Mark Rothko, Untitled. Green over Blue, 1956. Location: Art Museum of the University of Arizona, Tempe
A gas station in Sørreisa . A view from the workplace at the local bistro.
For the first time, I started to appreciate some of Mark Rothko’s paintings in respect of the artist's intentions on the distant planet of Scandinavia. My previous interest of them ignored the ancient triad of emotional states such as "tragedy, ecstasy and fate" [J. Baal-Teshuva 50]. Since the global art market purchased the art of American Jew born in Daugavpils (Dvinsk, Dyneburg), Rothko's name became a synonym of the scent of luxury perfumes.
The landscape of his birthplace, an ethnically diverse region that historically did not belong to Latvia, is made of the vast and open spaces of the Baltic plains. They are well-known to me as a Polish art historian born in Gdansk. However, the landscape was often not taken seriously as a source of understanding Rothko’s art. Christopher, the artist’s son, claims that there is no reason to consider it as an inspiration for his father’s art more than the shadowy skyscrapers on the island of Manhattan. For him, Rothko was a painter of the urban experience [Christopher Rothko 251]. He repeats the opinion of many art critics who perceive this kind of association as random or reductive in contrast to a deeper understanding of Rothko’s art, which I assume only partly naive. The reductionism was also attributed to those who tend to connect the dark colors of many of Rothko’s works with his depression and eventual suicide in 1970.
The ancient triad made me previously skeptical about the interpretational depths attributed to Rothko's work. I considered myself a type of beholder who remains aware of the construed character of the depth, the void, the sublime, etc. Besides, these terms don't sound neither credible nor catchy in the exhibition brochures anymore. I can only imagine, although I don't need to, how they crackle in the mouths of rich anonymous collectors all over the world who can afford to hang Rothko in their bedrooms. It was the unacceptable pathos that for a long time made me look at the artist's paintings as if from a distance, a position more sensitive to the heavy frames of global capitalism that have appropriated them than to their aesthetical content. For a long time, my professional interest in Rothko was in turn shaped by the search for an alternative to the actual emptiness, the effect of assigning too many metaphysical meanings to them to help the American middle class or non-Western economically privileged social groups to build their symbolic capital and aspiration for social prestige. Instead, I explored Rothko through the feminist discourse of reproductions, which honestly proves that the basis of the artist’s original pictorial conception was repetition and processing, not the increase of economic value for its own sake. Until recent times any twist in the understanding of Rothko's work supported my reason to question the founding myths of patriarchal Western capitalism or respectively Eastern oligarchy [Jarosz, 2018]. At that moment I could not predict the other direction that would soon unsettle my Middle-Eastern European perspective.
I have no knowledge about the reception of Rothko in the Global South except my intuition that it is pretty hard for the million-dollar-selling-painter to be recognized, not to mention the appreciation, in the region where every year millions of children are dying of starvation and poor health conditions. [WHO Africa]. However, I have a personal experience of the reception of Rothko in the Global North, by which I mean a year spent in a remote area in Northern Norway. Precisely speaking, what I have on my mind is the free digital Rothko, the one that resembles abstract imaginary tarot cards one can ask for the currents of energies regarding one's past present and future. Living in the wilderness, where green and blue were the dominant colors, helped me to discover things that I did not know before, and one of them was my fascination with some of Rothko’s blue paintings that don't appeal to paradise qualities like many of his luring aesthetic works do, but instead they offer a glimpse into the somewhat hostile environment of salty oceanic or sea waters.
A beautiful house in the countryside I had the opportunity to stay in Norway had the ecstatic view on Senja framed by the glacier mountain peaks. Colors of the sky were changing depending on the season of the year and respectively to the midnight sun and polar night - the natural phenomenons typical for the Arctic Circle region. This view was created by the landscape that began with an arc of the fjord's shore, then opened to a wide surface of the water reflecting the intense sunlight or blue moonlight operating with the palette of colors on the open space of the sky. Here, my new taste for Rothko came with the taste for the salt seawater and the interest in blue posthumanism, which proves such sciences as oceanography or biology insufficient in explaining humans and non-humans relations to the ocean and sea waters in the emancipatory mode respecting the goals of the environmental movements.
