Jai Tanju, 1999

Jaime Wright

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updated 12.20.02

Figuring Out Gethsemane

[W]hen I recognize myself in a work, then I realize it’s completed.

Seeing through Rothko’s Figure

In "The Ghost in the Gallery"--an article introducing a Mark Rothko exhibit at the Fundacio Joan Miro in Barcelona, Spain in 2001--author Adrian Searle opines on the sulking figure of Rothko haunting the galleries. The muted adult sobs and the "squeaky pens" of students taking notes creates an atmosphere for Searle that is far too stifled. He attributes his aversion to Rothko exhibits to this, and Rothko’s "posthumous public reputation." He feels that at "some point the artist and the work must part company." Searle ends his rant by saying "[t]he trouble is, even if there’s no one else in the room, Rothko keeps getting in the way." 1

original photo: Regina Bogat

    This attitude is validated by a school of critical studies that follows Edmund Husserl’s impossible maxim: to the thing itself. However, it is difficult to isolate any cultural phenomenon. Though we shouldn’t depend on an artist’s life story to fully elucidate an artistic creation, often it is helpful when exploring components of such a work. Especially when the work is cryptic, outside of its original context, or uses absence as an integral part of its metaphor or identity. A more helpful approach can be derived from Rothko’s comments on surrealist and abstract art. He mentioned these movements as his roots, likened them to parents, but he was set upon finding his own path, his own territory. He acknowledged emerging from them but asserted that he was also "completely independent of them." 2

    If we take a similar approach, we do not need to push Rothko out of the foreground of his paintings. Rather, we can look to Rothko as their parent, and acknowledge that without rooting our analysis in the figure of Rothko that we are either left with only wispy emotional Reponses, or disinterest. Rooting our analysis in the figure of Rothko does not stop us from ultimately viewing the artwork as independent from its creator. When we do this, we can see right through Rothko and attempt to grasp the mental luminosity, the idea within the painting.

    The more cryptic the creation the more necessary it is for us to familiarize ourselves with its roots before we truly appreciate its fruit. 3 One of Rothko’s most cryptic works of the early 1940s is his Gethsemane (1944). This work evades interpretation precisely because of its lack of readily accessible references to other works of art (Rothko’s and others’). Unlike many of his other works that depend upon Greek myth for their titles--along with many other pieces that contain content relating to these titled pieces--Gethsemane is absent of references to fused bearded faces, tall Iphigenias, hooves, feet, twisted viscera, bulls, and stylized eagle feathers.

    We aren’t even given the soft smudgy shapes, rough squiggly lines, or cephalopodan tentacles that dominate the work of the early to mid ’40s. Instead, we are confronted with precise lines that define the solitary figure. Although the central figure and peripheral forms are for the most part transparent, their forms are clearly defined. Only the background and a few peripheral forms retain any superficial similarities to other paintings of this period. Gethsemane is an anomaly for Rothko, and subsequently, for the reader, too.

Gethsemane Stands Alone

Gethsemane stands alone; even in the most comprehensive catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s work--David Anfam’s Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas--it is difficult to find any form that resembles that of the central figure or the peripheral forms. Searching Jeffrey Weiss’s Mark Rothko, which includes some drawings not included in Anfam, we are still at a loss. Not only is this painting marginalized by its Christian name (in that it stands out from Rothko’s Greek myth, and primitive memory titles: e.g., Olympian Play, Ritual, Tantalus, Agitation of the Archaic, Primeval Landscape, Tiresias, etc.), it is marginalized by its forms and painterly qualities.


    This piece is not crowded with a cast of characters, such as the paintings that deal with Iphigenia (both titled and untitled), or paintings such as Primeval Landscape (1944) and Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944). Only a few paintings such as Tiresias (1944) or Tentacles of Memory (1945-1946) provide us with a solitary character during the early to mid ’40s.

