Left: Mark Rothko, ‘Untitled.’ Right: Barnett Newman, ‘Achilles.’
In my youth, I was an admirer of the painters, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. I studied Rothko extensively and wrote a thesis paper on Newman in graduate art school. I always thought Rothko’s work was deeper, more intense, more spiritual and primal. Yet, I admired Newman’s minimalist approach to subject matter, content and palate.
A few months ago, I saw the theatrical play, Red, the story of Rothko in late career. The actor who played the artist interpreted him as loud, bombastic, tortured and a bit of a bully. Perhaps that was Rothko’s true personality, but judging only from his art, I had always pictured him as thoughtful and contemplative, so the two sides of the man didn’t fit well for me. I didn’t think the playwright seemed comfortable in Rothko’s skin. As a result, the play was a disappointment for that and other reasons.
Around the same time, I happened upon that thesis I had written some 30 years earlier and discovered my writing was full of the pretentious, inflated, pseudo-intellectual art speak that one finds in art magazines. Like the play, my paper was a disappointing read.
I’m still of fan of Rothko’s work. Visually, his paintings have held up well over many years. Newman’s art, on the other hand, looks thin, shallow and vacant. Not sure what I thought all the excitement was about.
– Mark Travers