When people complain that modern art looks like it was painted by children, it’s often artists like Mark Rothko they are talking about. The plain rectangles of colour that characterize Rothko’s mature work are deceptively simple.
But experience them first-hand, and you might feel differently. This one (‘Black on Maroon’, if you’re wondering) is one of a series originally painted to hang on the walls of a fancy restaurant in New York, but now on display in the Tate. When I first saw all nine of them hung together in a gallery there, I found them unbearably moving. And I’m not alone.
Rothko wanted his work to address what he saw as the spiritual emptiness of the 20th century. “The people who weep before my pictures,” Rothko commented, “are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”
Inspired by the bricked-up windows of a Michelangelo building in Florence, the opaque windows of Rothko’s art prompt us to ask what – if anything – lies beyond. Are we trapped in a closed and self-referential world, hemmed in for ever, with no way out? Or do these floating portals hint at the possibility of transcendence, a mysterious beyond we cannot even begin to imagine?
To me, Rothko’s art functions as a powerful expression of the ‘apophatic’ or mystical approach to God. Most of the time, when we try talk of God, we use metaphors or analogies based on the world around us. God is my rock, God is my fortress. God is like a father, God is like a spouse. The bible is full of images like this.
Most religious art operates in the same way. Think of Michelangelo’s famous painting of God the Father on the roof of the Sistine Chapel – a stern grey-haired man surrounded by angels in the sky, his finger outstretched towards Adam. God, we say, is a bit like that. In technical terms, this way of describing God, using metaphor and analogy, is known as ‘kataphatic’, or positive, theology.
But all these pictures have their limits. We may describe God as ‘father’, but God is not literally an old white man on a cloud in the sky. Positive images of God only get us so far. The truth is that God is always more mysterious and incomprehensible than we can imagine. Our depictions are always inadequate. This is what apophatic, or negative, theology is all about, reminding us that God is not what we think, that God is other.
The beautiful Chinese book of mysticism, the Tao Te Ching, opens with the declaration that the spiritual reality that can be captured in words is not the true spiritual reality. (‘The Tao that can be spoken, is not the eternal Tao.’) If we think we have grasped it, and adequately described it, then we’ve failed. What we’ve described is an idol.
Western mystics make similar comments. To come close to God, in the words of one medieval English writer, is to enter “the cloud of unknowing”. Even to emphasise the kindness or excellence of God, the author warns, can hold us back from experiencing the reality which is beyond all images and knowledge.
This mystical or apophatic tradition provides a point of connection between different religions. Rothko’s final project, undertaken just before his death, was a series of paintings for a non-denominational chapel in Texas, designed as a place where Christians and Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, those of all religions and none, could come together, for prayer, meditation and contemplation.
Rothko’s blank, minimalist aesthetic was perfect for this bold experiment. The result was a chapel with walls covered not with pictures of God as an old man on a cloud, or of Jesus, Shiva, or the Buddha, but with dramatic, immense, imposing, and dark – almost black – slabs of colour. A series of paintings which remind us of the inadequacies of all our religious pictures, and point to the truth that lies beyond all expression: a God who remains, as the hymn puts it, in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.
“Whereof one cannot speak,” said the philosopher Wittgenstein, “thereof one must be silent.”