    Solitude is a primary theme in this painting and may indeed be the major push behind the title. The story of Gethsemane from the Christian New Testament tells of Jesus’ struggle with his pending death. Not only is he abandoned by his disciples--in both their sleep and by the conscious betrayal of Judas--Jesus is also abandoned by his father: God. God will not allow this impending death sentence to be lifted. Jesus is left to struggle alone. This story was attractive to another solitary figure, Rothko.

    James E. B. Breslin uses the solitary leitmotif throughout Mark Rothko: A Biography. The notion of solitude is as vital to the story of Rothko as being clever and wily is to the story of Odysseus in the Odyssey. Breslin carefully repeats chorus-like references to Rothko’s experience as a child immigrant in an awkward Buster Brown suit arriving in America, and Rothko’s Self-Portrait (1936). In "The Romantics Were Prompted," written by Rothko three years after Gethsemane was painted, Rothko wrote that the greatest achievements in art were the "pictures of the single human figure--alone in a moment of utter immobility." 4 A theme that Breslin believed saturated Rothko’s life even in death:

In taking his own life . . . Rothko left us with the image of a single human figure, alone in a moment of utter silence and immobility, with his arms outstretched in an attitude of Christ-like defeat and victimization. 5

    Breslin mentions not a stoic solitude but a marginalized solitude. This victimization is inherent in the majority of works that depict Jesus as dead on the cross. One of the first recognizable forms that come toward the viewer when learning the title of Rothko’s Gethsemane is the cruciform. This emerges from the central bird-like figure that dominates the painting.

    The story of Gethsemane is not about the death of Jesus, however, it is about an individual struggling with the inevitable abyss of death. Jesus struggles with death only when faced by it. This brings to mind another of Rothko’s favorite figures: Iphigenia.

Tentacles of Memory

    She, too, stands alone before her father as a sacrifice for the good of a nation, or a people--as does the Jesus as Christ. This falls in line with Nietzsche’s tragic hero that is an Apollonian descendent of Dionysus. For Nietzsche Dionysus represented the "horror of nature." 6 This "horror of nature" was the death of the rational individual, the individual that was separate from the people, from the chorus. The ideal of the tragic consciousness was to sacrifice the rational individual--or to pulverize the Apollonian illusion-mask--and become one with "the original Oneness, the ground of Being, ever-suffering and contradictory." 7 The contradictory aspect of this dynamic was that this sacrifice does not exclude the Apollonian; rather it embraces both the Apollonian vehicle and the Dionysian tenor.

    One of the contradictory components of Gethsemane is that the bird-like figure, although a single form, is not completely alone. It has multiple personalities due to a conflation of different myths, symbols, and the detritus of Rothko’s psyche. Its solitude comparable to the solitary compound ghost in T. S. Eliot’s "Four Quartets":

              I met one walking, loitering and hurried
         As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
              Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
              And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
         That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
              The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
              I caught the sudden look of some dead master
         Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
              Both one and many; in the brown baked features
              The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
         Both intimate and unidentifiable.

Conflation Breathes the One and Many

This "intimate and unidentifiable" conflation of historical figures resonates with Rothko’s attitude regarding his surrealist works of the 1940s. Rothko wanted his paintings, and the characters in them, to appear as if seen for the first time. He expressed this approach in 1938 in his writing of the Whitney Dissenter’s Manifesto. This manifesto called for artists to "see objects and events as though for the first time." 9 As the Second World War began to rage in Europe and bring the values of the Western world into question, Rothko and his fellow artists began to emphasize subject matter. Subject matter would become a solid foundation upon which these artists could present material in ways it had never been seen before.

    Subject matter came to the fore when the infamous letter co-authored by Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Rothko was sent to the New York Times in 1943. Two years after Pearl Harbor, and in the midst of a World War Rothko and his fellow artists were searching for some type of consciousness that would bring the Western world to a more humane existence. They found this in primitive, or non-western art, as well as through explorations of their own psyches.

