Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The last American painters of colossal spiritual ambition were such artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell—the Abstract Expressionists. It is chiefly the scale of this ambition that unites these figures, for their spiritual beliefs and artistic practice covered a spectrum too broad for any snug label.

Some were clearly abstract (Pollock, Rothko, Newman), others strongly biomorphic (Gorky, Motherwell) or on occasion defiantly figurative (de Kooning). None was really expressionist after the manner of early twentieth-century German expressionism, though some of de Kooning’s best work comes close. Pollock was the most obviously expressionist in the mid-century American sense of discovering and unloosing his truest self in his art. Newman on the other hand found “expressionism” to be a catch-all term for the promotion of vague and slovenly feeling, and he declared for an art of philosophical clarity and rigor. It was not without reason that de Kooning insisted, “It is disastrous to name ourselves.” Rothko for his part blamed the ill-fitting moniker on uncomprehending outsiders; he claimed to be neither abstract (quite untrue) nor expressionist (more true than not).

The grand conception of the artist’s spiritual capacity and visionary role, however, they all partook of. When the painter and exigent pedagogue Hans Hofmann suggested Pollock work from nature, Pollock flashed, “I am nature.” Others, though less exorbitant in their self-regard, possessed an equally exalted sense of their calling. Motherwell intended to probe not only nature but the supernatural as deeply as a man can reach: “I know that there is a world of the spirit that can be approached, that its being is undeniable once one has experienced it . . . [and] that one would die for it.” Still said of his own art that “a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation.” Newman averred that if his painting were properly understood “it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.”

Three recent books contribute to the painters’ legendary status as modernist grand masters. Rothko’s The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art, a text written probably in 1940 but discovered in his papers only in 1988, eighteen years after his suicide, shows an artist celebrated for philosophizing in paint could also philosophize in prose. Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné gathers reproductions of Newman’s painted oeuvre and includes introductory essays that focus on both the paintings and the artist’s voluminous writings. And Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s De Kooning: An American Master is the first biography of the painter whom some regard as the greatest of the Abstract Expressionists. The three books together eloquently summon the artists’ efforts to realize their titanic ambition of rendering the living truth and transforming the world through their painting.

Mark Rothko was born in 1905 as Marcus Rothkowitz, a Russian Jew who emigrated to America as a boy and settled with his parents in Seattle. He attended Yale for a couple years, but found the place intellectually deficient. Determined to become a painter, he went to New York and started working hard. By 1940 he had begun treating mythic subjects in a surrealist manner; falling prey to depression—an illness that would rack his life and eventually take it—he stopped painting for a year or so in 1940, and apparently wrote his book during that time. The Artist’s Reality examines what Rothko considers the artistic undertaking throughout history: the attempt to encompass the physical and spiritual worlds in painted and sculpted forms that represent the myths peculiar to each time and place. All art since the Renaissance (which, he declared, deposed the Christian vision and thereby parted intellect from sensation) has been “a nostalgic yearning for a myth” that would render and restore “the utmost fullness of reality.”

The most modern of artists, by whom Rothko evidently means himself and such friends as Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, might just be coming closer to fulfilling this need than any previous artists. To join sensory experience once again to metaphysical truth is the stated aim: Light is the earthly channel to truth, so painters are best equipped to direct men toward the world beyond the world we see. The artist “tries to give human beings direct contact with eternal verities through reduction of those verities to the realm of sensuality”—a word he tends to use interchangeably with sensuousness—“which is the basic language for the human experience of all things.” Rothko hoped to take on human nature at its farthest reach, as it extends toward the ultimate mysteries: “In our hope for the heroic, and the knowledge that art must be heroic, we cannot but wish for the communal myth again. Who would not rather paint the soul-searching agonies of Giotto than the apples of Chardin, for all the love we have for them?”

Rothko believed he was painting such soul-searching agonies, as well as transfiguring joys, even in the highly abstract paintings he did from the late 1940s till the end of his life—the meditations in color that are what everyone thinks of when Rothkos are mentioned. In 1943, with Newman and Gottlieb, he wrote a letter to a New York Times art critic in which he insisted, “the subject [of a painting] is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” In a 1958 lecture he said that neither his paintings nor Gottlieb’s were abstract, and he declared “a clear preoccupation with death” to be one of the essential aspects of any serious painting.

