Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970) is noted for his rich and moody color fields, but color is only part of what makes them so effective. It’s his touch that keeps the eye engaged. He didn’t just mark off rectangles and hog them in; they are veils, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, so that one never quite loses the under layers and the effect of the several colors. More, his edges are never simple or predictable. Pick an edge–any edge–and follow it. Sometimes it will be firm, sometimes hazy; sometimes straight, sometimes meandering. In the presence of an actual Rothko you can put your eye close to an edge and follow it, and you will never be able to predict, from what is happening in front of you, what will happen six inches on. Everything–shapes and their edges and the spaces between–are exploring and testing all the time–which is what a viewer must do to really see and experience a Rothko.
By comparison with which, the vaguely similar researches of Josef Albers (1888-1976) leave me admiring in theory, but unengaged. He did hundreds of them. They remind me of reading the dictionary: informative, but not life-enhancing. I put them in rather the same category as Derain’s “Bridge Over the Riou,” discussed here on November 28: too much attention to theory, and not enough to the excitement of discovery.
There are two interesting pieces by Andre Derain (1880-1954) from the William S. Paley Collection, now showing at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. The first, “The Seine at Chatou,” seems to have been painted in one session with a few touchups afterwards. It also seems to have been painted on the spot, judging from the immediacy of the handling and a wide streak of scratchings on the left side (not visible here) that look as if it was dragged past a bush on the way home. It exhibits a sense of exploration: he wouldn’t have painted this view if it hadn’t appealed to him, so there is a sense that there are things here, like that long, long branch to the left, and the awkwardly u-shaped ones on the right, simply because they were in front of him. But there is also the discipline imposed by a well-trained painter: the oblique shape of the foreground, and the many horizontal stripes across the middle that lock the vagaries of nature into a structured composition.
It’s interesting to compare that with “Bridge Over the Riou,” painted in the same year. Whatever the view which at some remove inspired it, it’s a construction, a formal exercise. There is the same system of underlying shapes, but the forms and colors are pre-cooked and introduced to serve this or that abstract function. No doubt painting it was an adventure for Derain, but it was an assertion, not an exploration. And while “The Seine at Chatou” has some flabby and undigested bits, I find it more intriguing in its push-me-pull-you tension with an actual scene than the arbitrary formal assertions of “Bridge Over the Riou.”
I was greatly impressed by the pugnacity of the armor of Henry VIII when I first saw it, years ago, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York –the broad, looming shoulders and aggressive face shape. Royal armor tends to be fancy, but this suit is not just for show–it’s for business. I didn’t think of it as a species of portraiture, but in fact it quite resembles the figure in Holbein’s famous portrait: square, chunky, aggressive. So it’s amusing to compare Henry and his armor with that of his contemporary, Ferdinand I. Ferdinand’s portrait is feebler than Henry’s, but presumably there’s truth to it. His armor looks quite like him, which is to say, rather geeky. There’s no question in my mind which of them I would prefer to fight.