All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life. That these feelings are being experienced by many people throughout the world today is an unfortunate fact . . . That is why we insist on subject matter, a subject matter that embraces these feelings and permits them to be expressed. 10

This formal turn inward and away from an artistic mimesis of realism and the frivolity of mere abstraction allowed these artists to look into the "horror of nature." They no longer wanted to repress these feelings they wanted to express them. From the ’20s to the early ’40s Freudian psychology enjoyed popularity in the world of abstract and surrealist art and during the war encouraged the belief that by exploring the depths of the unconscious that individuals would begin a sort of self-therapy that would help them to understand and overcome this world-wide violence.

    Rothko began his journey into his own psyche, via Freud, and into ancient Greek myth, via Nietzsche. Perhaps in an attempt to express his findings and ideas to a larger American audience, he integrated a Christian theme in Gethsemane. He had only dealt with this theme perhaps three or four times in the past (Crucifixion, 1935; A Last Supper, 1941; Crucifix 1941/1942), but would come back around to this mode in his defining murals of the ’60s: the Harvard Murals and Chapel murals. This may have been done in an attempt to connect the violence of the war with a sacred dimension (sacred vs. religious). A dimension that Nietzsche claimed had been lost on the modern man under the spell of Aesthetic Socratism ("What is beautiful should be sensible"). 11

From the start Gethsemane evades a clear message that can easily be comprehended and forgotten. It is not a sensible vote for American victory and blind faith. It is a difficult piece. We can only start with its most salient features in an attempt to become acquainted with its tragic vision. Because of the name we may immediately recognize a cruciform as the solitary character. After our initial recognition of the cruciform in the bird-like character, we are confronted with many other forms that reference a variety of both standard and esoteric folklore that are both obscured and brought to life by conflation and subjectivity.

    This bird-like creature may be a reference to some other bird-works of this period. Many of these bird-themed works deal with a specific reference in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. These birds, or eagles, begin appearing in the works of the early ’40s. Yet, it is only with The Eagle and the Hare and The Omen of the Eagle in 1942 that we begin to understand the references in earlier works of the ’40s: e.g., Untitled 1941/1942 (#193), 12 and Composition 1941/1942, and continued throughout many works of 1942.

    The two eagles and the hare are characters in Aeschylus’ Oresteia--which Rothko was familiar with through Gilbert Murray’s Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy, and Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough.13 The two eagles swept down to consume the pregnant hare in Agamemnon of the Oresteia trilogy. This was an omen of what was in store for the powerful brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus, for even as it signaled their victory in the immanent Trojan War, it was a victory that was to harm the innocent represented by the unborn baby bunnies. As usual this omen of victory was also an omen of defeat. This defeat would come through the cycle of bloodshed where victims became predators, and predators became victims.

    Even when confronted with such an omen, Agamemnon decided to go forward with his revenge fantasy. The first blood to be shed was Iphigenia’s, Agamemnon’s eldest daughter. Since, Artemis saw the pregnant hare--"[o]ne of her beloved creatures" 14 --as being sacrificed by Agamemnon and Menelaus represented by the two eagles, she became angry in the sacred world, which correlated with terrestrial gales that made the ocean path to victory too dangerous to travel. The only way to appease her sacred anger was for Agamemnon to sacrifice the terrestrial Iphigenia.

    The omen signals a connection between the sacred world and that of the terrestrial world. In doing so the daughter of Agamemnon, the innocent virgin, must be sacrificed to the virgin goddess, Artemis (the sister of Apollo, Nietzsche’s god of illusion). In many paintings in 1943, beginning with Iphigenia and the Sea, Rothko set out to depict the struggle of an innocent that must face the horror of inevitable death. This myth is not only referenced by the appearance of the bird-like figure of Gethsemane, and the similarity of the Iphigenia and Christ sacrifice myths, the hare is also present.

    Hovering above the solitary bird-like creature like a cloud--or for Searle, Rothko’s ghost in front of a painting--we see the hare. It floats horizontally through the sky. Its ears, legs, and tail are salient features that tie it in with other works that contain the eagles and hare, such as several untitled works in 1942 (#201, #202, #203, and #204); Composition, 1941/1942 (#197); and Composition, 1942 (#205).

