The many masks of modern art

Love is very much a part of art. We paint pictures of our loved ones, and manage, in this way, to communicate something of what we feel for them. We do the same in paintings of favorite dogs and cats, houses, and land to which we've become particularly attached; beautiful scenery we remember fondly, and the things, large and small, that make up our lives.

We also use art to shape and convey a love for order (Cezanne), ideal form (Brancusi), color (Matisse), or any number of other qualities, ideals, and ideas. And it is certainly true that the relationship between the artist and his art form is often a passionate and lifelong love affair.

Love has also been the subject of art - witness the numerous French paintings of the mid to late eighteenth century devoted to the more secular aspects of this subject, and the many English pictures of the nineteenth century in which love's more spiritual nature is examined in great detail.

Love is also expressed through the way paint is handled, or the way wood or clay is treated. There are artists who caress and handle special kinds of paper as though they contained the secrets of the universe or the greatest art in the world - which of course they do if only they could be brought out.

But for all of this, it is color that seems to embody love most simply and openly, and that gives vent to painting's most lyrical and loving outpourings and effusions.

Color can do almost anything in art and in life. It can touch the lowest and deepest notes of human experience, or it can hop and leap about as merrily as the happiest of gazelles. It can move us, delight us, excite us, and enchant us. But most of all, and this is true for all of us but most especially for those painters in love with color, it can cause the human heart to soar and to sing.

Color has the capacity to burst, to explode, even to match the effects of fireworks. One reason for this is that color is actually light, that is, every color is a ''facet,'' a ''splinter,'' of pure light, and is as much a part of light itself as an arc is part of a circle. Every color has a very special ''dependency'' relationship with every other color. Blue, for instance, is every bit as ''incomplete'' in itself as is the shard of a broken pot, or the number ''2'' of a total of 12. Colors, consequently, interact in very special ways and according to very precise laws. Blue mixed with yellow produces green. Blue mixed with red produces violet or purple. And should we mix all the colors together evenly and carefully, we would, ideally, end up with pure white. (The fact that we cannot make this happen is the fault of impure paint pigments and the inclusion of binding agents.)

A great colorist is a great dramatist, for he knows that the secret of color lies in manipulating the tensions existing between individual colors and not in giving them all equal weight or emphasis. Thus, a colorist such as Matisse will achieve his desired effects by decreasing the number of colors and maximizing the tensions between the ones he uses. In other words, were he working with numbers instead of colors, he would not state that 2+2+2+2+2+2 EQUALS 12, but would, rather, say that 43 EQUALS 12, that 111/9+8/9 EQUALS 12, or possibly even that 19-7 EQUALS 12. He would, in short, try to create coloristic drama, and would leave the flat and unimaginative laying-out of color to beginning artists or to those with a poor color sense.

Since colors, like chemicals, can result in some rather startling effects when brought together, it's a crucial part of an artist's job to know what these effects are and how to bring them about. Toward this end, both intuition and science (in the form of color analysis and theory) have been brought more consistently into play today, often with remarkable results. Never-before-seen color combinations have sprung up in great profusion during this century, both because color has been intensively studied as never before and because color has achieved a level of autonomy it has never before known. With this autonomy, painting, freed from the necessity to use color in a descriptive and ''realistic'' sense, surged forward toward full and free color-expression much the way a hunting dog will bound toward its prey when released from its leash.

Color burst into the limelight in this century with the Fauves, and has never really taken a backseat since. One reason is the way artists themselves now see color. Kandinsky, for instance, wrote of the spiritual nature of color, and Paul Klee saw it in musical terms. And Robert Natkin speaks of using color as a verb - a concept, I suspect, no premodernist painter, except possibly Rubens and Delacroix, would have understood. But then, would our great modern forefathers Cezanne and Van Gogh have understood the totally subjective way color was used by the Abstract-Expressionists or by the literal manner of the Minimalists? I doubt it . They would, I'm certain, have thought some of their color effects handsome and intriguing enough. But art? I rather think not.

What we would have no difficulty explaining to the artists before our time, however, would be color's effect upon us, its ability to move, excite, delight, or enchant us. That, apparently, has remained quite constant through the years.

Mark Rothko's paintings are a good case in point. I'm convinced that anyone from the past, even Raphael or Durer, attending Rothko's retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum a few years ago, would have immediately grasped the broodingly interior, slightly melancholy, and occasionally even somewhat tragic nature of his art. And they would have gotten the message entirely from his color, since nothing else in his paintings would have made any sense to them.

Rothko produced some of the most hauntingly evocative paintings of this century, and he did it largely through color. True enough, size and scale (many of his canvases are huge), the severe frontality of his images, and the subtle modulations of his surfaces were also important. But it was color that carried the main expressive burden of his mature art, and carried it well.

It was color, however, that was underplayed and kept to a minimum, and consisted generally of reds and browns, with a little black, an occasional blue, and often a slender sliver or shaft of off-white, yellow, or ochre. If Matisse's color reminds us somewhat of jazz music at its liveliest and most jubilant, Rothko's conjures up cellos and basses playing softly - with a touch of flute here and there as an accent, and to add a note of poignancy.

The result is a somber and deeply meditative art that quietly draws us in, enfolds us, and releases subtly metaphysical resonances and intimations within us. But for me it does even more. To a greater extent than any other art of recent years, Rothko's best paintings force me to confront myself and to concern myself with my identity and destiny. In front of (within) his best paintings, I stand utterly and searchingly alone.

The painting reproduced on this page, while relatively early and transitional , presents us with the main elements of Rothko's mature imagery.

Contrary to what the black-and-white photograph suggests, this is a very warm and luminous work. The dark rectangle at the top is actually a pulsatingly rich violet that is separated from areas of, first, orange and then yellow by a narrow band of black. Framing all that is a border of white and yellow that is topped off by a vertical stripe of red on either side of the violet.

Nothing could be simpler, and yet this work represents the distillation of a profoundly sensitive and caring man's deepest intuitions about life and art. Intuitions which would, over the remaining twenty years of Rothko's life, take these basic forms, colors, and relationships and continually hone them until they represented the very finest and subtlest points and nuances of his insights and sensibilities. And by doing so, create some of the most questioning and moving paintings of this century.

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