Not everyone, however, sees what Rothko himself sees when he looks at a Rothko. Hilton Kramer, editor of the New Criterion, registers his disbelief in a 1989 essay called “Was Rothko an Abstract Painter?”: “If we cannot actually see the artist’s metaphysical ‘subject’ in the physical object he has created for the avowed purpose of giving it expression, how can that subject be said to be present in the work?” Kramer then takes apart a Harvard art historian, Anna C. Chave, who sees metaphysical or religious subjects everywhere in Rothko. Chave has made her reputation by claiming certain Rothkos “parallel the pictorial structure” of a pieta or an entombment or a nativity or sometimes even all the above at once. Chave’s concern with content—a content she absurdly confects out of airy nothing—over self-evident form is symptomatic of a growing academic disenchantment with the abstractness of abstract art, Kramer finds, and some abstract artists’ own denials that their paintings are abstract have played into the hands of professorial nincompoops. These artists, Kramer speculates, feared being cut off from the great tradition of Western art, and invented meanings for their work that the work cannot reasonably sustain.

In his recent book The Rape of the Masters, Roger Kimball, Kramer’s editorial colleague at the New Criterion, recapitulates Kramer’s demolition of Chave and her breed—but then goes on to distinguish the purely aesthetic pleasures of abstract painting from the professions of religious significance in which artists and viewers alike have enfolded it. Affecting the sensible accents of logical positivism, Kimball declares that when he looks at a Rothko he sees painted rectangles of a certain size and a certain color, and that is all he sees. To discern a metaphysical subject in the work is to see what is not there. What is there ought to be quite enough. “A sensitive arrangement of simple colored forms can be beautiful. The apprehension of beauty affords pleasure, sometimes an intense pleasure, but a pleasure that is without motive, alibi, or ulterior interest—a pleasure, that is to say, which is complete in itself. The fact that such pleasures also belong to the activities of philosophical and religious contemplation has led many thinkers to draw an analogy between aesthetic and religious experience. How seriously we should take that analogy has been a matter of contention for millennia.”

Others see the matter differently. The poet John Ashbery insisted at the 1978 Rothko retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum: “The effect of these pictures is truly majestic and awe-inspiring, though the awe is of a secular and aesthetic kind. Or rather, one can feel, without sharing it, the religious experience that was color manifesting itself to the painter. And perhaps this is the way it should be. One does not have to be a Dominican to appreciate Fra Angelico or a Carmelite to understand St. Teresa.” In his eulogy for Rothko, Robert Motherwell pinpoints the revelatory strangeness of Rothko’s light and color as the core of his genius: “a color not of bright daylight illuminating strongly colored objects . . . but that instead of a luminescent glow from within. Not the light of the world.”

Rothko painted dozens of large canvases from 1949 to 1969 that are essentially masses of color, usually rectangles longer than they are tall, one placed above the other, sometimes a vertical rectangle above a horizontal, more rarely a single block into which vertical panels are inserted; bands of a third color frame the rectangles. When color is what you concentrate on, fine gradations acquire great significance.

In an untitled painting from 1954 the topmost rectangle of pale gold hovers above a squat rectangle of lavender, here verging on gray, there on blue. A lemony band separates the two; a more saturated yellow frames them both, and the edges of this frame encroach upon the upper rectangle, so that the darker yellow shades into the lighter. Strips of red with feathery edges lie above and below the lavender rectangle. The lavender seems translucent, and the red appears to be seeping through it from underneath, although it also seems possible that the lavender is itself emerging from underneath to engulf the red, which may be fading as it recedes. Surface and depth interpenetrate, so that you cannot distinguish the color that is figure from the color that is ground. This is a characteristic ambiguity in Rothko: looking at becomes seeing into. These subtleties of color create a sense that you are peering into depths that are murky now but may not remain so.

Seeing into the depths is of course one of the most common metaphors for attaining knowledge, especially arcane metaphysical knowledge. Rothko’s way of seeing indicates his mode of thinking: to regard the known world at its confluence with the unknown; to consider what the senses can show and what they cannot. Perhaps, then, Rothko’s forms serve a religious vision prompted by a philosophical interrogation. As he said in 1948, “If painting is based upon the expression of thought rather than mere visual reactions, or sensations, then it can be simultaneous with philosophic thought, it can also be the source of the creation of philosophic decisions, it can be a philosophic expression.”

