajectory of mysticism, and involves the “withdrawal from all outward things … [a] sinking down into the self … and here in the inmost depth of the self to find the infinite” (Otto 40). This union or unitary state of consciousness leads to an overwhelming sense and the immediacy of presence, which is often accompanied by “a sense of enhancement of joy, exultation, a suffused sense of well-being” (Tinsley 387). It is a presence where the painted forms open up a noetic understanding of reality that is normally hidden from us, like an unveiling. Rothko strove to depict the ultimate image which would reveal the truth about existence, a sentiment captured in the words: “[t]he picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need” (Rothko 59). If we are taking mysticism to entail the unveiling of the view of the world by bringing about a union between the painter and the viewer then Rothko achieved these goals. If, however, mysticism is taken to mean the emptying out into the absolute, and an expunging of any semblance of nature, symbols or signs which were obstacles to clarity (Sandler 11) and “[t]he final denudation, the final stripping away from spirit of all material, mental, and … of all difference … the Absolute reflected in final things” (Wainwright 13) then his paintings do not wholly qualify. In spite of his dogged quest to remove what he regarded was extraneous about figuration—that is its referential particularity—he was not anti-figurative, and in spite of their gestural differences to the classic works the Chapel paintings contain traces of the figurative in the brushwork. Extended viewing allows the subtle color variations, brush marks and even boundaries to emerge.

In Rothko’s last statement for The Tiger’s Eye in October 1949, he states that “[t]he progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer” (Ashton 103), but this did not preclude the materiality of the paint, which for Rothko was a fundamental part of expression. Rothko used his inherent materiality to draw a distinction between his approach and Ad Reinhardt’s, stating that “the difference between me and Reinhardt is that he’s a mystic. By that I mean that his paintings are immaterial. Mine are here. Materially. The surfaces, the work of the brush and so. His are untouchable” (Ashton 179). While there are visible traces of the painting process in Rothko’s Chapel paintings, and his other black paintings, it is inaccurate to dematerialize Reinhardt’s work so, as there are still traces of materiality. This concerns the problematic between materiality as a barrier to spiritual union given that the erasure of gesture does not entirely eradicate the painter’s hand. Perhaps the issue can be reframed in two respects. Although blackness is made visible through the differentiation of parts, according to the context for which they were commissioned, the Chapel paintings were placed in a dimly lit room, which did impose uniformity. Within the confines of this sacred space, union with the voids that decorated the octagonal structure was possible through meditation or contemplation. Finally the Chapel paintings should be viewed within the chronology of Rothko’s progression of ideas, which moves from figuration to abstraction. Rather than arguing for a complete absence of trace, it is an idea instead to look at the relative degrees of the emptying out of form, of which the Chapel works are amongst the most extreme.

VI. Spiritual Transactions: The Emotional Impact of Viewing

Rothko’s abstract works give rise to an emotional experience that can be described in spiritual terms; although, as we will see, the character of this encounter varies between paintings. In the brooding Seagram murals, Anfam argues, the viewer “tends to confront rather then enter them” (Anfam, Mark Rothko 90) as we do with the classic works. Although Rothko maintained an antiformalist stance, arguing that his abstract work should not be conceived of in terms of a relationship between form and color and to do so is to miss the point of his message (about the symbolism of his forms). It is precisely the formal elements that gives rise to an experience that can be described as spiritual. Knowing about Rothko’s intentions and philosophical outlook may enhance one’s understanding of his forms, but the contrary is not true. A lack of knowledge about his intentions does not diminish the power of his work. That is not to deny the importance of his theorizing (or the critical analysis of commentators) but more to suggest that the emotional impact of the sensuality of his work is an enabling condition of spiritual viewing.

Arguably the most defining feature of Rothko’s post-1950s work was the conceptual value placed on the meaningful. His abstract paintings are treated like ritualized objects where each stage of the process—their creation, installation, and reception—is regarded as sacred. One way that this has been engineered is the way in which the surroundings are subordinated to, and serve his work. Especially in his later works, Rothko attempted to control “every aspect of its installation to create what he called ‘a place’; that is, an all encompassing environment” (Borchardt-Hume, Rothko 16). The Rothko room (in the Tate Modern) is a case in point, given that a room was created specifically for the work.16 At the beginning of this article, the Rothko room at the Tate was mentioned but there are other Rothko rooms: one in Japan (at the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art) and the other, less a room as such and more a whole group of paintings, in Washington (at the National Gallery of Art). At each of these different venues, the works displayed change over time.17 By occupying a room of their own, which means that they are de facto set apart from others, they command our full attention. The setting apart from others is a sacralizing act that adds gravitas to their import. Rothko’s refusal to allow his Seagram murals to furnish a private dining room was in keeping with his desire to create a sanctified environment, or at least to be an environment where the paintings were not ancillary.18 The de Menils gave Rothko input at the planning stage about the design of the Chapel, and he opted for the octagonal format. It was clear at the outset that unlike the case of the Seagram murals where he was commissioned to make paintings for a particular space, here the space was built around the artwork. Hence all the architectural elements in the Chapel are relegated in importance to the paintings. This is observed in the aesthetic rather than functional nature of the Chapel’s interior doors, which do not in fact lead anywhere, thus reinforcing the extraneity of the architecture. The triptych that is conventionally placed in front of the altar is featured on the walls instead, discreetly signaling the shift of spirituality from religion to art.

