Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Chris Port Blog #331. Surviving Rothko

Untitled (Black on Grey), Mark Rothko, 1970

(Mark Rothko [1903-1970] was a Russian-American painter. Through his art he struggled with the void of the unconscious. The void won. On 25th February 1970, Rothko killed himself by cutting his wrists with a razor).

Surviving Rothko
© Chris Port, 3rd April 2012

I have seen the void.
There are no words there
are no words at all.

Oh Rothko, did you
square it with colour
when the horror called?

I brush with boyhood
nightmares, speechless as
lovecrafty terrors

mirror the stars in
squid-ink; those hell-ponds
are bricked wishing wells.

When that fish-white hand
returns from the dead,
I cry but don’t yell

because it is mine.               

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *


“Faced with a paranoid construction of this kind, we must not forget Freud’s warning and mistake it for the ‘illness’ itself. The paranoid construction, on the contrary, is already an attempt to heal ourselves, to pull ourselves out of the real ‘illness’, the psychotic breakdown - the ‘end of the world’, the falling apart of the symbolic universe - with the help of a substitute-formation.

The process of psychotic breakdown corresponds precisely to the breakdown of the boundary separating reality from the Real; and, for an example of that breakdown in its pure and as it were distilled form, without any admixture of ‘content’, I want first to turn to a sequence of paintings produced in the 1960s, during the last decade of his life, by Mark Rothko, the most tragic exponent of American ‘abstract expressionism’. The ‘theme’ of the paintings is constant: they represent a series of colour-variations on the motif of the relation between reality and the Real, rendered in pure geometrical abstraction by the famous painting of Kasimir Malevich, The Naked Unframed Icon of my Time: a simple black square on a white ground. In this formulation, ‘reality’ (the white background-surface, the ‘liberated nothingness’, the open space in which objects can appear) derives its consistency and meaning entirely from the ‘black hole’ in its centre (the Lacanian das Ding, the Thing that gives body to the substance of enjoyment), from, that is, the exclusion of the Real, the transformation of the status of the Real into a central lack. Like all Rothko’s late pictures, this is a manifestation of a fight to maintain the frontier separating reality from the Real, to prevent the Real (the central black square) from overflowing the entire field, to preserve the distinction between the square and what must at all costs remain its background; for if the square comes to occupy the whole field, and the difference between figure and ground is lost, we are precipitated into psychotic autism.

Rothko depicts this struggle as a colour-tension between a grey background and the central black spot which spreads menacingly from one picture to another. In the late 1960s, the vivacity of red and yellow in his earlier canvases begins to give way to the minimal opposition of black and grey. If we look at these paintings ‘cinematically’ - putting the reproductions one above the other and turning them over quickly to give an impression of continuous movement - we can trace a line that travels ineluctably to a seemingly inevitable end. In the canvases produced immediately before Rothko’s death, the minimal tension between black and grey changes for the last time into a burning conflict of voracious reds and yellows: witness perhaps to a last desperate attempt at redemption, yet at the same time an unmistakable confirmation that the end is imminent. A few weeks later, he was found dead in his New York atelier, in a pool of blood, with his wrists cut.”

Slavoj Žižek (1989), The Undergrowth of Enjoyment: How Popular Culture Can Serve as an Introduction to Lacan http://www.amielandmelburn.org.uk/collections/newformations/09_07.pdf


  1. Part 1 of Shadows of Light II after Mark Rothko by Jim Aitchison.


    A new and comprehensively revised version of music commissioned from the composer by Tate for the 2008/2009 Mark Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern, supported by the PRSF Foundation for New Music and Henry Tillman and Jill Bradford. The music is performed by Nicholas Clapton (Countertenor), Michael Thompson (Horn) and the Kreutzer Quartet. Sound courtesy of Jonathan Haskell (Astounding Sounds).

  2. Part 2 of Shadows of Light II after Mark Rothko by Jim Aitchison.


  3. Jim Aitchison at the Tate