Familiar color acquires an alien cast in Rothko. In Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red (1949), the colors seem disembodied essences whose effrontery undermines the reality of what we know as the color of things like lemons and raspberries. Orange and Yellow (1956) has a dazzle at once celestial and earthly, as though this were the dynamo that powers the entire operation, employing both ethereal and bodily forces. The colors—of molten sunshine and fire that warms but doesn’t burn—clearly have something to do with the known world even as they indicate an unknown, so that pure spirit for all its strangeness has a certain familiarity.

The singularity of the colors in such paintings as these is that they remind us of the objects we know well while they evoke a world normally out of reach. What he offers is by no means the beatific vision, but rather the sublime: Paintings such as this demonstrate the pathos as well as the rapture of the sublime, which always affords a tantalizing glimpse of the ultimate mysteries but never quite discloses the longed-for truth. Still, Rothko’s art might suggest how near to the beatific vision one might come with mortal eyes.

Rothko’s art presents color as a matter for intent spiritual inquiry. Philosophizing in paint, Rothko asks what color is apart from the objects we see every day. From the opening verses of Genesis on, light and darkness are defining elements of the spiritual world as of the physical. In Black and Maroon (1959), lilac portals open into a darkness otherwise impenetrable, and the warm brightness of the way in suggests that the depths might just be hospitable. Black on Black (1964) is an emblem of negation so potent that life and light seem unthinkable, and then there are the several untitled works from 1969 that are the closest things Rothko did to landscapes, portraying the sterility of polar ice and arctic night. In the notoriously dark works that preceded his suicide, Rothko never quite gives up the struggle: He continues to seek the inward light, as though painting the glimpses he gets of the world within the world might be enough to sustain him against his mind’s darkness.

When Rothko writes that the highest art is tragic, this human incapacity to sound reality to the bottom is one of the things he has in mind. He knows he has bored as deep as he can go, and his paintings are charged with the feeling that comes of reaching the limits of human knowledge: a mélange of ravishment, perplexity, surrender, and longing that is never to be satisfied in this life. “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.”

Barnett Newman (1905-1970) made claims for the spiritual significance of his work every bit as outsized as Rothko’s. Prolific with the pen as with the paintbrush, Newman cranked out manifestos by the yard: proclaiming what art should be and then illustrating his declarations with the most fundamental shapes and colors on enormous canvases. In “The Plasmic Image,” written in 1945, he abjures the dream world of surrealism and the emerging American cult of self-expression in paint. “The present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life which is its sense of tragedy.”

Given this new jolt of metaphysical urgency, the painter will assume his rightful place of honor beside the philosopher and the pure scientist who belong to “the world of ideas, not the world of the senses.” These three vocations revere the truth as their common goal, which is to be attained as surely by artistic vision as by mathematical formulation or abstract speculation.

The best such vision, to Newman’s mind, partakes of mathematical formulation and abstract speculation along with tragic feeling. The new painter, Newman wrote, is “not concerned with geometric forms per se but in creating forms that by their abstract nature carry some abstract intellectual content.” At the time Newman was trying his hand at paintings that could be called vertical proto-Rothkos. The radically pared-down forms that Newman called his “zip” paintings were still three years away, but the direction was making itself clear. The writings of that time certainly make the line of thinking apparent and establish the artist’s unimpeachable intent; but whether the paintings make the thinking visible is a formidable question.

The catalogue raisonné of Newman’s work offers critical essays by Richard Shiff and Carol C. Mancusi-Ungaro. Although Mancusi-Ungaro tries to dislodge “the commonly held conception of Newman as an artist-thinker and artist-writer whose reputation for prose far exceeded his reputation for artistry,” Shiff’s much longer piece tends to reinforce the commonly held conception—unwittingly I think, for Shiff clearly takes Newman’s painting with the sort of seriousness only academic specialists can muster. Shiff attempts to elucidate the way Newman’s rich exiguousness in paint embodies the program set forth in the gnarled jargon of his prose. Onement I (1948), which Newman said changed his life, is a small oil painting of two vertical brown panels divided by a “zip,” a rather blurry orange-red line. Onement I, Shiff insists, “led the artist to the full realization of his new sense of ‘drawing.’ With this kind of drawing he was finally able to ‘fill the void’ or, as he preferred to say (especially during the 1960s), ‘declare a space.’ When Newman made or ‘drew’ his declaration, this was his metaphysical act. It created a space, rather than merely occupying existing space by ‘illustrating the void’ with ‘biomorphic forms.’ . . . Newman performed an act through which he created not only a physical space but also a ‘self’ that identified with it, a metaphysical self fully conscious only in the presence of this very space or mark, his ‘zip,’ his drawing.”

