Nothingness Made Visible: The Case of Rothko's Paintings

Article excerpt

The word "nothingness" frequently appears in writings about twentieth-century art. Yet how can we perceive nothingness or know what it is? Everywhere we look we can see, feel, or think something. If we shut our eyes and ears, we can always sense our heartbeat; no matter how much we try not to think about anything at all, we will still be aware of our own existence. It appears to us that there is no such "thing" as nothingness; hence, to associate an artwork, which is always something, with nothingness seems absurd. In the following, I will show that such a relation is possible and not absurd. By considering two philosophers who pondered the notion of nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, I will first address the problem of how we can understand nothingness and then show how the works of Mark Rothko represent it.

Respectively, Sartre's and Heidegger's concepts of nothingness exemplify two major and conflicting approaches. For Sartre, nothingness is a nonbeing, a negation of all the entities in the world, which comes into "existence" through human consciousness. Heidegger, however, assumes the existence of nothingness from the outset, arguing that although we cannot grasp or know nothingness, we nonetheless, when anxious, have an experience of it. He argues that because any being is finite, nothingness forms beings and as such is a prerequisite of everything that is.

Many commentators on Rothko invoke the word "nothing" in describing his paintings. James E. B. Breslin, in his biography of Rothko, writes, "Rothko's artistic enterprise was, after all, a something that was dangerously close to nothing."1 Barbara Novak and Brian O'Doherty, in their essay "Rothko's Dark Paintings: Tragedy and Void," also assert that Rothko's work is "very close to nothing" and that nothing is indeed its very content.2 Robert Rosenblum described Rothko's paintings as "images of something near to nothingness."3 These are only a few examples among many.

The common characteristic of these writings, although not always explicitly stated, is that Rothko's paintings-because of his reduction of painterly means (figure, line, space, and eventually even color), which resulted in almost monochrome paintings-are on the verge of "nothing." As such, they reflect the way in which we are accustomed to think about nothingness, as the negation and absence of entities, and thus correspond much more closely to Sartre's notion of nothingness than to Heidegger's. In the following, examining the works of the 1950s, I will argue that Rothko's paintings are not only on the verge of being nothing but that they also represent nothingness, which corresponds to Heidegger's concept.

Jeffery Weiss, in his essay "Rothko's Unknown Space," particularly associates Rothko's paintings with Sartre's thinking, using the story of Pierre from Being and Nothingness to interpret Rothko's paintings.4 In this story Sartre arrives at a café to meet Pierre, but the latter is not there. The café with all its people and activity is "fullness of being," but while Sartre is looking for Pierre it becomes the "ground." Each figure or thing in it gains a moment of Sartre's attention (is this Pierre?), isolated and standing out against the background, and shortly after sinks again into the background (it is not Pierre). Sartre calls the successive disappearance of these objects into the background "original nihilation." On the surface of this original nihilation another nihilation occurs. Since Pierre is nowhere to be found, his absence haunts the café. Thus, Pierre presents himself as "nothingness on the ground of the nihilation of the café . . . the nothingness which slips as a nothing to the surface of the ground."5 Sartre calls Pierres perpetual absence from the café "double nihilation." Weiss writes:

Certainly Rothko's almost ineffably subtle manipulations of figure and ground (or the center and the edge) can be characterized in Sartrean terms as a "double nihilation" whereby the absent figure is experienced as presence, or the apprehension of nothingness, and plenitude is experienced as ground. …