The Whitechapel Gallery in London is currently hosting a small exhibition to celebrate the anniversary of Rothko’s first solo showing in 1961. As the exhibit includes letters and artefacts from the time relating to the organisation and curating of the original exhibition, our invite of the month James Black explores the world of Art therapy through the artist’s correspondence.

The role of a counsellor is to create space, a context, a crucible in which the client can experience their emotions, process pain, and resolve dilemmas. This is a school of psychotherapy which calls for a limited input from the therapist and Mark Rothko once said something similar about his own art; he adamantly refuted the idea that art was an escapism but paradoxically understood its role in giving pause to a culture that was caught up in the momentum of distraction.

One famous quote includes this diagnosis of the modern challenge: “…many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence, where we can root and grow….”

There is only one painting on show. True to the spirit of its creator though, its loneliness adds to the emotional confrontation of the piece. Red Light Over Black (1957) can be seen as a misleading name for this work. It suggests a simple contrast of two colours, therefore a clash of opposed emotions. Nothing is further from the truth in this painting, and the effect it has on its audience. At the initial encounter, you are drawn in to the central rectangle, an absorbing and often overwhelming depth of black. It is almost impossible to look at this part of the painting directly. The black is seductive but inconvenient, beyond black. The effect, the material, biological effect is one of awkwardness and discomfort to the retina, rather like looking through the glasses of someone with an extreme prescription. The longer you look at this work the starker the irony of your journey becomes. In the hope of some sensory relief, you move your eyes to the lower rectangle. Here, your eyes find a softer, more natural focus, an apparent resting place compared to the universe of black above.

However, this aspect of the work has hidden in it horrors of its own. The black here is closer to charcoal, a thick but penetrable industrial dust. There is little of the former density here, but a looser, formless spread of colour. The rectangle itself is in fact shapeless, and appears to disintegrate in a gradual way, becoming a smoke of whispish, black cirrus. As a result of this, the red frame of beautiful scarlet on which the central rectangles of this Rothko are bedded, is given a deeper emphasis. This disappearance of form that occurs in the lower rectangle is itself disconcerting, even tragic, and it sits with you in emotional unrest.

Whereas the dark above is too dense, the lower aspect is troubling in its thinness and lack of completion. You find yourself longing for the physical discomfort rather than the arresting vagueness of the lower rectangle. In this painting one finds oneself caught between a series of equally intolerable but very disparate choices of emotion. The so-called red of the top rectangle is no refuge either. Rather than red, it’s closer to the live pink of the flesh, the colour of the human heart. In it you find a rawness and vulnerability reminiscent of other “red” Rothko’s, where he seems to be painting real blood wounds.

Whatever one’s emotional journey is in response to this work, the exhibition at the Whitechapel is enough, despite its humble range, to prove that Rothko was far from an abstract artist. Rothko’s work is a form of therapy. You cannot engage with it without space and without time, and in doing so one is confronted by the horrors and dreams of one’s own heart. Your own breathing becomes an orchestra in your chest. The real art, is the delicacy of your emotional situation.

The Whitechapel exhibition runs until February 26.


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