Rothko: “Magenta, Black, Green on Orange” 85 x 65″  1949 (Museum of Modern Art via W’pedia)

Rothko’s touch

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: too much attention to theory, and not enough to the excitement of discovery.

Albers: “Homage to the Square” 24 x 24″ 1965 (Detroit Institute of Art via W’pedia)


St. Thomas Acquinas in Prayer c.1430   9.3 x 15″         (Budapest Museum of Fine Arts)

Burning a Heretic

I think of the work of Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, known as il Sassetta (1392 – 1450) as quiet and contemplative but full of layers, as in this image of St. Thomas Acquinas. The main event is right up front, but then the eye begins to wander this way and that and into the deep spaces. It never goes far without encountering some new shape, some variation, some richness.

And then there is his amazing “Burning of a Heretic.” You wouldn’t call it contemplative, but there is a reserved quality to it, an almost anthropological dispassion. There is discovery and richness, but instead of shapes and spaces, here Sassetta observes types. The heretic and the horse in the center are the only parties who seem to be taking the event seriously. The spectators are calm, the soldiers uninvolved, the flock of chubby priests (Sassetta’s little dig?) off on their own head trip. The fire tender is quietly absorbed in his work, oblivious to the substance of the action.

Burning of a Heretic     c.1430   10 x 15″  (National Gallery of Victoria)




Walt Whitman — David Levine

Colette — Irving Penn 1951













The pose used in each of the three pieces here, with the subject leaning back from the viewer, creates a contemplative distance, a separation.

Colette is nearest of the three. Her distance is a conversational one as if across the tea table, but there’s a hierarchical implication. She isn’t eagerly engaging us. She’s waiting. Are you worthy?

Then Whitman. Here the distance is in time, which Levine creates by the open foreground. Colette’s arm and hand form a diagonal approach to her face; here a few nervous, sketchy lines perform the same function, but describe nothing beyond remove. The shadowy brim of his hat is like eternity, into which he is in the process of receding.

Camille On Her Deathbed — Claude Monet 1879


And then Camille. Here again the approach is diagonal, from lower right to upper left. As with Whitman, the distance is one of time.

The long foreground also carries a personal, domestic implication. Monet must have set up his easel at the foot of her bed, and spent some time there, painting his dead wife.



A favorite: Barbari’s plan of Venice

Jacopo de’ Barbari’s woodcut, “Plan of Venice, 1500”, falls into the engaging category of artful representation–fact-based, but full of life. It’s huge–about four by six feet.


Barbari was obviously no slave to literal description, especially in matters of perspective and scale. This isn’t surprising, if only because he never saw an aerial view. Think how boring the piece would be if he had done a flat map or attempted some low, convincing viewpoint–or if those lively ships were reduced to fly specks. Instead we get the city as a busy, almost abstract shape with a lot of texture to it, which is cleverly held against the picture plane by the foreground islands, the long horizontal of the distant coast, and the various gods and winds that surround it.