Modern Art and Spirituality: Rothko

Your Long Lost Brother

Rothko is like a long-lost sibling, met in a serendipitous way, and without which you cannot imagine living. But the connection isn’t based on the optimism and excitement often shared in such a discovery. Rather, Rothko is your commiserator. He and his work sits in silence, looks at the world’s sad state, and sighs with you.

Strange, then, that Rothko does not make Taylor’s list of spirituals but Stoker’s. Taylor, however, remains obsessed with artists who reconnect with “nature”. Stoker, on the other hand, homes in on artists who channel the Zeitgeist. And if anything Rothko’s Multiforms channel unadulterated tragedy.

Yes, Nietzsche Again: But Also Freud And Jung

Nietzsche is a name which has often surfaced during our tour of modern art. Rothko too was influenced by the philosophical titan of Europe but also by Freud and Jung. Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy convinced Rothko his art should alleviate modern despair. But Freud and Jung influenced him to strip such cures of narrative and complexity. No, pure radical transcendence should ooze from the canvas; none of his Jewish background should show.

Brightness, at first, permeated his Multiform-therapy but things soon grew dark. And the darkness drew until his suicide in 1970. He wanted his large canvasses to suck people in, and in the end, they sucked him in.

Rothko Chapel

In Houston, Texas stands an artifice dedicated to Rothko’s spiritual vision: the Rothko Chapel. First intended as a Roman Catholic space now it does interfaith duty. Mostly dark-colored Multiforms plaster the exposed concrete walls. Tragedy and trauma suck you in.

Spirituality has for too long disavowed its power to elicit darkness: religious, secular, or something in between. But for us who are aware of this deep wound, a new light may spring if we contemplate it. Today, especially, a pilgrimage to Houston, to face our own darkness is, maybe, more needed than ever.

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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