As with the practicing of a religious ritual, Rothko did not intend his work to be passed over quickly on the way to the next painting or artist. The set-apart presentation of his work prevented this from happening, and the seating (available in some venues) enabled one to spend time with the work, delve into the surface, and deepen one’s connection with it.19 A comparison can be created with Byzantine icons which made demands on the viewer—meaning was not a given but emerged in the interaction with the work. The same situation arises here. Understanding is not immediate and has to be worked at through concentrated viewing; changes in palette and surface occur, and the manifest materiality gives way to a latent content.20 The symmetrical relation of being set apart needs to be considered—the work being set apart is as important for the reception as it is for the installation itself, and thereby creates the situation that the viewer is also set apart from other distractions and pulled into the viewing space. The dimly lit room and low hung paintings contribute to the brooding contemplation. When standing close to a human-scale painting that is hung low, the bottom of the painting disappears, which creates the effect of floating and cuts off the viewer from the extraneous dimensions of wall space. These ideal conditions are often not met, especially in the bustle of gallery viewing where it is often difficult to find quiet time for contemplation. In that respect, the Rothko Chapel was the apogee of his vision, and it is poignant that he died before seeing it.

VII. Spirituality in Rothko: Concluding Remarks

The connection between abstract art and spirituality was forged in the twentieth century with a growing interest in Theosophy, which promoted the union of Western and Eastern spiritual traditions. Key written works in this period, particularly Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) and Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912), defended abstract art and revealed how non-objective forms could evoke the inexpressive through engagement with its formal qualities. Rothko’s work comes out of this art historical lineage, and according to Rosenblum can be traced even further back to the Northern Romantic tradition.

Rothko sought to overcome the figure without necessitating the elimination of the figurative. His preoccupation with mythology, as manifest in his interests in archaic symbolism and primitivism, motivated his desire to use non-objective forms to convey the underlying (and tragic) reality of existence. In addition to discussions about the religious import or metaphorical nature of his imagery, there is another way in which Rothko’s work can be described as spiritual, which concerns the feelings it is designed to evoke. Rothko’s abstract work is designed to transport the viewer beyond the mundane, not to a transcendent reality but rather to an awareness of the reality of bare existence, and in particular an awareness of death. This is experienced in the postmodern sublime where the overwhelming experience of viewing does not lead to an experience of transcendence but to the mundane reality of human life. Rothko’s statements about religion are not always consistent; more informative is his empathy with the religious experience, which he was eager to cultivate. He invested his paintings with a religiosity, one that he believed could be met in the encounter with his work: “Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need” (Rothko 59). His decision to exhibit works for the purposes of spiritual contemplation in the Rothko Chapel is the most explicit evidence for his claim, and is especially marked given the notable amount of control that Rothko exerted over the placement of his work in his later years. It seems that the conditions that he prescribed were with a view to inculcating religious receptivity. He maintained the integral importance of creating intimacy with his painting, which necessitated a meeting of one viewer with one painting. In Anfam’s words “His images posit our presence and seduce us into interpreting them” (Mark Rothko 11). In a conversation with the writer John Fischer, Rothko declared that “[w]hen a crowd of people looks at a painting, I think of blasphemy, I believe that a painting can only communicate directly to a rare individual who happens to be in tune with it and the artist” (Fischer 133).

The creation of the Chapel and its continued use as a space of contemplation testifies to the power of Rothko’s work to move, and to generate feelings in viewers that can be described as spiritual. Rothko’s preoccupation with mythology, which began in the 1940s, was developed through ensuing decades and is revealed by the Chapel paintings as being invested with a heightened sense of tragedy. One of the most telling aspects about the Chapel is that, since its dedication in 1971, it has been used as a living and communal space for different groups—some religious, others not—but is crucially not regarded as an archaic modernist monument but as a space of transformation and community.

Works Cited

Anfam, David. Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné. New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1999.

—. “On the Sublime.” The Burlington Magazine 143 (2001).

Ashton, Dore. About Rothko. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Matthew Baigell. Artist and Identity in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Borchardt-Hume, Achim, ed. Rothko: The Late Series. London: Tate Publishing, 2008.

—. “Rothko and Tate: a long-term relationship.” Public lecture at the Tate, 22 October, 2009.

—. “Shadows of Light: Mark Rothko’s Late Series.” Rothko: The Late Series. Ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume. London: Tate Publishing, 2008. 25–26.

Chave, Anna. Mark Rothko: subjects in abstraction. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Cohen-Solal, Annie. Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

Fer, Briony. “Seeing in the Dark.” Rothko: The Late Series. Ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume. London: Tate Publishing, 2008.

