Mark Rothko - Chave, Anna C.; Rothko, Mark - Yale University Press
Art and Architecture

Series Information
Yale Publications in the History of Art

Mark Rothko

Subjects in Abstraction

  • Anna C. Chave and Mark Rothko
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Mark Rothko was a founder of the New York School, that extraordinary group of artists who emerged as a leading cultural presence in the years following World War II. Rothko's large canvases of frayed, colored rectangles, along with the art of Pollock, Still, de Kooning, and other members of the New York School, were called Abstract Expressionism. However, many of these artists denied an affinity for abstraction and insisted that their paintings had subject matter. These claims were largely ignored by the prevailing critics of the period. Only now is a younger generation of art historians beginning to take them seriously, grappling with the questions: How is abstract art coded? How does it communicate, and how and why does it refuse communication?

Anne C. Chave, a leader in the effort to reassess the work of the New York School artists, here provides a provocative new view of Rothko's achievement and, in the process, a new methodology for interpreting or approaching abstract art. Closely analyzing the structure of Rothko's paintings, she argues convincingly that they do have subject matter insofar as they implement traces of certain basic and symbolically charged pictorial conventions. Comparing the characteristic structures of Rothko's pictures to those of such traditional genres of painting as portraiture, landscape, and some types of sacred images, she shows both how Rothko reinscribes the preexisting conventions and how he erases them. It is, says Chave, this play of the traces of presence and absence that makes Rothko's pictures so effective and affecting. Chave suggests that Rothko's images are as coded as other types of art but that they are coded in a different wayŚwith more layered, indeterminate, shifting, and unstable messages. According to Chave, there is a special poignancy to such faintly legible language, for it points to the impossibility of formulating clear, meaningful messages at a time when traditional belief structures have long since been shaken. 

Anna C. Chave is associate professor of art history in the department of fine arts at Harvard University.