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Mark Rothko: Still hip to be square

Rothko's great, glowering late canvases deliver the emotional hit of a big ballad, says Tom Lubbock. But is there substance to these tragic riffs?

Abstract painting is often compared to music. If that's so, then Mark Rothko's paintings are the big ballads of art. They cry it out and carry you away, and they way they go is like "Lady in R-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-d", or "I can't L-I-I-I-I-VE, if living is without you-u-u-u", or any of those surging numbers with their transparent designs on our emotions.

Of course, it seems weird to say this. Rothko may be quite a popular modern artist, but he's not popular like that. And if you go to the major exhibition of his late works that opens on Friday at Tate Modern, this is probably not the kind of experience you'll be expecting.

Rothko stands as an old master, as perhaps the richest and grandest of the group of post-war American artists known as Abstract Expressionists. And the pictures he painted are now hung in special rooms and galleries, places that people visit as if they were shrines or temples.

His huge canvases are seen as solemn and tragic and religious. They're the statements of a deeply serious and tormented and ultimately suicidal individual – found in his studio, in an enormous pool of blood, in 1970, aged 66.

So if you are seeking a musical equivalent for Rothko, surely it ought to be something classical and grave and massive. Bruckner, perhaps? At any rate, it ought to be a bit more elevated and sophisticated than "'Cos I am your lad-y-y-y-y, and you are my m-a-a-a-a-n" or "And I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-I-I-I-I-I-I-I will always love you-u-u-oo-u-u-u..."

But put aside reputation and presupposition. Ask yourself, how do these paintings actually work? Work they certainly do. Rothko made a real discovery when he found that, by using a very restricted language, a few bars and panes and rectangular frames of strong colour, blurry-edged and set in simple arrangements, he could stir in the viewer a powerful empathetic and emotional response. I'm not denying his ability to move you.

No, and I don't deny this ability to Mariah Carey or Harry Nilsson, either. They can be powerfully moving, too. My point is that their songs, and Rothko's paintings, deliver their impact in much the same way. There is a technical term for this. It's a familiar expression when we talk about popular music, but almost never used in connection with art: the hook.

For the benefit of hard-core arties, here's a standard definition of the hook: "A musical idea, often a short riff, passage or phrase, either melodic or rhythmic, that is used to make a song appealing, to catch the ear of the listener." And the thing about hooks is that they have an almost neurological effect. They do something to you. They get to you. They push your buttons in a way that's hard to withstand.

It's a pity that useful words like "hook" and "riff" don't find their way more into the discussion of art, because there's some art they can help us to understand. Take that definition of "hook" just provided, and change "musical" to "pictorial". It could be a description of a painting by Rothko. A Rothko work is all hook, it's designed as a simple, strong visual catch; one riff, writ very large.

You stand. You stare. And the canvas, with its fields and layers of paint, does its sensational work on you. Areas seem to expand and contract, come towards you or sink away. Shapes look positive (a bar) and then negative (a slot). The edges of colours meet in burns or bleeds. Big contrasts provoke hovering after-images. Voids open and deepen. Forms swell and spread and rise.

And, if you're in the mood, the whole thing takes you with it, like one of those songs with their catching pauses and lurching key-shifts. It's not like classical music at all, with its structural theme-and-development stuff. It's working at a simple, basic level. But then, as Lionel Richie once put it, explaining the secret of the ballad: "When you find yourself saying, 'I can't write that, it's too simple' – that's the right one." Rothko knew Richie's lesson already. He kept it simple, and hit the "right one" often enough.

It can be powerful all right, which is something – but not necessarily all that much. For example, I'm irresistibly and consistently moved to tears by four films: The Sound of Music, ET, Rossellini's Rome Open City and Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew. I gladly watch any of them. But only the last two are really worth looking at.

What makes them worthwhile is that they want to do more than open my tear ducts. They're not wholly focused on their viewers' responses. They're not consumerist, in that sense. Rothko's tragedy was that, though a very high-minded man, he was stuck, like many of his contemporaries, with an essentially consumerist idea of art. Art for him was an instrument for delivering feelings to its audience.

True, the particular feelings Rothko wanted to incite were far from trivial, worlds away from the repertoire of Whitney Houston or Celine Dion. And the works in the Tate Modern exhibition, from the last decade of his life, reveal him at his very gravest. These paintings have renounced the wow and the lift of Rothko's earlier, gorgeously multicoloured abstracts. Their hues are dark. The lighting of the galleries too is often low. The atmosphere is sombre.

You may know some of these works already. The largest gallery in this exhibition includes those deep red, purple and flaring orange pictures, the Seagram Murals, which the Tate normally shows in its dedicated Rothko room – appearing now alongside a lot more from the same series. There are others that are almost black on black. They gloom and glimmer and engulf. Their mood is deeply serious.

But their method isn't. And Rothko gave away his whole consumerist approach in a lecture he once gave, where he offered "the recipe of a work of art – its ingredients – how to make it – the formula". A numbered list follows. It begins "1. There must be a clear preoccupation with death – intimations of mortality – tragic art, romantic art etc deals with the knowledge of death", and ends "7. Hope. 10 per cent, to make the tragic concept more endurable."

It's ridiculous – and it's hard to tell if it's meant to be a funny, or at least a humorous, way of saying something important. But taken along with the paintings themselves, it reads like a horribly accurate satire of Rothko's practice. His canvases are precisely that: formulae for big feelings. "I measure these ingredients very carefully... Art is a shrewdly contrived article containing seven ingredients combined for the utmost power and concreteness." In other words, this is somebody who has got art totally wrong.

The irony of Rothko's fame is that many people now look back on him and his generation as the last stand for artistic seriousness. These artists saw art as a high and passionate calling. After that came a great fall. Art became jokey, smart, cerebral, cynical, pretty, fun, rude, silly. (Pop, Conceptual, Minimal, Po-Mo, Britart etc.) They hark back to the Rothko hour as the point from which – if art is to recover its seriousness – we might start again.

That's a mistake. Rothko's art may have "heavy" ingredients, but it has no density. It offers us big tragic riffs, but they are no more valuable than any other riffs. It's too focused on the hit it will give its audience. It simply doesn't have enough world in it to be worthwhile art, enough complication, contingency, resistance, negotiation, argument – and abstract art can have these things as much as any other. But by all means go along to the Rothko show, and be really moved. It's just a pity you can't buy the LP.

Rothko, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888), 26 September to 1 February

Mark Rothko: A life in art

Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Latvia in 1903, Mark Rothko arrived in America, with his Jewish intellectual parents, at the age of 10. The master of the 20th-century New York art scene developed a love of England during a visit in 1959. He lived and worked with the artists of the St Ives community in Cornwall in the Sixties, in 1970 gifting his iconic 'Seagram' canvases to the people of Britain. They arrived at the Tate on the day of his suicide. The 66-year-old artist was found in his New York studio with his wrists slashed.