Framing Virgil's Ghosts: Allusion and the Illusion of Rothko's Door

Article excerpt

Sometime in spring or early fall of 1959, Mark Rothko painted Red on Maroon, one of the Seagram murals. This large canvas, 8 3/4 high and just short of 8' wide, contains a wine-red, doorlike shape which, due to its formidable size and stately proportions, evokes the monumentality of a portal. A door or gate, usually in a large or magnificent building, a portal marks a place of transition, a crossing (sometimes a ritual crossing) of borders, a site of physical movement and emotional crisis, of coming and going, leaving and returning, loss and reunion-some of the principal themes of Rothko's life and work. Rothko's portal invites entry: to stand before Red on Maroon is to feel a powerful pull to enter the picture with one's whole body, to pass through this awesome opening, and to cross over the smoky maroon, filled with gray light, within and beyond.

James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography

Red on Maroon (fig. 1) is part of a mural series Mark Rothko executed as a permanent installation to be located in architect Mies van der Robe's twentieth-century modernist masterpiece, the Seagram Building. The Sea-gram commission is particularly notable as it was Rothko's first; he had never before even painted a formal and purposefully grouped set of works. Upon receiving this commission, Rothko produced not one but three sets of murals before he was satisfied with his results. In the end, however, the paintings were not delivered, as the space in which they were to be displayed fell short of what the artist had intended. Red on Maroon, now housed in the Tate Modern, belongs to the third set of paintings Rothko produced and is a stunning exemplar of his mature style. By the late 1950s, Rothko had progressed towards and beyond abstraction in an effort to achieve "the simple expression of the complex thought." At this point in his career, color was paramount in his paintings. Associative elements had, as far as possible, been removed from his work, and color was reduced to its essence. Color became volume, form, space, and light, constituting "emotion and mood, at once palpable and disembodied, sensuous yet spiritual"; it represented "something larger than its own sheer physical presence," for Rothko had come to regard color as a "doorway to another reality"--a doorway to a Platonic ideal of higher spiritual and metaphysical truth. (2)

In his desire to enhance the expressive possibilities of his work and to suggest multiple levels of meaning, Rothko restricted not only the "forms" but also the number of colors in any given painting. A favorite color was, by no coincidence, red. The color red, suggestive of life and death, of panic and rage, of a myriad of other states and emotions, is juxtaposed in Red on Maroon with a darker, perhaps controlling hue. As in the case of all of Rothko's mature works, this painting is a vehicle by which a wide range of "basic human emotions--tragedy, ecstasy, doom"--could be expressed. (3) The painting is full of heaviness and foreboding but oddly filled also with light and a powerful inner life; it engages the viewer completely and draws her in. Encountering this painting, Breslin, whose impressions have been in part cited above, further reflects:

[I]f the painting creates a longing to cross a threshold dividing this familiar, physical world from some mysterious realm beyond it, the painting also curbs that desire by thwarting access. At first, the red portal appears as a separate, solid, and imposing entity, holding back the diffused, murky areas behind it ... But as you physically approach the painting and see Rothko's brushstrokes and drips, observe the varying densities of his paint, you perceive the smoky, vacant interior as solid and opaque, as if it were the wall. (401-02; emphasis in original)

It is tempting, indeed, to see the suggestions of hazy landscape beyond a seemingly solid, architectural doorframe in this painting. This other world, however, is inaccessible, at least when, even for a flickering moment, the solidity of the innermost "space" exerts itself. …