Sublime and Spiritual in Art: Rothko and Twombly
“The Sublime is Now,” a 1948 text by Barnet Newman marked the beginning of the search for the sublime in the works of art. Hence, instead of continuing the ancient tradition of creating pieces of art closer to rationality, artists such as Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly shied away from these rational conventions, creating pieces that are not meant to be interpreted in a formalist way. Conversely, the artists attempted to create pieces that broke the conventions of the modernist painting, using psychological devices that show a truer interpretation of their work, rather than those of their color, form and dimensions. Likewise, by leaving behind the mold of the shape and structure, Rothko and Twombly set aside these conventions to achieve a higher moral ground with paintings that did not please the senses, but the soul (Marty 1).
With those precepts in mind, we chose two paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA). The first, Untitled (1955) by Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko’s Black on Grey (1969). Moreover, we shall analyze each painting on the grounds of their visual descriptions along with their value as objects of art. However, to understand what lies underneath these pieces we shall use the Nietzschean notion of the Dionysian in the work of art as our conceptual and philosophical framework and approach to the paintings.
Visually, there is not much to say about the paintings. Black on Gray is a rather simple composition. However, by saying “simple” we are not saying that it is easy or less artistic. On the contrary, it shows the evolution of Rothko’s first paintings, limiting his palette, mostly composed of warm colors and introducing black and gray, giving the painting a sacred appearance, betraying his past influences and his modernist approach (MoMA 1). Likewise, Rothko’s painting, done with synthetic polymer painting reflects the willing of the artist to adopt and adapt to the new materials. Regarding the size, most of Rothko’s paintings are huge and Black on Grey is not an exception. Measuring 198 x 168.2 centimeters, the painting his huge, and its colors evoke a sense of Kantian sublime due to the sheer size of the painting and the colors, eliciting a feeling of dread and fear that comes with the size and color palette. Moreover, despite being dichromatic, the brush’s strokes follow the unspoken conventions of the abstract expressionism, as Rothko used the body, allowing the stroke to be seen, rather than hiding it from the view, giving the painting a powerful and natural appearance.
On the other hand, Cy Twombly’s Untitled, is a much smaller piece, measuring 62 x 91.7 centimeters. However, its size does not strip it of its power, as the painting evokes a feeling of discomfort and suffering due to the chaotic nature of the lines and the precarious character of the paper. In this matter, Twombly seems to follow a much more contemporary approach, not only because of the subject matter but also because of the materials used and the non-figurative approach he took. However, Twombly’s most known works are non-figurative as well, unlike Rothko’s first paintings in the 40s and 50s. Likewise, Twombly’s piece seems almost painful to watch, as its size does not seem to be its main attractive. Instead, Twombly line creates a powerful portrait of the mind of the artist, showing the spiritual nature of his work.
That being said, Twombly’s paintings reflect a different part of the Dionysian. To Nietzsche, the Dionysian represents the non-rational qualities of the spirit. Dionysus represents the mysticism, emotion, and chaos of the human spirit. Dionysus represents the darkness, the drunkness of the spirit, (Nietzsche 2). These uncontrolled emotions that art seems to have lost in the modernism. Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian is related to the Kantian sublime, but while the sublime asks for the distance, the Dionysian nature of art demands a closer experience to understand the emotions of the artists. Hence, we see in Black on Gray a much more religious piece, a piece that elicits spirituality. Rothko’s painting seems to demand closeness to God, to the deity. Both parts, gray, and black are separated, but both are part of the same unity, like the Dionysian and the Apollonian parts of the soul. In Black on Grey
, Marko Rothko shows the dichotomy of the human soul, a soul that does not fight its instincts but accepts them and incorporate them into the life.
Likewise, Twombly is a representation of the Dionysian, but a much rawer and direct representation as it shows a direct and clear view of the artist’s convoluted process. Instead of choosing canvas, choosing paper also shows the ephemeral nature of Twombly’s work and his desire to show the inner works of his mind. Untitled’s force, as we have said, does not come from its size, but from the strength of the line and the control of the application, because even though they seem visceral and tormented, they are still controlled, signaling a surprising use of the technique. Hence, Untitled is not religious. Instead, it is much more Dionysian on the grounds of its closeness to the inner emotions of the human, emotions that most artists did not explore and were a mark of the beginning of the revival of the emotion in the contemporary art.Works Cited
Marty, T.D. “Psychosis and the Sublime in American Art: Rothko and Smithson.” Tate Museum. Tate Research, 2013. Web. <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/timothy-d-martin-psychosis-and-the-sublime-in-american-art-rothko-and-smithson-r1136831>.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
“Untitled. 1969-70.” Mark Rothko. Untitled. 1969-70. MoMA, 2015. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <http://www.moma.org/collection/works/79611?locale=es>.
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