But before I get to this point, I have to explain myself with regard to these three big words defining the shape of disdained sublime narrative on Rothko that tend to be rejected by many of us who would prefer the environmental character of the color field painting to be open to political engagement rather to escapism. On the other hand, it is interesting how our contemporary cultural education has taught us to often hide our true colors behind irony and strategic playfulness. For this reason, I need to say that revising my previous approach to Rothko came to the same extent with further self-education and life experience that both made me risk to provide at least a small portion of understanding of these overwhelming characteristics as they may resonate with the individual biography.
Unless life circumstances made me decide to come to Scandinavia, I didn’t think much of the emigration chapter in Rothko’s biography – the exhausting journey that he had to take with his mother in 1913 from Eastern Europe to America (from Libau to Brooklyn he traveled by ship) to escape the growing antisemitism in Daugavpils. His first experience in America was the cultural estrangement of the Jewish kid forced by his mother to wear a Buster Brown's shirt (American comic strip character from the beginning of the 20th century). The other type of embarrassment resulted from the fact that at this initial moment Rothko was unable to speak English [Breslin 22]. I got to Sørreisa in North Norway by a plane form Gdańsk to Tromsø, then I took a bus to Burdufoss, where my friend picked me up by a car. The whole journey to the Arctic Circle was long, multistage, but possible to carry. In the beginning, I worked in a pub. Later on, I was selling hamburgers in a small bistro in the middle of nowhere – one of the few job options for me in this region. In contrast to my previous job in the pub, where English was sufficient, here I had to take the orders in Norwegian, which I have not learned before. The embarrassment and stress was a part of this experience together with the sense of professional displacement – form an academic teacher to a servitør (waitress) – a fate of many qualified professionals who decide to upgrade their economic status in the European welfare countries. Although I was not a perfect waitress, my employer applied for the Covid-19 compensation on my behalf, so - adding other types of social support and my friend's hospitality - I could survive in the coming months of no income.
Before the pandemic came, on my way to work I used to pass several houses painted with Saint Paul’s Blue, a bestseller in Scandinavian design, a mixture of blue with a hint of gray and the subtext of rotten green. During the wintertime, they were spots that barely stood out from all-embracing whiteness in the dark alike some of the Rothko’s abstract rectangles. Next, I walked the fjord embankment looking at the austere blue water of the Norwegian Sea. I worked only three hours per week in the bistro as at that time there was no more work to be offered, and then I got back the same way. Under these circumstances, I started to understand the word starting with “f…” as a force directing your life when you would like to have the possibility to take over control, to choose what would you like to do or decide where would you like to go next, but the only possible option at the moment is to accept life as it is. Ripping off illusions has been strengthened by the pandemic months of closure and isolation even bigger than I originally intended as a part of my journey which was to prepare me financially to fulfill my dream and plan of becoming a diver-activist, a practitioner of blue posthumanism. The pandemic has made me a fallen angel of my dream and a Phoenix aware that all major changes require time.
Fate is not the most precise term in the 21st century when we know much more accurate expressions to explain one’s professional or life situation: gender, class, privileges, race, position in a social structure, sexual orientation, etc. However, I guess it must have been just the blind luck (I like this word better) that in the Scandinavian context occurred to be full of hints and angles, through which I have started to perceive such experiences as social suicide, feeling of drowning or hopelessness in a larger, planetary perspective, including the environmental history. This perspective helped me to define my human condition as natural, transitional, and asking me to perceive my female pound of flesh connected to the vast non-human environment of wild nature – my most emancipatory allay in North Norway. While the cultural categories still applied to explain why I had to try my chances in surviving in the wilderness, at the same time they occurred insufficient according to the whole process dictated by the extreme conditions of the local weather. For this reason, they had to become natural-cultural. Physical strength, perseverance, contingency, resilience to the sense of indeterminacy, just to mention a few crucial factors that gave me a strong sense of being a subject of the same laws as every piece of nature. The cultural aspect of the Scandinavian limbo motivated me to keep my emotional standards clear and high while at the same time they were filtered by anxiety and the sense of loss, respectively to my natural horizon.
