What’s the Difference Between a Black Rectangle and an Empty Room?

A black rectangle against a black background, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

This painting was mocking me, defying me to disown it. Insist I didn’t recognize it. Pretend nothing transpired between us: no locked gaze, no communion of souls. Just walk away, it dared me. Feign ignorance.

Less than a month ago, I’d denounced its family. “Contemporary art makes me feel empty and bored, sometimes a little annoyed, at best slightly amused,” I’d written. “Modern art is only difficult in the sense in which a rebellious teenager is difficult.”

Now, this troublesome specimen of a canvas was rattling my conceptual framework. Two categories were clanging against each other, the boundaries ready to burst.

Things I don’t want displayed in my galleries: urinals, puddles of water, empty space with lights going on and off, sausages made from ground-up books.

Things I want displayed in my galleries: paintings of water lilies, prints of nudes in bathtubs, paintings of dead fish…

…and now: canvases painted a near-uniform black.

Things didn’t look too promising in the consistency department.

In fact, I may have inadvertently locked the department’s last emergency exit when I gave an interpretation of Martin Creed’s Lights Going On and Off only to claim that

the work is still just a room with lights going on and off. The above “features” are just my interpretations — the coolness lies in the story I tell. You can write a great poem about lights going on and off in a room. But that doesn’t make the room great art — it makes you a poet.

I still think Creed’s work is just a room with lights going on and off. But I also know that Rothko’s black canvases are much, much more than black canvases.

Is there an incantation that would, miraculously, reveal the depths beneath these black canvases but place nothing in Creed’s empty room? How can I make you see what I saw in Rothko without sewing a garment for every naked emperor?

Don’t expect miracles. Expect elucidations.

It wasn’t a welcoming space. Packed into one half of a waiting room disguised as a gallery, forced to share quarters with loud paintings and louder visitors, Rothko’s black-on-black paintings should have been rendered impotent. Amid the squawks of their garish neighbors, it should have been hard, if not impossible, to appreciate these muted creatures.

It was impossible not to appreciate them.

The curators of the exhibition (“Mark Rothko: Reflection,” at Boston’s MFA) were hoping to show us the organic unity of Rothko’s career. Surrealism, abstraction, color fields, black fields. 11 paintings ordered by time and by subtraction: of representation, then shapes, then colors. Layers unpeeled to reveal the essential core.

Blackness recedes. (Juan Sánchez Cotán: Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602)

It didn’t work for me — or maybe it worked too well. In the presence of the black paintings, the colored ones became empty shells, discarded cocoons. They couldn’t hold my gaze.

Black is a background color. It’s meant to recede, deflecting your attention, compelling it to a figure or a still life. The black paintings reversed this relationship. They turned color into background. Every shade of black in the dark paintings felt significant; every bright stripe in the colored ones was merely arbitrary. Each black painting was unique; the colored ones were interchangeable. Rothko seemed to be saying, with Tolstoy:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The black paintings worked like depression: they didn’t exactly make the surrounding colors less bright, but they took the goodness out of brightness. The paintings were depression.

The inside of an eyelid turned towards the light?

Except when I was actually looking at them.

Then, they were a hand put over my mouth, softly. The inside of my eyelid before I doze off. Eyes wide open in a calm dark room.

They were a vast calmness, though they brought me to the brink of tears. They were a vast calmness and they brought me to the brink of tears.

I didn’t know what I saw in them, whether I saw anything at all — but isn’t that just what it means to look at darkness?

Literally, these paintings were as dark as they come— but I couldn’t see metaphorical darkness in them. They were depression — but depression externalized. Darkness brought out into the light.

Rothko’s depression (which cost him his life) certainly shaped his painting. But he didn’t paint while depressed (who does?), and to me the black paintings represent moments of victory, perhaps more complete victory than his brighter works.

As long as there is light enough for you to see your darkness, you are safe. As long as you are looking into its eyes, you aren’t looking through them.

I hope I’ve told a compelling story, maybe even a moving one. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take us very far towards the destination I’ve laid out at the outset: explaining, in a principled way, how I can care for Rothko so much and keep disliking Creed.

