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Mark Rothko‘s paintings – even the most exact, the black-form paintings – are punctuated by things that look like accidents. Parts of an apparently even-coloured area will be more reflective than others, but you can only see this when the light catches them at a certain angle. The boundary between one block of colour and another seems smudged, as if the brushwork was a bit rough – but it isn’t, the smudging has been added on deliberately. What looks like a lower layer of paint showing through layers that were meant to cover it was in fact added on top.

But then nor is it an accident that these things look like accidents. Rothko must have studied mistakes, accidents, then studiously overlaid them on, or underlaid them beneath, the gross scheme, making ghost paintings that inhabit the same space as the ones that first strike us, the ones that we can see in reproductions. The ghosts are often unphotographable – they reveal themselves only with certain angles of lighting, and with an effort of interpretation – and because of that never all at once.

I like the idea that we should pay attention to accidents and mistakes as well as intentions and successes. I like the idea of not being limited by my imagination, by my desires, my choices. Mistakes are doors to the world beyond me.

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Nothing more than feelings

Tom Lubbock says that Rothko’s paintings are like power ballads:

Rothko made a real discovery when he found that, by using a very restricted language, a few bars and panes and rectangular frames of strong colour, blurry-edged and set in simple arrangements, he could stir in the viewer a powerful empathetic and emotional response. I’m not denying his ability to move you.

No, and I don’t deny this ability to Mariah Carey or Harry Nilsson, either.

Like the songs, the paintings have a hook:

And the thing about hooks is that they have an almost neurological effect. … A Rothko work is all hook, it’s designed as a simple, strong visual catch; one riff, writ very large.

The trouble is that Lubbock confesses that he is susceptible to this simplistic stuff in songs – Lionel Richie is his most shocking example – and films – The Sound of Music and ET – just as he is to more complex material. He prefers the latter because there’s more to it than emotional manipulation. So his parallel doesn’t apply to those of us who are unmoved by the emotional porn he cites. And anyway, the power ballads and cheesy films are crafted to leave only one possible response – one positive response, anyway, as rage and misery are never far away when I hear Mariah Carey. Rothko may have succeeded in evoking big emotional responses, but the paintings don’t specify quite what they will be.

You could criticise him for being just an old Romantic, still peddling the sublime, and in those late paintings with their swirling murk and stormy blacks we do seem to be among the superhuman forces of nature. I wonder if Lubbock just has a problem, in a rather British way, with the emotion, with the talk of mysticism and religion, even if it is godless; as Adrian Searle

The dim lighting and contained feeling of the Rothko Room at the Tate has always given it, for some spectators, an air of immanence and mystery. I prefer paintings in plain sight, without the heavy breathing…

and Peter Campbell

… finding the depths in the pictures suggested by some of Rothko’s statements is now, and probably always was, an act of faith that requires a sort of self-hypnosis.

seem to.

It’s true that Rothko’s paintings are imposing and direct, painted henge monuments that use optical illusions and manipulation to hold and seduce the eye. They work because they are a wallowing in the world of sense. They are as familiar and intimate as the inside of your eyelids. I think that’s why we drop our defences before them. We have known images like these since we were too young to know anything else. Such was the first thing we ever saw, and such well might be the last. No wonder these paintings release such powerful and unpredictable emotions.

In fact, I think his exploitation of the artefacts of visual perception make him more an abstract impressionist than expressionist. Or psychedelic without the primary-school colours that hippy ideology demands.

None of that makes them Celine Dion in paint.

This reminds me of The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond of the KLF: a confusingly plausible method for constructing and selling the perfect pop single:

Every Number One song ever written is only made up from bits from other songs. There is no lost chord. No changes untried. No extra notes to the scale or hidden beats in the bar. There is no point searching for originality.

So why don’t all songs sound the same? Why are some artists great, write dozens of classics that move you to tears, say it like it’s never been said before, make you laugh, dance, blow your mind, fall in love, take to the streets and riot? Well, it’s because although the chords, notes, harmonies, beats and words have all been used before, their own soul shines through; their personality demands attention.