    If we look at Untitled, 1942 (#201) in particular, not only do we notice the hare, but that the hare is hollow. It has a large central wound where its babies and viscera have been violently torn out. This wound can be seen in the bird-like creature central to Gethsemane. Rothko is conflating the victim and predator by merging the eagle and the hare with the crucified Jesus.

Untitled #201

    In discussing The Omen of the Eagle, Breslin comments: "Rothko does not split his world into sadistic eagles and blameless hares, but creates a single tragic figure, at once predator and victim, who literally embodies the conflict." 15 This wound present in the bird-like character may not be a wound in the common sense at all. It may be more like an opening, a vagina. Although, it is out of character in its explicitness, it may be an integral part to this conflation of predator and victim. This conflation then becomes a vehicle for change, a living symbol for a re-birth of tragedy.

    After all, Rothko saw his hybrids as real, living, organisms. In 1953 Rothko said in retrospect that "[w]hile the Surrealists were interested in translating the real world to dream--[we] were insisting that symbols were real." 16 This opening isn’t the only reference to a wound in the painting.

    To the right of the bird-like conflation of victim and predator, venerable wound and life-giving vagina, we have a red and blue ear-shaped form. The wing beneath it seems to be moving downward like the dagger or sword (with the opposite wing as the hilt) the disciple Peter used to cut off the ear of the High Priest’s innocent servant that was sent to capture Jesus at Gethsemane.

    The inside of the severed ear looks like a horizon where we see a calm sea, perhaps during a sunrise or sunset. A sea that has been calmed by the sacrifice of Iphigenia. This severed ear as a symbolic wound goes beyond the world of myth and religion. It refers us to the lore and myth of the artist. One popular archetype in this alternate world of lore and myth is that of Van Gogh as the wounded artist.

    Rothko embodies the wounded artist. We see it in his social life, professional life, his work, and his suicide. Rothko depicts himself as such in his Self-Portrait. Breslin points out that where the ear should be, there is instead a bloody wound. He even refers to Rothko as "a kind of modern, post-Freudian Van Gogh." 17 This note is preceded by a reference to the "Freudian symbolism of a . . . severed limb": 18 partial loss of control. In Rothko’s own words this reference to Van Gogh may symbolize insanity: a total loss of control. Insanity, as an aspect of the dithyramb, may indicate the great absorption back into Nietzsche’s ground of Being; the dismemberment of the rational individual.

    What we see here is what Eliot talked about when he described the compound ghost coming toward him as "Both intimate and unidentifiable." How else can we begin to explain the motion and form of this painting? Recognizable forms are pushed toward us and then recede. Rothko has receded back into ancient myth only to rush toward us, and we see his "pantheism in which man, bird, beast, and tree--the known as well as the knowable--merge into a single tragic idea." 19

    Rothko wasn’t half mimicking or haphazardly squeezing together myths in order to be clever, either. During the ’30s he resonated with the surrealists in reaching out to the primitive in order to access the healing nature of art--an idea prevalent in Freud20 and Nietzsche. 21 By the early ’40s Rothko began to plunge into one of the techniques of surrealism: automatism.

Untitled #209

     "One way Rothko tried to make living things of his shapes was by drawing or painting them freehand with a technique grounded in the premises of psychic automatism." 22 This is obvious when looking at the change from the late ’30s and early ’40s to the mid ’40s--not only in the shift from scenes depicting urban life, portraits of people, and fused Grecian men to more provocative manifestations of myth and his own psyche, but also--in the dynamics of the paintings. His characters change from the stiff people characters to forms that are bursting with emotion: e.g., Birth of Cephalopods, 1944; Ritual I, 1944; Ritual II, 1944; and Entombment, 1944.