I fact, it appears that I’ve steered us hopelessly far from the destination by telling a story about Rothko which bears striking resemblance to the one I told — and dismissed — about Creed.

  • Rothko’s paintings and Creed’s empty gallery both turn backgrounds into foregrounds (black backgrounds in one case, white gallery walls in the other).
  • “Now you see it, now you don’t” I said about Creed, claiming that
    “perhaps the difference between fans of the contemporary and me is that for them, oscillating between verdicts is itself a positive aesthetic experience — whereas for me, it’s a cheap self-referential trick.” But what on earth is the difference between “now you see it, now you don’t” and “I didn’t know what I saw in them, whether I saw anything at all — but isn’t that just what it means to look at darkness?”

To get us back on track, let’s start with the basics. The three monochrome paintings at the exhibition were large, roughly person-sized rectangular canvases. The dark paint which completely covered them formed the shape of a smaller rectangle inside a larger paint-frame. In one of the paintngs, the edge of the rectangle was just barely discernible, marked more by the thickness of the paint than by its shade. By contrast, its neighbor was almost colorful: when I stood to its right, its “frame” looked purple; from the left, the central rectangle verged on turquoise.

Which part is paler?

By some trick of the light — or of the brush — in the top half of the third painting, the inner rectangle was paler than the frame, while in the bottom half this relationship was reversed. I couldn’t find the place where this happened, but when I stood at just the right, overwhelmingly close distance to the painting, I thought I could sense something flipping in my peripheral vision.

Rothko’s black canvases aren’t just black canvases. They’re multicolored, multi-textured, person-sized immersive experiences.

It’s a cheap point, but it makes all the difference.

You might object that Creed’s empty room isn’t just an empty room either — it has particular dimensions, a particular shading of gallery wall, five-second intervals between the light flickers. But these features feel arbitrary to me: the dimensions and the gallery walls weren’t even chosen by Creed, and I can’t imagine that making the lights flicker every 10 seconds would have made much of a difference. By contrast, manipulating the shades of maroon in one of Rothko’s black canvases would drastically change the emotional timbre of your experience.

In my anti-modern post, I listed the features I love in art: color, beauty, representational illusion, emotional expression, painterly texture.

I see none of these in Creed. In Rothko’s paintings, emotional expression is apparent at first transfixed glance, in quantities sufficient for a feeling-hungry army ready to shed a waterfall of tears. And this army exists — scores of people have cried in front of Rothko’s dark paintings. You can check this yourself if you read the first-person reports in the guestbook at the Rothko Chapel.¹ And this is just as Rothko intended:

I am not an abstractionist... I am not interested in the relationships of color or form or anything else... I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions.. .The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!²

Color, beauty, representational illusion, emotional expression, painterly texture. We have expression — which would already suffice to make me love these works — what about the other features?

If you come a little closer to the paintings, you’ll see the rich texture of brushstrokes and the subtle interplay of colors hidden in the blackness. Then you might even see representation: of deep dark calm feelings, of what you see when you close your eyes.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find yourself agreeing with Rothko’s son: these paintings are “simply beautiful in a very quiet way.

Yes, you can tell a story about Creed which sounds deceptively similar to the story I’ve told about Rothko. But trying to use this story to appreciate Creed’s work results in just projecting its words onto the gallery wall.

With Rothko, things are different. In front of the paintings, the words fall away. You can pick them back up to make sense of your experience later, but in the moment, there is only work, silently refusing to let go of your gaze.

In Rothko’s own words: silence is so accurate.

[1] The first chapter of James Elkins’s wonderful book Pictures and Tears is all about these entries. I reviewed the book here.

[2] Some art critics think Rothko didn’t really mean such claims. This article (which tells the fascinating story of the creation of the Seagram Murals) is a telling example which illustrates the uneasy place Rothko holds in the “art world.”

Visual artist following curiosity wherever it leads. I have a Harvard PhD in philosophy. evebigaj.com

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