I've watched all eight episodes of Simon Schama's Power of Art. He made the series for BBC and it has been shown locally here in Atlanta on PBS. I've really enjoyed it. Schama has a special talent for doing that sort of thing. He's engaging and he's knowledgeable, and I learned something about all eight of the artists presented. The last episode was about Mark Rothko. I don't have much use for Rothko, nor for most of the abstract expressionists, and I was prepared to dislike the episode. Surprisingly enough, I didn't. Schama didn't change my opinion of Rothko, but I found his remarks intriguing.
Schama starts out by describing his first real encounter with a Rothko exhibition when he was a student in London in the 1970's. There he saw some of Rothko's late work, assemblages of rectangular figures done with indistinct edges and dark colors. He was apparently moved by the paintings, and he said that when he was viewing them, "I felt pulled through their black lines to some mysterious place in the universe." I found myself saying, What? Then I thought about it for a while, and I came to the conclusion that he was viewing the paintings much as he would a Rorschach blot. It's about the only way you can appreciate the abstract expressionists. I guess it makes sense though. This school of painting came into its own in a Freudian era. Nothing was as it seemed. The most ordinary of things were infused with a deeper, unconscious meaning. It's different today. Now, a cigar is just a cigar, and the notion of repression has been replaced by that of denial, something much more cognitive and mechanical, something devoid of the deep emotional charge of the Freudian concepts. The return of the repressed sounds ominous. The same can't be said of the returned of the denied. That's more like the flicking of a switch.
Rothko was no fraud though, and he really thought that he was getting at the distilled essence of human experience. "The tragic notion of the image is alway present in my mind," he said. And so he created his blots. He also said, "I don't paint for design students or historians, but for human beings." If that is true, Rothko failed. He also feared that his paintings would become nothing more than interior decorations for the rich. I'm afraid that his fear has probably been realized. In 1933, the Rockefellers granted Diego Rivera a contract to paint a mural, Man at the Crossroads, at their new center. A fierce controversy arose when he included a portrait of Lenin and the mural was ultimately removed. That turned wealthy families like the Rockefellers against the social realist school that was associated with the international Communist movement, and they began to fund other trends, like abstract expressionism. It was ideal for their purposes, pretty and meaningless. In a word, decoration. If writers like Frances Stonor Saunders are to be believed, it went beyond that. In her book The Cultural Cold War -- The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, she maintained that the CIA played an active role in promoting abstract expressionism by funding exhibitions and artists.
Near the end of his commentary, Schama says that Rothko had made some of the most beautiful things that any modern artist had created. He lost me there. He can project all he likes on those dark rectangles, but they're still just dark rectangles that aren't all that different from the squares of tile on the floor. You can see things in them but, in the end, you're just seeing what you want to see. It's like when we were kids, seeing things in the clouds in the sky.
When Schama talks about viewing those Rothko paintings for the first time in the 1970's, he mentions that he stumbled upon them. He was really going to the museum to visit the paintings of Francis Bacon again. Now, that I would have liked to have seen, an episode on Bacon. He has a lot more to say than Rothko, and he's one of my favorite two or three modern artists.