The frightening thing is that Shiff just might understand Newman as he hoped to be understood. Newman certainly had the learning and the force of mind to be seen as serious, whatever he happened to paint, and he certainly conceived his paintings on an intellectually heroic scale. Zips were his central preoccupation from 1948 to 1970, and he turned out many dozens of them. Most were very large, as tall as eighteen feet. Newman painted with brushes at first, then moved on to a spray nozzle affixed to a soda-water atomizer; later, when he had more money, he used a professional spray gun with an air regulator and a hose. At first he favored oil paint, sometimes achieving delicate effects not unlike Rothko’s; but over time he began using an oil-acrylic mixture and eventually came to work mostly in pure acrylic, producing surfaces regular in value and almost flawless in polish. The Rothko-like brushwork that evokes metaphysical depth in such paintings as Dionysius and Cathedra became a distraction from Newman’s primary focus: the massing of walls of color and the glorification of his own intellectual subtlety in the variegated articulations of his signature zips.

Some representative titles of zip paintings indicate his ambition: Achilles, Ulysses, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Adam, Eve, Abraham, Joshua, Uriel, Primordial Light, The Stations of the Cross (a series of fourteen paintings). Thomas B. Hess’ 1971 monograph on Newman, which Shiff calls “essentially a collaboration between artist and critic,” details Newman’s immersion in Jewish mystical literature and his working out an arcane religious program in paint. Preparatory to the actual painting, Newman would deploy columns of numbers to plot the proportions of his works; the position of the zips would sometimes depend on calculations informed by the numerological value of key Hebrew words.

But do the paintings live up to the vehement talk and elaborate program? In Eve (1950) a vast ochre field of almost uniform value has a zip on the right edge, indicating the encroachment of forbidden knowledge and original sin, perhaps. Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950) is bigger and has a little more red and five zips, but still ends up looking an awful lot like Eve ; the proportions of the color masses divided by the zips are not quite Palladian, suggesting an imperfection even in the sublime hero, one supposes. This is not most people’s idea of deep thinking or luminous spirituality.

The first of his Stations of the Cross has a white field suffused with gold, a funerary black band at the left edge, a white zip toward the right edge with smudged black around it; the fourth has an off-white field, a very thin white zip toward the right encased in a column of black, and near the funerary band on the left some needle-like spatters of black; the fourteenth station, also called Entombment, is a field of virgin snow with a pale gray band on the right edge and a darker gray band on the left. Newman wrote in his statement appended to the exhibit of the Stations at the Guggenheim Museum, “The first pilgrims walked the Via Dolorosa to identify themselves with the original moment, not to reduce it to a pious legend; nor even to worship the story of one man and his agony, but to stand witness to the story of each man’s agony; the agony that is single, constant, unrelenting, willed—world without end.”

For all its hectic irreverence, which goes beyond conventional Jewish disbelief in the divinity of Christ, the written statement is far more eloquent than the paintings. In nearly all Newman’s work, the disproportion between brainy conception and sensuous achievement is glaring. The paintings’ titles have a venerable sonority, but the works are rendered in the voice of someone sucking helium: The louder it gets, the sillier it sounds.

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) wanted no part of any supreme intellectual directive. In the 1940s the surrealist vogue for myth, primitivism, and the unconscious enthralled Rothko and Newman as well as Pollock and Gottlieb. De Kooning for his part was not about to chain himself to any fashionable idea. As Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan write in De Kooning: An American Master, “He loved the physical world too much for this kind of skywriting.”

Painting forms prescribed by high-flown palaver held no appeal. In 1959 de Kooning disparaged the flagrant absence of the known world in such abstractionist sects as Suprematism and Purism. What excited him was earth and living flesh; he would give them more vitality than they knew they had. He was the most gifted draftsman of the Abstract Expressionists and, with Rothko, the most vibrant colorist. Drilled in representational precision in his native Holland, de Kooning worked as a commercial artist when he came to New York, and the springing freedom of his line that this discipline earned was the envy of his contemporaries. A spiritual life very much of this earth was what he was after, and he possessed the artistic means of achieving it.

