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  • John Reid

Reaching Ones Destination – the late works of Mark Rothko.

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

I’ve always been obsessed and fascinated by Rothko’s final works on paper. For me these works are absolute perfection. They represent the end of a journey and the alarming resolve of nothingness. They come straight out of an enquiring intent. There is no sense of idea at all. There is nothing unnecessary in them and there is no further simplification and yet they are so complex. So much of Rothko’s work is based on the notion of drama or the dramatic….and that really came into play after the Multiform Series painted between 1945 and 1949.

These were a real exploration of colour and although the structure had a sense of random assembly where forms seem to float in a state of attach/detach,they really opened the doors for Rothko’s signature works that followed. These works from the 50's and early 60's, with a much rigorous structure, gave Rothko his sense of drama…almost operatic and he used scale to heighten the emotion. With the Chapel Works painted between 1964 and 1967 I feel Rothko really pushed this sense of drama to a point where interaction of form and dramatic space was no longer necessary. These darkly stained works seem very much the melting pot of drama itself… pure sensation where drama begins. People’s response to these looming monolithic works ranges from depressing to transcendental but for me they are like a point of self-collapse. they convey pure emotion, or act as a catalyst for it, without the need for a drama of form.

In pushing the work, the drama, I feel Rothko collapsed a notion of what art was and I find these works a major success. The drama as a visible presence had gone and really it wasn’t going to return. In many ways for me these dark works are more about where emotions come from rather than a particular emotion as a subject matter. The space and expanse that this creates is further realised and developed in his last works of the late 60's. These large works on paper mounted on canvas are so intuitive and lack all signs of drama which was key to all Rothko’s previous works. They somehow hint at a notion of the absolute...a truth if you like that is felt keenly.

I would love to know what Rothko thought of them. I feel they are some of the finest and most evolved of all art. There’s absolutely nothing to say about them. These works don’t illustrate a philosophy or support a dialogue at all. They are so sophisticated, unassuming, and yet glimpse at that notion of infinity. Plus, they act as a terminus of a life process … I mean where could an artist go from here?

Matisse reached this same point of simplification and pure intent but there is this niggle that had he lived longer even his cut-outs could have been taken further but not with Rothko. He had reached his destination.

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