Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art by Mark Rothko

The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art (Paperback)
by Mark Rothko

published March 23rd 2006 by Yale University Press
binding Paperback, 176 pages
isbn 0300115857 (isbn13: 9780300115857)

This work has an interesting history. It has been published postuhumously by his children.

Mark Rothko had a tremendous verbal facility and analytical and critical skills, and perhaps, for an artist, even too much facility, or pedantry, which can become paralyzing. Words are not, after all, paint. The book was written earlier on in his career, prior to his mature style, and reflects some of his searching for what, after all, is art supposed to be?

Rothko, as you know, committed suicide years later and it is perhaps too much to read this ultimate frustration with life into a much earlier work. He felt that publishing it would lead to critical confusion in his lifetime.

Given that, the most interesting portion and most clearly defined portion in my opinion, is his question of "plasticity", in other words, what makes a work of painting succeed as a painting? His answer is really that there are two answers. One is to choose the plastic values and emotional timbre in specific images chosen to fulfill them, as one sees in the extreme in academic painting. The other is to choose the plastic values of the painting _itself_ as one sees with the advent of modernism. Although a continuum does apply, people usually fall into one of two camps, and denigrate the other on the basis of applying the other standard. He also uses the words "visual" for the former, and "tactile" for the latter. His basis for the distinction was that the first kind of art wishes us to see beautiful objects and they are seen inside the painting not inside out actual space that we can touch, whereas in the second kind of painting, the painting itself is made to be a beautiful object and its space is touchable.

Marshall McCluhan used a similar distinction later on to establish what he meant by cool and hot, and confused everybody, but far before this book was finally published.

The latter part of the book was programmatic, perhaps OK for a critic, but not so fine for an artist, and it doesn't wear well with time (although it does point to some of the high-art existential angst that became evident in the abstract expressionist era, and a mythology that transitioned from the image to the act). He describes a search for a timeless, and yet contemporary myth, which reflects some of the concerns of his transitional work. His work ended up looking for the sublime in expansive, and solemn shimmering sheets of color, without a trace of myth in any direct sense.

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