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Exploring the Character of Color

By Christopher Andreae / May 11, 1992

AN art "of balance, of purity, and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be ... like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue."

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This is how French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) summarized his aims on a number of occasions. It is the kind of unassuming comment that might be expected from a modest man. It hardly hints at his seriousness or justifies the conviction of Matisse's greatness that many other artists and writers about art have had. But the potency of his work has been evident in this century by its widespread liberating effect. And this effect, given the particularly French character of his paintings, with their sunli t joie de vivre, and even their hedonism, has turned up in surprising quarters.

It could not have been entirely expected, for instance, that a tanner's son, "a Connecticut yankee" who was still only a Sunday painter at the age of 39, might before the end of his late-flowering career, be dubbed "the American Matisse." This was Milton Avery (1885-1965).

Perhaps an even more surprising admirer of both Avery and Matisse was the Latvian-born emigre artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), who became one of the "names" of the so-called Abstract Expressionist period of American art (1940s-60s). But the intense solemnity of this painter, instilling the heroic presence of his apparently simple, gentle-edge bands and rectangular areas of resonant color with deep currents of feeling, would seem a far cry from Matisse's light touch and domestic subject-matter.

Rothko, for all his admiration of the French master, wanted very much to distance his art from Matisse's - which would suggest, perversely, that he knew very well his debt to him. In fact, according to art critic and curator William Rubin, he "was always anxious lest he be taken for a painter in the vein of Matisse, whom he nonetheless dearly loved." And in no way would Rothko have called his art "an armchair"!

The problem was that the language both painters used was saturated color. Both asked of color expressive possibilities hardly imagined before. Color was their principal means of conveying what Matisse called his emotion. "My purpose," he said, "is to render my emotion."

But color had always traditionally been considered the flighty, unpredictable, and even the trivial part of a painter's means. Color was the Romantic as opposed to the Classic, the sensuous as opposed to the intellectual, something belonging to surface rather than depth, both factually and metaphorically. But color also has an intangibility that can, in inspired hands, be transcendent.

CERTAINLY Matisse, and later Rothko in his scrupulously reduced ordering of his paintings, knew that for color to be transcendent, it had to have some basic structure underlying it - but not a straitjacket, or some elaborate complexity of lines. Color must be allowed to breathe, to expand easily into the space or depth of a painting. It must be able to follow its own rules - or lack of rules. And it must be "simple."

Both Matisse and Rothko were not afraid of simplicity. As early as 1943, in the manifesto he wrote with Adolph Gottlieb, Rothko advocated "the simple expression of the complex thought" and the "unequivocal large shape." And Matisse stated, "I use the simplest colors. I don't transform them myself, it is the relationships which take charge of them. It is only a matter of enhancing the differences, of revealing them. Nothing prevents composition with a few colors, like music which is built on only seven no tes."

Rothko was sensitive about the understanding of his color paintings in a way that Matisse never was. Once (as recorded by critic and poet Selden Rodman) he disclaimed not only any desire to make "abstract" paintings, but added: "I'm not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else.... I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on - and the fact that ... people ... cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate human emotions." A ll the same, color, carefully related and placed, was Rothko's indisputable means of expression.