Sørreisa in February. The blue hour, a period of twilight during polar night. Phot. A. Narkowicz
The greatest achievement of enduring a year under rough natural circumstances was not a financial abundance. It was the opportunity to see my dreams of practicing blue posthumanism, hydrofeminism or other emancipatory perspectives mediated by the firsthand experience of the reality of austere Nordic blue hours, a period of twilight during polar nights. Don’t we think of Rothko’s paintings in terms of melancholy, dreams, or fantasies? For the first time I saw many things that have been attributed to his abstract art (such as doors, clouds or depths) beyond the museum walls or pages of the expensive catalogs; or to put it bluntly, when art disappears as it does in the places where there are no museums or art galleries, one is left with the question of whether one still needs the excess of the aesthetical framed objects. Nature for sure doesn’t care for this kind of stuff. Instead, it offers one the opportunity of skydiving in the plenitude helping to integrate the “inside” with the “outside” better than any museum or market product can do. Hence, the awarding experience with my digitalized memory of Rothko updated in the context of the Nordic nature and not reduced to its fate of misunderstanding within the capitalist frame was the ability to catch a moment of passage to a new beginning. The estrangement of leaping into the uncharted void of nature where you have to navigate your desires so easily turn opposite was a part of it.
I am sure my favorite Rothko “Untitled. Green over Blue” (1956), the one that dissolved in the landscape of my relocation, took part in preparing myself for the entirely different environment of water, in many respects unfamiliar and hostile to humans. Although this preparation has not yet taken the solid form of a diver course, it was provided by the integration within the experienced cultural estrangements and rehab from people. Having said that, I would like to offer a personal reading of this troubled water image that I identify with my Nordic experience. Its title supplements blue with green, which may excite both ground and water-related environmentalists [Mentz XII]. I enjoy it as much as I understand melancholy asking to go under the surface and letting go of all that is too much to handle over carelessness asking to be unaware (reading Rothko may be directed both ways). The composition balances two allegedly opposite quasi-rectangle shapes, but it seems to be an upset balance of the upper threatening black over the foggy and unhospitable white below. They are mediated by the stripe of intense blue in middle/beneath and floating over the translucent watery blue, the matrix for the whole abstract image. Confronting with this Rothko's surface leaves one in a cold and asks to withstand the cold. This surface alludes to the space that just as the open space of the sea is not easy to get away from. The activity of seeing this particular Rothko resembles inhaling and exhaling to adjust one's organism to push and pull in order not to sink in melancholy, but instead harmonize one's wishbones. Most of the time the Nordic-nature embraces silence and emptiness. In this text, they were welcomed and integrated within the opportunity to focus on the water abundance in Norway: mountain snow melting into the waterfalls, creeks that empower the rivers that next flow into the fjord, producing the hydropower of life.
Baal-Teshuva, Jacob, Mark Rothko 1903–1970. Pictures as Drama, Köln, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo 2003. Breslin, James, Mark Rothko. A Biography, Chicago 1993. Jarosz, Ewelina, Figures of Unpresentable. Postmodern Model of Reception of the Color Field Paintings, doctoral thesis defended in the Institute of Art History at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan in 2018. Thesis supervisor: Professor Anna Markowska. The Polish Institute for World Art Studies has included the thesis in its publishing plans for 2021. Rothko, Christopher, Mark Rothko. From the Inside Out, Yale University Press, New Heaven and London, 2015. Mentz Steve, At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean, Continuum 2009. World Health Organization Africa https://www.afro.who.int/health-topics/child-health#:~:text=In%202013%2C%20an%20estimated%206.3,are%20in%20the%20neonatal%20period. [access: 05.07.2020]