Mark Rothko’s abstract color field paintings from the 1950s can be mystifying for many. What was this artist trying to accomplish with his spare, minimalist canvases? According to American composer, writer, philosopher, and artist John Cage, Rothko was fascinated by light, color, and spirituality. He was attempting to convey a sense of transcendental beauty with his work. He was also deeply inspired by Henri Matisse’s later bright and bold painted works in that regard (Cage 253).
Mark Rothko “Homage to Matisse” (1954)
Color was undoubtedly Rothko’s primary subject and his works seem to radiate with an inner glow. He learned about this illumination from Matisse. We can see him experimenting with this type of light in 1954’s “Homage to Matisse” which is directly inspired by the Fauvist’s “Nuit de Noel” (1952). In “Noel,” Matisse is attempting to capture the sublime beauty of stained glass windows, which was enormously influential for Rothko as well. Both are tall, lean canvases with contrasting warm and cool hues, and a translucent glazing. Stained glass windows captured the artistic imagination of both of these artists because of their rich, yet pellucid hues. One can simultaneously look at and through them, which creates an atmosphere of divine splendor and grace.
Henri Matisse “Nuit de Noel” (1952)
Cage, John. “Color as Subject.” Mark Rothko. Ed. Weiss, Jeffrey. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005. 246-264.