Abandoning Security and the Familiar for Transcendental Experiences: Mark Rothko

The political climate—a climate of fear actually— of the Post WWII era in the United States caused many visual artists to seek a personal refuge within themselves.   This safety-zone protected them from innuendo and inferences that could lead to false interpretations of expressing communist sympathies within their painted narratives and thus risk being black-listed and shunned.  Many artists within the New York School sought out the non-objective world as they searched for transcendental meanings in contemporary American society.  Mark Rothko, a color field Abstract Expressionist, was among the most prominent NY-based artist who chose the transcendental for its expressive potential and for personal comfort.  Peter Selz, in his 1961 biography on Mark Rothko, quoted the artist as stating:  “The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artist to accept.  Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation.  Freed from a false sense of security and community, the artist can abandon his plastic bankbook, just as he has abandoned other forms of security.  Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar.  Free of them, transcendental experiences become possible.”

What are your thoughts on Post WWII American artists seeking refuge within their psychic selves in order to express their responses to their era of time through the non-objective world of the imagination?

Photograph of Mark Rothko in his Studio

Photograph of Mark Rothko in his Studio

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

19 Comments

19 thoughts on “Abandoning Security and the Familiar for Transcendental Experiences: Mark Rothko”

  1. I think that artists seeking refuge within their psychic selves in order to express their responses to their era of time is pretty intriguing. It’s intriguing because going through psychics would be a whole new experience and being able to express that, only you would really know. I think it helps the artist gain and explore their own style. Whether they use psychic selves or others, I think for them to seek refuge with that is just them looking and searching for their own style to associate with.

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  2. This act of escapism that is being suggested seems contradictory to the previous efforts of pre World War artists. Where we had Dada and abstraction, now there is this need to depict the lack of freedom in styles such as Rothko’s color fields. It seems as though artists and the culture as a whole is taking two steps back in their efforts for self awareness and exploration. But on the other hand, this new identification of freedom from within (although it seems socially oppressive) can signify the nuance of human experience. The prevailing desire to express has not gone away from humanity, but has reembodied itself in a new form that is safer, but also conceptually more complex. It is simple enough to cry in sorrow out when something makes you unhappy, but to learn now to approach one’s experience and concentrate it into a singular form of color and composition creates a new relationship between man and their subconscious. We know instinctively what makes us happy or sad, even though it cannot be explained why. In this post WWII period, it is not the point to explain why but to simply come down to the modest and basic experience of just feeling.

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  3. I feel as though each generation experiences a struggle to overcome and that shapes our artwork; Rothko seeking refuge within his work was probably essential for him to work through the events that had transpired. Creating non-objective pieces could have been a way to have work that is in a sense tabula rasa; something that is not easily identified, especially in a time when the world was not looking like a familiar place after the war, but is instead influenced by your own senses and perceptions of the recent events.

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  4. Well sure, during the time after World War II, who wouldn’t want to take refuge? It is a scary era and that much of the stuff artists put out would be controversial at the time. Still, it should not have to take away the artists’ ability to express themselves, especially after what Hitler and the Nazis have done to the Bauhaus.

    Sure it is great to seek out a style of their own. But they should not have to hide it from the public. They have to be entertained somehow.

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  5. What are your thoughts on Post WWII American artists seeking refuge within their psychic selves in order to express their responses to their era of time through the non-objective world of the imagination?

    It actually kind of reminds me of how things are today. When people can’t fully express themselves or do not in fear of retaliation, they find other outlets for their creativity. Turning to abstract expressionism allowed artist to protect themselves, stay safe from accusations. It allowed them to be apolitical during the tense period of the red scare and the cold war. In doing so artists were able to create even more powerful works.

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  6. It saddens me to think that an artist would have to express themselves differently in fear of the political environment in which they live but I guess all artists throughout history faced the same or similar challenges. Even today, you can’t express yourself without fear of censorship or retaliation. On the bright side, I think those political threats allowed Rothko to produce work that may have never seen the light of day otherwise. He may have never looked towards his transcendental thoughts to produce color Abstract Expressive art. His abstract art also frees us of objective expression, allowing us to see his thoughts and ideas differently.

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  7. The “climate of fear” is a sentiment that I think most contemporary artists can understand just as well as modern artists did after WWII. Considering the current political climate in the U.S. and the state of our foreign affairs, we feel like we are in hot water, almost at the boiling point. Whether we are on the precipice of another war, and hopefully we are not, the only place we have to really express ourselves safely is inside our own minds, and sometimes our art. Fear drove Rothko to make some auspicious moves as an artist, which is something that this generation also seems willing to do for a change. As Rothko felt freed from the negativity of a racist and unfair society, this generation feels strongly about individuality rather than nationalism. And because we refuse to be considered a part of an oppressive regime, we feel free to build communities based on equality, fairness, inclusion, and freedom of expression. Like Rothko, using freedom of expression to make art that feels right and is able to move people emotionally, we fight the harsh world of politics and create our own safety zones.

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  8. In most cases, I feel that is what artists do, they express themselves in some shape or form through their work and even in the past many artists had to take those risk when dealing with postwar happenings or governmental control. I dont think there is anything wrong for artists to seek refuge, as for it might be essential for them to get through the events going on at that time. It’s unfortunate but sometimes artists being affected more heavily by real world problems brings out the best in their artisic abilities.

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  9. During this point in time it seemed like artist cared about the way their art connected with their audience. They wanted it to evoke emotion and felt those very emotions while painting them. In most circumstances most artist do, in some way, reflect their emotions in their art but it was especially prevalent during this time in history. Artists like Mark Rothko loathe the idea of letting his art be bought only for the sole purpose of being an entertainment piece for the rich. He rejected their offers of buying his pieces, he wanted them to be for the people’s eyes only. I appreciate this type of mindset, although it’s practically might not be what every artist strives for especially when their sole income comes from their art. It’s nice to see an artist not get caught up in the money or fame. Rothko kept a strict standard with his art and stuck to it until the end of his life.

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  10. I see artists finding refuge within their psychic selves a form of self preservation. The cold war/communist fear era was a terrible one. Neighbors were turning in neighbors and family was even turning in family as suspected communists. If someone misinterpreted something in your art, you could be black-listed, or even jailed. This would be detrimental to your art career and something you would never come back from. The fear was so strong in America about communists that being labeled as one or a communist sympathizer was a career killer. These artists took it upon themselves to make sure that nothing in their work could be seen as a link to communism. Retreating into color and abstraction for fear of the government. This is a pity, however, because of this fear we have artists like Mark Rothko who created some of the most stunning abstract expressionist works we have today. You can see this as a true liberation for the artist, creating these stunning works. But also as you stated in the question, it gave the artists a chance to step away from their pocketbooks and decide for themselves who and where their art would go. This was not something we have really seen before. Mark is the perfect example of this, the fact that he took 2 commissions and ended up stepping away from them, even though they offered a great deal of money. This is true liberation to me as an artists, this to me says “I have made it”. It seems like a weird way to measure success but for me, being able to say, no I don’t want you to have my paintings, means that you are in a place of true freedom. I am not sure if this would have happened with Mark Rothko if it wasn’t for the communist fear that had taken over the country and pushed so many artists to become abstract expressionists. I guess that is something we will never 100% know, so in a way we can be thankful for this era, as look at the art that came out of it.

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  11. Artists seeking refuge within themselves is what leads to artworks that represent them. The outside world does affect artists exponentially because it influences what kinds of works are produced. I feel for the artists of the Post WWII era because it was a very difficult time to live through and not be influenced by the negativity and being shunned. Even today this type of limitation to express one’s self completely is shunned because of the growing fear in censorship and being “black-listed” especially with how easily information is spread through technology and media outlets. Rothko’s transcendental artworks were beautiful and the colors and abstractions were able to say so much. I feel that retreating within one’s psychic self can help artists to figure out what they want their art to be and what one wants to accomplish through it.

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  12. Ideas are complex and the means of sharing our ideas is imperfect. The saying “I think therefore I am” is too high of a criteria to satisfy existence. The process is especially difficult when exchanging thoughts with others to inadvertently prove they are thinking and therefore existing. In heated times one might say people don’t think, do they not exist? They feel their existence and we can empathize through some type of qualia using an array of cues. If we were able to quantify emotions we might see the non-objective world of the imagination coveys meaning in a smoother manner.

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  13. It’s a shame that politics can affect the way artists create work. Due to the fear of being blacklisted I think that it was necessary for artists at the time to find a different way to continue creating works. The fact that artists like Rothko were able to create paintings that were filled with deep emotion, despite looking very simplistic shows that artists are able to work around their boundaries.

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  14. After WWII, abstract expressionism became the greatest masterpiece of art and became the
    universality of art. There were many abstract expressionism artists, because people had hard time during the war and people eventually found out that abstract expressionism is the art that people like after the war. I think people like that style because they want to forget the hard times and the war was so crucial, they want to see some kind of not realistic art. So they wanted to support something that is not realistic and hope everyone can get over from the WWII.

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  15. At times we must stand still in order to witness the movements that is constant and dynamic. The artist sees the blank canvas as potential, possibilities and hope. He acts as the buffer between the reality he is a part of and the vision that is constructed with a part of him. Huge canvases becomes a portal to a safer haven, like the stillness and serenity as eyelashes touch eyelashes when eyelids close, leaving residues and slivers of haze, flashes and blur. The awareness of the meditative state allows for reflection, contemplation and response.

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  16. I think that artist seeking refuge with their psychic selves is a pretty cool way of creating and expressing oneself imagination. Imagination in art needs to be a strong factor of creating or the work will become boring and dull. I think these artist found away to have a voice, while keeping their pride to create what they wanted. When artist is created objectively there is a greater chance for imagination and expression of individuality.

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  17. What really strikes me as original and appealing about Rothko’s color field paintings is the ability they have to communicate basic emotions. I think that the freedom he discovered as an artist in America was an important opportunity for him because it let him express the feelings that had been built up inside of him for years. The humanism and expression conveyed through non-objective works by Rothko and his contemporaries are to me some of the most valuable attributes that any artwork can have. I think that this also liberated many artists by showing that there was a new time and place for art where the artist himself plays a much larger role. The personality, history, and feelings of the artist could be a topic for discussion and reflection rather than just the literal objects or people portrayed by a painting or other work of art.

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  18. I think that this was a very safe way to encompass all of their feelings about the state of the world within their work. Without directly referencing political issues or topics, these artists encompassed everything they felt about it all into one giant field of color. Some may argue that these fields of color represent nothing and shouldn’t be considered art; however, I think that they incorporate everything in the world into an infinite extension. Rothko’s color fields and the massive nature of them remind me of the feeling you get entering a James Turrell light exhibition. It’s like staring off into an arena of the unknown while simultaneously being confronted with everything you’ve ever known.

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  19. Every generation has artists and styles of art that defines them. The post-war era that Rothko experienced is, in someone ways, kind of similar now. Rising tensions with North Korea and Trump’s stupidity have people feeling that war can break out at any moment. Rothko’s approach to color was the perfect way to express himself without endangering himself with other people’s wartime views and sympathies. Imagination is a powerful tool that every artist has. I feel like we have always relied on our psychic selves to create work and find peace, pleasure, and satisfaction. Its something we have been doing all along, but it became much more prominent with impending tensions.

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