So even if the paintings are just machines for inducing a certain emotional or meditative condition in a viewer, I don’t think that makes them bad or insubstantial or unimportant art. There’s more to art than an aid to meditation or emotional release, sure, but too much contemporary art – for instance, the pointless exercise currently on show in the Turbine Hall – is directed at the conscious intellect alone. I’ve always been attracted by the idea of making art that has the immediacy, cleverness and emotional hit of a good pop song.

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Black, Lynch and Rothko

When I was at primary school a teacher told my class that there was no such thing as black paint or ink or dye: anything that was called black would, if you looked hard at it, turn out to be dark brown or blue or some other colour. Because black is not a colour, it is the absence of light, so it’s not something you can make. You can’t make an absence. If you say you can, you’re just playing with words or not expressing yourself properly.

When I used to do photographic colour printing – which you had to do in a totally dark darkroom, with no safelights, just a little glowing green light floating in space to tell you where the “expose” button on the enlarger timer was, and your memory of where you put the box of printing paper and the scissors and where the door handle was – I liked standing there with useless eyes. It wasn’t black, of course. I could watch the coloured dots and squiggles writhing about like tadpoles. When I read about photons popping in and out of existence in a vacuum, seething, as quantum physics says they do, I think about those coloured dots. None of the darkrooms was completely light-tight, though, so after a minute you’d begin to see cold white wedges where daylight was leaking in. A minute more and you’d see a bit of the wall lit up by the light. It would seem incredibly bright, but I knew that if the roof was suddenly taken off I’d be blinded. Then I’d think about how you can see a single candle flame at a distance of several miles on a very dark night, or so I had read. About how your eye can register a single photon of light.

I’d think about black velvet, the blackest thing anyone seemed able to think of. Or soot, the mattest thing I had ever seen. Or the black powder I used to make paint with.

Disappointingly, I had also found out that matt black isn’t as black as glossy black. But glossy black always exists alongside specular reflections, pretty much the brightest things you can look out without hurting your eyes.

A film editor once told me that to represent blackness in film, the frame had to have some light in it. She said there was a certain maximum ratio of dark to light. It was obvious, when I thought about it. You’re looking at a cinema screen, a highly reflective surface in a room with at least a couple of emergency exit lights on. If you film a coal cellar at night, you’ll get a negative as clear as it can be. If you make a print from it, you’ll get a print as opaque as it can be, which is not totally opaque. Run that print through a projector in a cinema and you’ll be allowing the minimum amount of light possible onto the screen – the projector light shining through nothing but film black plus the exit lights. But that’s still some light. Enough to see that the screen is a light-coloured rectangle, much brighter than than the curtains and walls around it. The same thing happens with video monitors. Turn them off and you see how unblack they are.

To represent blackness, you have to prevent the viewer’s brain from dwelling on the true lightness of the screen. You need to distract it with some kind of image, force it to accommodate a tonal range wide enough for it to see the darkest tone as black, give over enough of the screen to the lighter tones so that the brain doesn’t disregard them as simply a bright light, so that it looks for detail in them and adjusts its awareness of brightness levels accordingly.

Once I’d started to think about the problem of blackness in film, I began to notice how David Lynch’s films go much further than most in representing pure, unrelieved blackness. At moments of transition, we are led into a glimpse of total blackness, a vertiginous velvety blackness: when Fred Madison goes down an unnaturally dark corridor in his apartment in Lost Highway, or, in Mulholland Drive, when Betty turns the corner in her aunt’s apartment, and just before the dead Diane is found in her house, and as we fall into the inexplicable blue Alice-in-Wonderland box, and when the movie director Adam orders “Kill the lights” before kissing the notably and glossily brunette Camilla on set, or behind the diner after Diane has put the contract on her. Flirting with darkness.

A poem, or incantation, from Lynch’s Twin Peaks suggests that darkness allows a passage across otherwise unbridgeable gulfs:

Through the darkness of future past
The magician longs to see
One chants out between two worlds
Fire walk with me

The mystical. Which brings us to Mark Rothko. “Black-form painting” No.1, I think. A more glazed black next to a less glazed black. Which is the real black? Is either? Between them, as if by accident, a strip of a lower layer of still blacker, matter black is visible. To see that as anything other than real black, you would have to try quite hard not to look at the other, lesser blacks. The same trick that the cinematographer and print grader uses; while looking from one black to another, our gaze has to trip over that crack into what we cannot see as other than real black.

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