    In allowing himself to paint from his "not-self," 23 Rothko was able to free his subject matter from being confined within his own preconceived notions of myth and religion. Rothko said of the surrealists that they "established a congruity between the phantasmagoria of the unconscious and the objects of everyday life. This congruity constitutes the exhilarated tragic experience which for me is the only source book for art." 24

    This interest in the unconscious, or at least the interest in psychology that would lead to Freud began with Rothko’s time at Yale where he took both general philosophy and psychology classes in 1921. By this time Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (published in 1900) was already well-known. Rothko’s early acquaintance with Freud and his continued interest via the surrealists may lead us to understand another component of Gethsemane: the parchment or clear plastic that is unfurled beneath the ear-shape.

    In 1925 Freud wrote the essay "A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad." In this essay Freud describes how the psyche can record an infinite amount of information, and yet remain new. He chose the children’s magic writing pad ("wunderblock") that is composed of a thick waxen board overlaid with a clear plastic sheet as an analogy. Information can be written over the clear plastic. When the clear plastic sheet is lifted all of that information is erased. Although we can continually record new information by lifting the top sheet, there are still traces on the waxen board below that serve as traces of past information, or experience. A possible reference to this transparent sheet appears to the right of the bird-like figure in Gethsemane.

    This sheet-like form may represent some type of parchment (palimpsest) or scroll upon which law is written. With Jesus’ many references to coming to fulfill the law, referring to the law of Moses, this may very well be that revised list of laws. In that sense, it may be likened to the United States Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The possibilities for this interpretation only arise in that the sacrificial deaths of both Jesus and Iphigenia helped to bring about a new code of rules for their people. In Jesus’ case it was more immediate, Iphigenia had to wait until the end of Aeschylus’ trilogy.

    The conflation of these two interpretations helps to universalize Gethsemane because it hints that it is our own spiritual or psychic deaths that bring new life to old ways, old laws, old habits. Every time we lift the clear sheet we die and are reborn.

    This sheet-like form is connected with curving lines to a wave-type form that descends from below the ear and appears to break upon the horizon within the ear-shape--perhaps the wave is a reference to the depths of the ocean as our unconscious. It is also possible that the thick wave-shape is a thick waxen board. Its lines are the traces of past experience.

    This "mystic writing pad" expressed metaphorically in relation to our psyche and unconscious can run parallel to an artistic depiction of automatic drawing, as well. Though we cannot be sure if Rothko was aware of Freud’s mystic writing pad, we can be sure that he practiced automatic drawing from the early ’40s on into the ’60s. In her book Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction Anna Chave helps in perpetuating this conflation of both the mystic writing pad and automatic drawing:

In Rothko’s pictures the subtle sgraffiti and the layering of color that make up painterly surfaces from a network of traces reminiscent of the ‘mystic writing pad’ . . . that Freud once used as a metaphor for the memory and the unconscious. The structure of experience as Freud describes it is--like Rothko’s classic pictures, in a sense--a palimpsest of traces. 25

This is further evidenced in a letter written by Rothko to Robert Motherwell. He writes, "there is always automatic drawing under those larger forms." 26 This relationship between the mystic writing pad and automatic drawing reinforces the idea of a constant recreation of oneself, or rebirth. This helps us to "see objects and events as though for the first time."

    With all these hints of rebirth, our focus is drawn back to the vagina-like wound of the Christ-like figure, we must wonder how this obstructed and pierced passage serves as a passage for birth. This column structure not only pierces and obstructs the vagina-like wound, it also holds up the central figure, as if it was being displayed at a museum.

Antigone, De Chirico

    Columns are usually present at the entries to our public institutions, or architectural structures that seem to alienate those inside or near them. This type of intimidating and alienating architecture is found in Rothko’s works from the ’30s such as Subway, 1937; Street Scene, 1937; and Entrance to Subway, 1938. All of these pieces depict suffocating structures. This piercing column may allude to similar structures, perhaps those of academies devoid of higher ideals (like Yale), inflexible courthouses (as in Rothkowitz vs. Browne), or museums that are mausoleums of art devoid of ideas and tragedy.

