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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions