Ramez Qureshi

Rothko and the Sublime

Rothko in his 69th Street studio with Rothko Chapel murals, c. 1964, Hans Namuth Estate, courtesy Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona

I stood in line outside the Whitney on a fine autumn day, awaiting admission to the Rothko retrospective. Cloud coverage: complete. Cars: lumberly jagging by, emitting a honk now and then. Picturesquely placed, in a contemporary urban sense: a pushcart vender. Five to ten twenty story buildings lined each side of the road. What else could I be experiencing but the sublime? The concept’s modern locus classicus is Kant’s third critique of course, in which it the sublime is predicated upon affect, an agitation, an unsettling, a perturbation of the mind mixing pleasure with pain caused by that which is "absolutely great" in nature, which causes awe, an aesthetic quality which does not belong to nature but rather is occasioned by the eidetic and has as its definition an activity of the mind. It is not my sublime experience outside the Whitney I wish to focus upon in this essay, but my sublime experience inside the Whitney, before the work of Mark Rothko, those unmistakable pieces of the final twenty years of his life: the planar colorized fields whcih help define the glory years of Abstract Expressionism. I mention this because the sublime, as a modality of experiencing being is, as Jeffrey Librett argues in his "Afterword" to Of the Sublime: Presence in Question, always present, essential to defining being itself. Librett argues that it is the sublime that makes for the ontic in Heidegger’s reading of Kant. Rather, I would suggest that it is the beautiful – Kant’s agreeable, anything "under foot" to Cage, that upon which the gaze fixes upon -- which is always present, the sublime rearing its head on the surface, foregrounded most in works of art. As certainly as I experienced a moment of the sublime before experiencing the sublime before the Rothko, not seeing him autonomously, but rather as part of a string of aesthetic experiences, you are experiencing this essay as part of a string of aesthetic experiences, though, modestly enough, the degree of sublimity which surfaces in this essay is, I don’t think, very high.

It should be no secret as to what the secret of Rothko is, but misunderstandings continue, only evidencing Adorno’s maxim that "it is self-evident that nothing in art is self evident." Though we have relativized "truth," come to different perspective, there is perhaps responsibility to, as Benjamin saw it in his essay on "The Concept of Art Criticism in Early German Romanticism" arrive at a just understanding of the object under circumspection. It is perhaps above all Clement Greenberg’s fault that misunderstandings of Rothko’s work continue to circulate. Greenberg’s championship of the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko among them, for formal pictorial values, led to a reading of Rothko on such merits as, in Greenberg’s words, "the rectilinear," "dividing lines," and above all, "color." So that Greenberg’s rival, Harold Rosenberg, himself defender of existential values, could sound quite like Greenberg, writing, "Rothko had reduced painting to volume, tone, and color, with color as the vital element," all the while recognizing that the pattern of "three or four horizontal blocks of color" that Rothko sustained for twenty years comprised, "the substance of his emotional life," "the exhilarated tragic experience... the only source book of art." This narrow formalist rendering of Rothko is sustained in The Whitney’s catalogue to the Rothko retrospective in John Gage’s essay, "Rothko: Color as Subject." Rothko insisted that he was not a proto-Color Field painter. Rather, he stated that he wanted his viewer to break down in tears before his work, dramas he called them ("I think of my pictures as dramas"). The attempt to whitewash Rothko’s emotional life from his painting elides the necessary subject-object dialectic involved in the construction of the artwork. In order to speak of the sublime in Rothko’s opus, we will have to look at both the formal and the expressive.

It has become taboo to speak of beauty in art, but why not speak of the sublime? The discourse is as old as Boileau’s Longinus, saw its crystallization in Kant, and had in this century its most famous spokesperson in Benjamin’s mourning over the loss of "aura" in his "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Rothko indeed validates Benjamin’s comments over the loss of aura. One simple cannot view a reproduction of a Rothko the same way by which one stands before it: indeed, Rothko instructed his viewers to stand two feet away from his paintings in order to receive the right effect. SO one stands before a Rothko, submerged in this often tragic representation of emotional tumult represented by colors in three or four blocks. Here begins the experience of the sublime. The sublime depends, writes Derrida, in The Truth in Painting on "the colossal," and one remembers Rothko’s statement, "I paint very large pictures." A typical Rothko canvas is 102 1/8 x 66 inches. The sublime has traditionally been a discourse of magnitude, and one is simply dwarfed before a Rothko painting.

But there is also the issue of affect. What matters is what one feels before a Rothko. A New Critic could never be a true believer in the sublime. Before the drama, often tragic, of the Rothko canvas, one is jettisoned into that unmistakable state of pleasure and pain which Kant identifies as the sublime, "at once a feeling of displeasure... and a simultaneously awakened pleasure." One is in awe in aesthetic pleasure: there is the sublime as the extension of beauty of color placed in voluminous form, arranged in perfect harmony, whose pleasure as magnified by the knowledge of the drama at work, of the emotional trauma – and this is the expressive element – being represented. Yet there is pain in the forced identification, pain in entering this world, pain in being before an aesthetic object which forces itself upon the viewer so overwhelmingly. Then there is the Burkean sublime – the hint of privation, the fears of death, of the possibility of our own pain invoked, in Burke’s words, "Darkness, Solitude and Silence" caused by those eidetic moments which for Rilke were so beautiful that they were nothing but "the birth of terror." There is a Hegelian sublime at work as well – the absolutely beautiful, the beautiful defined as "the sensuous appearance of the idea," the idea being the emotional drama, the absolute manifest in those moments of perception when a Rothko painting hits us most viscerally. In the Hegelian schema, we are free to introduce the concept of varicosity, varicosity defined as the return of the sensuous after the triumph of the symbolic in post-Romantic art, as Hegel outlined his art history, sensuousity being necessary to the phenomenological reception of the work of art, even if the Hegelian symbolic of the idea has triumphed: if Rothko is "about" emotional conflict, he still must be embodied in voluminous forms. An additional quality of the sublime at play here is the formless, which Kant pinpoints in the third critique, and which Barnett Newman literalizes in his famed "the Sublime is Now" essay on Abstract Expressionism, writing "the sublime consists of an effort to destroy form; where form can be formless." He sees this effort reach its culmination in Abstract Expressionism. Now of course Rothko is not "formless," yet he is not naturalistic, so the formless is not conveyed: it is represented, the sublime redoubled in an overwhelming sublimity which says that the object will make the viewer experience the sublime from the outset.

This is all at a superficial level, a third degree aesthetic, the sublime as the aesthetic quality of the sublime foregrounded object of the beautiful phenomenological. There are other manifestations of the sublime in Rothko. Consider the masking of emotions and the rhetoric of color: here is a sublime art of hide and seek, of presence and absence which defeats giveness while confirming it. The issue of presence and the sublime is central. The sublime is as we have said, a magnitude of presence itself, which can be raised to the third degree in art, in a Rothko drama.

In his essay "Tragedy and Sublimity," Jean-Francois Courtine traces Schelling’s association between the tragic and the sublime – and this certainly pertains to Rothko – the sublime related to the sense of tragedy of humankind’s destiny before the infinite, which Kant defined as "absolutely (not merely comparatively) great" in the "Analytic of the Sublime" of the Third Critique. Schelling’s tragic sublime would be the very nature of the Rothko tragedy, the essence of tragedy being that of human destiny before the infinite.

The sublime began as a discourse of rhetoric, in Longinus’s text, On the Sublime. Since we now treat deconstruct figuration as text (and vice versa as we please), we can in fact see Rothko as a rhetorician, his pictorial language an "elevated language," as Longinus has it, employing "vehement and inspired passion," expressed in "two sorts of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression." Rothko’s work is indeed conceptualized expressed drama, the pictorial planes serving as pictorial devices. Thought and passion are nature for Longinus, synthesized with schema, phrasis (choice of words, or colors in Rothko’s case, and rhythm, the balance of the painting. The latter three constitute techne. The synthesis of techne in Rothko: colors balanced in scheme and nature: thought and expression or pattern, makes for the most primal of sublimes.

Discourse on the sublime as always focused on the sublime as a concept, or has having a conceptual or generic typos. I would like to suggest a nominalism that each object creates its own version of the sublime: no two Rothko paintings will strike us alike, however essentialist the reception will be. Another shortcoming of discourse on the sublime is that it focuses on the object or the concept, never on the producer, save for Longinus’s emphasis on the rhetorician, or Jean Luc-Nancy’s emphasis on the "sublime offering." There is exactly that, an offering, and this becomes especially clear with Rothko. In Rothko, the subject behind the sublime object returns with a vengeance. The author may be dead, the object a result of social forces of production, as Foucault hints, but how could one look at a Rothko and ignore the fact that this was the work of a single producer? Impossible. The viewing of the sublime in a Rothko is not a mere subject put into utrmoil confronting an object but specifically a subject put into turmoil confronting an object made by a subject in turmoil.

A subject who eventually committed suicide, his last mighty dramas supreme tragedies. Much has been made of the "ideology of the aesthetic" recently and I have not ignored my own ideology in this essay. I have used the aesthetic first as perception itself, a means of wiping past ideology, second as the manifestation of the Rothko drama. This is an ideology of the subject in turmoil, an ideology of the aesthetic which looks at the aesthetic as an expression of a subject in defense, in this case one who declared "I am still an anarchist" in the year of his suicide, and reacts appropriately; the subject-created object perception and affect mechanism it is an act of Habermasian solidarity with a fellow subject in the truth of emotional experience. Rothko’s politics are inseparable from his poetics. The attitude he brought toward his art was the same attitude for liberation he brought toward his life.

Editor's Note: Ramez Qureshi died on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 2001. He was 28. A regular contributor to this magazine (and many others, online and off), and a friend of the editor and numerous others in the poetry world, Ramez will be greatly missed.

A post to the UB Poetics List from the editor and from Ramez's sister, Sofia Qureshi, can be found here.

The following comprises all known links to Ramez's work online:


from "An Idea and/but (an) Idea alone of Order"


"Fields" (a verse review of the Francesco Clemente retrospective at the Guggenheim)

Essays and Reviews

Review of Jerome Rothenberg's A Paradise of Poets

Review of Barbara Guest's Rocks on a Platter

Review of J.H. Prynne's Poems

Review of Armand Schwerner's The Tablets

Review of Stuart Merrill's The White Tomb

"Rothko and the Sublime"

Review of Tom Raworth's Tottering State

Review of Nick Piombino's Theoretical Objects

Review of Fanny Howe's Selected Poems

Review of Richard Kostelanetz's John Cage: Writer

Review of Johanna Drucker's Figuring the Word

Letter to NY Times re Eugene Montale

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