    These same institutions are full of death and have lost track of the living tragedy. Whereas these institutions have reified the "thin veil" of Apollonian illusion and followed Socrates toward the reality of the sun-lit realm of ideas that are realized through the purely rational, Nietzsche’s descendents, such as Rothko, wanted to go back into the womb-like cave. They wanted to return to the depths of human feeling beyond the rational divisions of good and evil, light and dark. In keeping with the contradictory nature of the tragic, the womb is not always safe. Is it through this obstructed and pierced birth canal that the drooping form to the left of the bird-like figure was born?

    We return again to the baby bunnies ripped from the living womb of the pregnant hare. Iphigenia was sacrificed in order to appease Artemis, a protector of the pregnant and of the wilderness. As our eyes continue to travel clockwise around Gethsemane, we tick away from the column-form to see a figure obscured by an opaque, black-rubber-like form. From this rubber-like form dangle feet and legs that resemble those of Iphigenia in Sacrifice of Iphigenia, and Iphigenia and the Sea. Where the head and arms should appear dangling, instead there are ears of the hare that resemble those in The Omen of the Eagle and Untitled, 1942 (#209; wherein Iphigenia and the hare are fused into one solid figure between the possible head of Agamemnon and the two eagles).

Endless Voyage, De Chirico

    Like the ghostly hare that floats above our bird-like figure, this may be here to remind us (like an omen) of the tragic reality in these myths of sacrifice. It may also represent some type of body bag containing the body of a dead soldier coming from the depths of World War II. The rubber-like form is difficult, it isn’t transparent or ghostly as many of the other forms are. We cannot see through it. It seems intentionally placed to obfuscate. Perhaps, it is the still-born Iphigenia that comes through the obstructed birth canal that is both a living form and a reminder of society’s stifling institutions that poke through into our everyday lives. As in the case of World War II.

    Equally as puzzling are the biomorphic forms in the bottom of the painting. These forms are framed in warmer washes of yellow to red ochre. These worm-like forms evade connection with other works from Rothko as well as to the myths of either Iphigenia or Christ. Left without content to connect to the rest of the painting, other than, perhaps, highly stylized references to the sleeping disciples, we can only guess at connections to the outside world. These free-styled forms may be the result of the influence of two artists upon Rothko: Miro27 and De Chirico. 28 These biomorphic forms may indicate ties to Miro in their freeness of form, forms that in some ways resemble the Personage paintings by Miro. Unlike Miro’s flat and solid biomorphic forms, these forms have dimensionality and are in the foreground of what hints at cracking frescos or faded classical structures. This effect gives the bottom scene an eerie feeling of emptiness and void. A feeling not unlike that elicited by De Chirico’s blends of abstract figures intermingled with fragments of classical architecture as in Antigone (1926) and Endless Voyage (1914).

    Rothko’s style here may allude to his roots, but more importantly he asserts his own style and form. If we look past the worm-like forms, Gethsemane gives us a glimpse into his later work. Its thin washes of color, internal luminosity, and division of color fields that serve as a backdrop or stage for the central character. A character that will --along with all peripheral forms--eventually recede beneath the luminosity or opaqueness of later paintings, or may come forward to greet us with "a face still forming." 29

    Watching over this entire play of hybrid forms is the red circle, the eye of the bird-like figure. In order to look into the horror of nature, or our psyche, or ancient myth, we must be able to keep our eyes open. The fact that there is only one eye does not matter, as it did not for Miro (Personage Throwing a Stone at a Bird, 1926). This eye represents sacred sight, insight. Similar precedents for this being an eye can be referenced in Hierarchical Birds painted in the same year. In Hierarchical Birds we see the oversized eye of one of the eagles with a red pupil. This appears in Gethsemane and also appears in other paintings during this year: Untitled, 1944 (#245) and Vibrations of Aurora, 1944. The single eye is also used in Tiresias, 1944, which in turn points to a sacred vision vs. normal eye sight since Tiresias was blind.

    This round circle is also reminiscent of the bowed head of Iphigenia in related paintings. She is often seen with her small round head cast down. Except in Iphigenia and the Sea where she stands tall and with resolve over a dead body, perhaps her own. It is this same resolve that we see in the firm gaze directed upon us as we look at Gethsemane.

