Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is a prominent representative of the New York School of modern art, who created paintings in many styles throughout over forty years of work. White Center (Yellow, Pink, and Lavender on Rose), 1950, is one of his signature paintings incorporating the motif of “soft, rectangular forms floating on a stained field of color” (“Mark Rothko”). The piece of art seems very simple at first.
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It combines three rectangular blocks of color: a wider pink is placed at the bottom, a thinner white − in the middle, and a medium-size yellow at the top is separated by an articulate black line from the colors below. The composition is put in the red background with a hint of orange. Simple and salient geometrical elements form a legible structure of the painting. “The subtle modulated layering of paint” and “the feathery brushstrokes,” which can be observed in White Center convey “the sense of ‘hovering’ in space” (Rosenberger 113). Overall, the picture is minimalist, abstract, and expressive at the same time.
White Center by Mark Rothko: Analysis
The context in which the piece of art is created is key to its understanding. All artists working in the style of abstract expressionism regarded art as “expressions of the self, born out of profound emotion and universal themes” (“Abstract Expressionism”). It means that geometrical forms used by Rothko in White Center do not serve a regulative function as they usually did in classical artistic styles but function as a medium of emotion.
It is obvious that the color also performs an emotive function in Rothko’s painting. However, as the artist once said, “if you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom” (“Mark Rothko”). It means that although color fields take a central position in Rothko’s paintings including White Center, the color itself plays only a partial role in the creation of the work’s semantic meaning.
The artist endowed lines and shapes with a particular significance thinking of them as “performers” in dramas (“Mark Rothko”). In this way, the overall composition and styling, as well as the primitive geometry, act together in White Center to provoke a strong emotional response in viewers like scenery and actor’s gestures and speech would do in any theatrical event. Rothko’s painting is perceived as intuitively, subconsciously, and individually. Simple elements form a harmonious whole, which obtains a profound cosmic, religious, and mythological symbolism. Compared to many other Rothko’s canvases painted in darker colors, the bursts of yellow, white, and pink in White Center can be associated with buoyancy and hope. It is possible to say that White Center is the manifestation of emotion itself.
The evolution of modern art in the 20th century was largely substantiated by newly emerged theories including Freud’s ideas suggesting that the subjective reality is based on “the play of basic drives and instincts” through which the objective world is experienced (“Modernism”).
In this way, like many other pieces of modernist art, Rothko’s painting emphasizes the subjectivity of perception. Compared to the works of classical art, which focused primarily on the objective side of reality and manipulated objects in a way that told a particular story, Rothko focused on the subjective side of reality. White Center does not reproduce the visible world but it recreates the inner state of the painter at the moment of painting. As another abstract expressionist, Barnett Newman, once asserted, “art is the expression of the mind first..and whatever sensuous elements are involved are incidental to that expression” (Breslin 199).
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The given statement indicates the deep psychologism of abstract expressionist art. Although one may find common artistic features between White Center and some surrealist and abstract paintings created in the 20th century, it stands independently from them because, while creating it, Rothko did not attempt to express a surrealist dream world, neither was he interested merely in pure abstraction. White Center is “the exploration of private feeling” (Breslin 199). The only objective of its creation was the capturing of the basic truth of life.
White Center was created in the society characterized by intense political repression. In response to those conditions, abstract expressionism became “the expression of freedom: the freedom to create controversial works of art, the freedom symbolized by action painting, by the unbridled expressionism of artists completely without fetters” (MoMA). Modernist artists questioned the nature of reality in which they lived.
This quest was then manifested in the art forms, which signified the break between the traditional artistic styles. At the same time, abstract impressionism became a further step in the evolution of art. Rothko’s painting viewed as a pure psychological improvisation exemplifies this assumption as perfectly as possible. White Center is a spontaneous expression of the artist’s inner world. It makes Rothko’s work very personal. The visual imagery of the White Center transcends the world of objective reality, which was previously captured through figurative and highly structured painting styles, and puts a viewer in a meditative state where he or she can explore his subjective interiority. These are the major strengths and values of White Center, one of the most celebrated paintings by Mark Rothko.
“Abstract Expressionism.” The Art Story, 2018. Web.
Breslin, James. Mark Rothko: A Biography. University of Chicago Press, 2012.
“Mark Rothko.” The Art Story, 2018. Web.
“Modernism.” Saylor. Web.
MoMA. “Abstract Expressionism.” MoMA Learning. Web.
Rosenberger, Christina Bryan. Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin. University of California Press, 2016.