Fischer, John. “The Easy Chair: Mark Rothko, Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Man.” 1970. Writings on Art. Ed. Miguel López-Remiro. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

Howes, Graham. The Art of the Sacred: An Introduction to the Aesthetics of Art and Belief. London: I. B. Tauris, 2007.

Otto, Rudolf. Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism. Trans. B. L. Bracey, and R. C. Payne. New York: Meridian, 1957.

Newman, Barnett. “The Sublime Is Now.” The Tiger’s Eye (1948). Rpt. in Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique. Ed. E. G. Landau. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Pappas, Andrea. “Invisible Points of Departure: Reading Rothko’s Christological Imagery.” American Jewish History. 92.4 (2007).

Payne, Steven. “Mysticism.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. E. Craig. Online version 1.0, 1998.

Rosen, Aaron. “Finding Rothkowitz: The Jewish Rothko.” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 12.3 (2013).

Rosenblum, Robert. “The Abstract Sublime.” Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique. Ed. E. G. Landau. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

—. Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko. 1975. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978.

Rothko, Mark. “Address to Pratt Institute.” November 1958. Writings on Art. Ed. Miguel López-Remiro. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

Sandler, Irving. “Mark Rothko.” Mark Rothko 1903–1970. London: Tate Publishing, 1996.

Selden, Rodman. Conversations with Artists. New York: Devin-Adair, 1957.

Shaw, Philip. The Sublime. Abingdon, England: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Taylor, Mark C. Disfiguring: Art, Architecture and Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

E. J. Tinsley. “Mysticism.” A New Dictionary of Christian Theology. Ed. A. Richardson, and J. Bowden. London: SCM, 1983.

Wainwright, William. Mysticism: A study of its nature, cognitive value and moral implications. Sussex, England: The Harvester Press, 1981.


In early 1958 Rothko was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant on the ground floor of New York’s Seagram building. Unconvinced by the suitability of a private dining room for the contemplation of his work, Rothko withdrew from the commission. In the mid-1960s, Norman Reid, the then Director of the Tate Gallery, began to discuss the possibilities for the Seagram murals. This exercise resulted in the major gift of nine murals to the Tate (in the late 1960s), where they have been displayed almost continuously, albeit in different arrangements in the “Rothko Room,” which was inaugurated in 1970.


Aaron Rosen remarks how Rothko’s émigré background and status as a first-generation Jew would have had some bearing on his assimilation into American culture (Rosen 482).


The Ten was a group of nine Jewish immigrant artists that formed in 1936 who regularly exhibited together.


This is in contrast to Marc Chagall’s overt Jewish interpretation in White Crucifixion (1938). Here, the Jewish identity of Jesus is strongly emphasized and is reflected in the Jewish iconography and symbolism.


See Baigell, Pappas, and Rosen.


Aaron Rosen remarks how Rothko’s émigré background and status as a first-generation Jew would have had some bearing on his assimilation into American culture (Rosen 482).


In earlier work he had explored various subjects including landscapes, interiors, street scenes and subway scenes.


“Myth Maker” was a term used only by Rothko but it referred to a collective understanding (Chave 91).


This phrase was featured in a public address made to the Pratt Institute in November 1958 after nearly a decade of silence. See M. Rothko, “Address to Pratt Institute” 91.


Qtd. in Selden 93. Artists such as Kandinsky and Mondrian explored the spirituality of visual language. Rothko added the consequence of an emotional engagement that was forged in an intimate relationship between the viewer and the work.


Incidentally, Rothko felt a great affinity with Turner and he donated the selection of his Seagram murals because of the Tate’s already substantial holdings of Turner (Rosenblum, Modern Painting 215).


Irving Sandler suggests that Rothko may have read Burke’s text on the sublime before 1948, when he embarked on his abstract works (11).


There were actually a total of eighteen paintings; fourteen hang in the Chapel and four were not on permanent display.


At the inauguration of the Chapel there was a range of religious leaders from different faiths.


See Borchardt-Hume, “Rothko and Tate: a long-term relationship.” The luminous blank screens have been conceptualized in the photography of Hiroshi Sugimoto (see Anfam, Mark Rothko 12).


Before the installation at Tate Modern (Bankside), the Rothko room was at Tate Britain (Millbank) and then at Tate Liverpool.


In addition to the variation in which paintings were shown they were also hung sideways.


Speculations about the reasons why Rothko withdrew his murals for the Seagram are rife, but this is outside the remit of this article. Having said that, his refusal to let his works be hung there is an audacious move given the symbolic status of the building, and conveys much about his serious intentions for his work.


Critical opinion varies about whether one should sit and look at his work or walk around, viewing it as one would a procession, and taking in the pulsating rhythm. What needs to be considered as well is the display: in the Rothko room there are relatively fewer paintings on the wall, which means that viewers interact with them in a different way—a way that possibly allows for greater contemplation than when there are a number of paintings lined up. In either case, though, there is a need for a sustained interaction that should not be hurried.


In his classic works, color harmonies often give way to discordant aspects, and in the darker works time reveals the nuances of other colors.

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