Personage Throwing a Stone at a Bird, Miro

An Apparition, a Feeling

It would be nice to leave this piece with that warm feeling of warm resolve, but that is only an aspect of Gethsemane. These warm moments of resolve occur when Gethsemane makes sense in a linear and rational way, every section mapped out, no detail left untouched, every conflation dissected and sterile. But Rothko didn’t die in a warm bed after sex with a partner that he loved and that loved him. Rothko died alone, in a cold studio after pressing a blade so deep into his forearm--from his the inside of his elbow to his wrists--that all he could do was literally fall back and die in a pool of his own blood.

    His final work of art, his final disfiguration, his final wrestling bout with the human figure took place upon the flat surface of his bathroom floor in the 69th Street studio. Sick, decrepit, bitter, and alone. I doubt that Rothko thought much about Nietzsche, ancient Greek myth, Christianity, Freud, the psyche, or any other academic fetish as he blinked at the ceiling, his arms burning with pain, his head numb with adrenalin.

    It is more likely that Rothko accessed some space more akin to that attained when he was creating, a mood. A mood that can only be likened to that feeling one gets when listening to music. The swelling. The rush. The spark that ignited the so-called action painters. This was Rothko. He did not become someone else and decide to frivolously use his arms as canvas, and use a blade as a brush. Mark Rothko had deep feelings and used subject matter only as a vehicle for emotion. This is the same man who claimed that people cry when they see his paintings because they are sharing his experience of creating them.

    It is with this same materiality that we must ultimately approach Gethsemane. Its colors are those of the desert. Its central figure is that of a bird about to take flight. A heavy cloud floats ominously in the stagnant air above. At the center of it all there’s a large vagina. We must remember that Gethsemane is the name. Still, the Gethsemane myth is just another aspect that haunts this work of art, it is no central than any other aspect nor does it give the reader a license to fix any one message the painting may have as an absolute one. This painting is haunting and saturated with contradiction.

    It is the gaze of a stranger that comes toward us; we see in this stranger the "known and knowable," the "known, forgotten, and half recalled." This figure of Gethsemane is Rothko for it has the "sudden look of some dead master." He along with his painting is both "intimate and unidentifiable."

    Like the dead masters, like our parents, he must leave us, we must leave him. He is always present in a transparent way, even when we are left alone with Gethsemane in solitude.

         The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
         He left me, with a kind of valediction,
         And faded . . .

original photo: Morton Levine


1 "The Ghost in the Gallery," online.
2 Mark Rothko: A Biography, 178.
3 This again will fall in line with one of Rothko’s ghostly mentors, Nietzsche. The entire thrust of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy looks back to the ancient Greeks in order to move ahead, toward the "rebirth of tragedy," (124).
4 Biography, 240.
5 Ibid., 525.
6 Birth of Tragedy, 59.
7 Ibid., 32.
8 "The Four Quartets," 140.
9 Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, 50.
10 Ibid., 99.
11 Birth of Tragedy, 79.
12 All numbered paintings refer directly to those numbers given to the paintings in David Anfam’s Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas.
13 Ibid., 47, 51.
14 Mythology, 182.
15 Biography, 167.
16 Subjects, 71.
17 Ibid., 109.
18 Ibid., 108.
19 Ibid., 84.
20 Ibid., 81.
21 "[A]rt, that sorceress expert in healing . . . only she can turn fits of nausea into imaginations with which it is possible to live," Birth of Tragedy, p. 52.
22 Subjects, 103-104.
23 Mark Rothko (Weiss), 267.
24 Subjects, 95.
25 Ibid., 68.
26 Biography, 317.
27 Subjects, 64.
28 Works on Canvas, 48, 64.
29 "The Four Quartets," 141.
30 "The Four Quartets," 142.

Works Cited:

Anfam, David. Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Breslin, James E. B. Mark Rothko: A Biography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Chave, Anna. Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Eliot, T. S. "The Four Quartets," The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1980.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Mentor, 1969.

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