Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Tuesday February 25, 2003

Filed under: General,Geometry — Tags: — m759 @ 1:44 AM

Song of Not-Self

A critic on the abstract expressionists:

"…they painted that reality — that song of self — with a passion, bravura, and decisiveness unequaled in modern art."

Painter Mark Rothko:

"I don't express myself in painting. 
 I express my not-self."

On this day in 1957, Buddy Holly and his group recorded the hit version of "That'll Be the Day."

On this day in 1970, painter Mark Rothko committed suicide in his New York City studio.

On February 27, 1971, the Rothko Chapel was formally dedicated in Houston, Texas.

On May 26, 1971, Don McLean recorded "American Pie."

Rothko was apparently an alcoholic; whether he spent his last day enacting McLean's lyrics I do not know.

Rothko is said to have written that

"The 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. As examples of such obstacles, I give (among others) memory, history or geometry, which are swamps of generalization from which one might pull out parodies of ideas (which are ghosts) but never an idea in itself. To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood."

— Mark Rothko, The Tiger's Eye, 1, no. 9 (October 1949), p. 114

Whether Holly's concept "the day that I die" is a mere parody of an idea or "an idea in itself," the reader may judge.  The reader may also judge the wisdom of building a chapel to illustrate the clarity of thought processes such as Rothko's in 1949.  I personally feel that someone who can call geometry a "swamp" may not be the best guide to religious meditation.

For another view, see this essay by Erik Anderson Reece.


  1. Rothko Chapel is one of my favorite places in that city. When I lived downtown, I would skate to the chapel and sit zazen inside, in front of the big, empty, full canvases.

    It’s also literally right next door to a great collection of 20th century art, Ernst and Magritte in particular, the Menil Gallery.

    Comment by HomerTheBrave — Tuesday, February 25, 2003 @ 2:50 AM

  2. Okay, Rothko may have been a crazy Zen master, but I still say geometry is not a swamp.

    Comment by m759 — Tuesday, February 25, 2003 @ 3:14 AM

  3. The paintings in the chapel are big (very big) canvases painted in extremely subtle variations of dark dark dark purple and black. There’s no geometry, as in his other work, other than the borders of the canvas.

    One is left guessing whether Rothko painted details with intention, or whether he just spray painted the whole thing black, and the variation you see is in your head.

    I mostly liked sitting there because it was quiet, orderly, and intentionally designed for the purpose I was putting it to. Also free and close to a nice cafe.

    Comment by HomerTheBrave — Tuesday, February 25, 2003 @ 7:33 PM

  4. More from the critic who coined the “song of self” phrase:

    “I saw these murals in March 1971, a month after their dedication, and saw paintings executed in two tones of very dark red — ‘blood red on red’ as my notes from the time recorded. It was a dull day, and the notorious glare of the Texas sun was not present. In April 1988, after a new dropped ceiling had been installed to protect the murals that were becoming visibly darkened by that glare, I saw them again in daylight and at night, and they had turned almost black. The old red was visible only on the sides of the stretcher bars, where the blazing light from the skylight had not reached. On the testimony of my own eyes, I must say that what is visible in Houston today is not what Rothko first painted…. As Milton via Styron put it: they are now ‘darkness visible.'”

    Rothko had enough trouble on earth. Let us hope that he is now in a heavenly Cafe Artiste that has more than just photos of nude women.

    Comment by m759 — Tuesday, February 25, 2003 @ 7:59 PM

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