Mark Rothko, the painter famous for his luminous abstract canvases, spent several years in the late 1930s and early '40s writing a book about the meaning of art. Edited by his son Christopher, Rothko's uncompleted manuscript, The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art
, reveals a man struggling to make a case for the highest ideals of Western culture at a time when crass popular taste and American regionalism were conspiring against the values he held dear. During these years, Rothko worked in a melancholy Expressionist style that was just beginning to be influenced by Surrealism. The hovering rectangles of color that would put him on the modern art map were still a decade away. While this book will no doubt be important to Rothko scholars, it is a period piece, relying on a form of rhetoric and a belief system that can be exasperating to modern readers. Windy chapters on such topics as "The Integrity of the Plastic Process," studded with references to Plato and Leonardo, "truth" and "unity," are Rothko's stock in trade. He never mentions his own paintings and refers to a few other living artists only in passing. And yet--as Christopher Rothko points out in his clear-eyed and useful introduction--the process of wrestling ideas onto the page may have helped the artist find a personal means of expressing the "tragic emotionality" that he believed to be the essence of all great art. Rothko longed to discover a new, post-Christian "myth" that could express a unified outlook on life by embodying "the world of ideals." Little did he realize at the time that the resolution of his dilemma would be based on a radically new approach to handling paint and using color. Cathy Curtis
From Publishers Weekly
While major 20th-century abstract artist Rothko (1903-1980) left a record of his ideas about art and method in several essays and reviews, rumors circulated about the existence of a full-length monograph on the philosophy of art. Rothko himself never brought it forth, and it was not found at his death. Probably written in the early 1940s, the newly discovered manuscript provides Rothkos considerable insights into topics ranging from art as a form of action to plasticity, naturalism and primitivism. For Rothko, "Art is not only a form of action, it is a form of social action. For art is a form of communication." Thus beauty resides less in objects than in "a certain type of emotional exaltation which is a result of stimulation by certain qualities common to all great works of art." An introduction by Rothkos son, Christopher, provides the details of the discovery of the manuscript as well as a nice short biography of Rothko. The whole offers fascinating insights into the ways a major artist thought about his medium and its conceptual premises.
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