De Kooning’s most famous paintings are his several “Women” he painted in the 1950s, icons of a ghastly fleshliness that, as Stevens and Swan point out, both recall the beauties of the great tradition from Rubens to Picasso and evoke the sirens of Hollywood and cigarette advertisements. The torso of Woman I (1950-52) is a monumental block, almost square, like some Mayan figure. Her breasts look like bubble headlights and account for about a third of her body weight. Her head is a skull with rodent teeth and insect eyes. Her body above the waist is rendered in creamy white with ashen smears; the effect is of irreparably soiled purity. She is wearing a skirt whose colors suggest a festive putrescence, and her formidable hips and thighs are poised like a bear-trap. Woman and Bicycle (1952-53) is every bit as lusty, frightening, and comic. She smiles twice, madly: The second set of choppers appears on her neck, as though prepared literally to disarm anyone fool enough to try to stroke her breasts. The breasts are absurdly pink, like bubble gum. De Kooning depicts the grotesque conjunction of crass commercial Americana and animal sexuality, mass-produced and desired by all. The paintings are blatantly irreverent, offensive to the pious of all stripes, ordinary Christians and high priests of artistic modernism alike.

Stevens and Swan never come out and say so, but the story they tell of de Kooning’s sexual bohemianism—the marriage to a painter and critic as recklessly promiscuous as himself, the betrayals of the women with whom he was betraying his wife, the casual abortions, the widespread psychic damage—reveals that these monsters in the paintings were drawn from life. The creatures who chew up the males of the species and spit them out are the ones a man like de Kooning has fashioned in his own image; they are his soul-mates. Such moralizing is foreign to Stevens and Swan’s sensibilities; they permit the non-judgmental reader to think of their man as lusty and freewheeling rather than vicious and degraded. But their account of the emotional carnage—in the end he and his first wife, Elaine, were ravaged by alcoholism, for neither could endure the life they both had made—points its own moral.

In fact de Kooning did some moralizing of his own, in his finest painting, Excavation (1950). This is a finely ordered rendition of whirling chaos. Fragments of bodies, rarely distinct but somehow identifiably human, wheel around the center like specks of ash around a pyre; rhythmic diagonals mark the upward surge and the terrible descent. These are bodies torn and bizarrely reconstituted according to some dire theology whose foremost principles are pain and insult. Macerating jaws or even teeth without jaws rend the meat as it flies by. Smears of blood register the devastation. Perhaps this is what bodies are when they have been transformed into suffering souls. In some places flesh has turned into something transparent and almost ethereal—one can look through certain figures drawn in outline to see the ground—yet this substance clearly remains susceptible to physical torment. Forms are reduced to the pained and painful essentials, like the human stump disintegrating into a cloud of blood to the lower left of center or the gaping fish-maw in the lower right corner. It is hard to distinguish that which is broken from that which is doing the breaking.

This is de Kooning’s excavation of one of the infernal circles, which he knows like his own studio, his own bedroom. In this grim meeting-ground of matter and spirit, matter learns the folly of supposing it alone is real. Excavation is the masterpiece of Abstract Expressionism—and a tragic masterpiece: The man who wanted all the pleasure the earth can afford, so that the artist might express the joy he took in the physical world, understood in this painting of penitential suffering that one cannot love this world alone and hope to be a whole man. De Kooning never applied this knowledge, which might have saved him from self-destruction, to his own life, and he only painted it exactly right once. He would go on painting with earthy fervor and living with ruinous profligacy.

Rothko sought the border where the visible world shades into the invisible, but at the height of his achievement and renown, he would take an overdose of barbiturates and slash the arteries in his forearms. Newman tried to embody and overcome human tragedy with zips and solid blocks of color arrayed in accordance with a hermetic code. For twenty years he would repeat grand stylized gestures of thunderous triviality. De Kooning and Rothko painted some great pictures, but at their best they saw their lives as tragic, and their understanding never gave them the strength to sustain creative force or moral clarity or even simple vitality.

However exalted their conception of their calling, however remarkable their achievements, even the best of the Abstract Expressionists failed to penetrate the mystery of what is required of people if they are to live well on this earth. Color and mass and line were what these painters knew of salvation, and what they knew was not enough.

Algis Valiunas is a literary critic in Florida and author of Churchill’s Military Histories: A Rhetorical Study.