There is something that happens to a work of art when it becomes absorbed into posterity – its copies and reproductions begin to rapidly grow in number. Reproductions will always (obviously) outnumber the original, but in the case of famous works of art, they do so in such a great number that the aesthetic status of the original somehow begins to change. We reprint artworks on coffee mugs, on dorm-room posters, on calendars, in books, as iPhone wallpapers, even as tissue paper. When the image of an artwork becomes so ubiquitous that it is the image, not the original, that comes to form the public’s common experience, what happens to the original itself? There is nothing quite like seeing a work of art in person, and no number of reproductions can entirely eradicate the experience of the original (except in a hypothetical case, such as two perfect, entirely indistinguishable copies placed next to the original, a sort of artistic three card monte – but that’s another essay). What I want to ask is, can an original retain its power? Can, say, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” in light of its global saturation, ever just be itself? I think that the answer is, for most works, no.
The work of Mark Rothko (formerly Marcus Rothkowitz, while still a just Jewish boy miserably studying Talmud in Latvia) however, avoids the problem that reproductions pose for so many artists (though his work does run into a different kind of trouble, but more on that later). The Pace Gallery’s recently closed exhibition, “Mark Rothko: Dark Palette,” serves as an excellent illustration as to the continued importance of Rothko’s work, and also, to the importance of reproduction-resistant paintings.
But first, some context:
In light of ubiquitous reproductions, the original (the death of whose “aura,” or unique draw, Walter Benjamin predicted all the way back in 1936) begins to refer to something other than itself, that is, it begins to refer to images of itself. The images of the work, that is, the work’s reproductions, refer to themselves (as reproductions), and also back to the original, but only as an image. They miss something in the transfer, however – the materiality of the work, the context of a work in a specific, physical place.
Think of this problem kind of like a modified version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In Plato’s allegory, people live their entire lives imprisoned in a cave, seeing only the shadows cast by objects in front of a fire without ever seeing the objects themselves. Shadows are their entire reality, but if they were to be freed from the cave, they would come to grasp reality as it truly was (in the allegory, philosophy is the liberating factor). In our modified take however, with our focus on reproductions, we are like a prisoner freed from the cave, who, though he can finally see the objects, cannot see the objects without also first seeing their shadows.
I’ve previously written about this idea in slightly more technical terms, but here is the gist: When the reproductions become our primary point of contact with the work, then the work begins to behave, in some ways, like its own copy. When we see “Starry Night” in person, the work continues to refer to itself, but it also takes on the reference of those myriad copies – we no longer see only the painting, but the mug, the tissue paper, the bathmat – and as a result, we see the original work not only in its physical context, but also with the added referential baggage of its reproductions. The original no longer points only towards itself as art, but towards itself as object, that is, its copies force it to point towards itself as something reproducible, and reproducibility always implies commodification.
The primary culprit of this denigration of the original has been, of course, the internet. Sites like Instagram and Facebook play the important role of allowing emerging artists to gain exposure where they otherwise would have remained anonymous. They also democratize the art viewing process – bringing access to art to those who either cannot afford to see the originals or those who would never have wanted to in the first place. The dialectic at play though, is that this democratization has also changed the way we both view and produce art.
In terms of how we produce art, we can turn to art critic Walter Robinson’s discussion of “Zombie Formalism.” Robinson coined the term back in 2014 to refer to a recent crop of works that exhibit a safe (but not too safe), unoriginal (but not too derivative), simple (but not too simple) sort of abstraction. The works almost uniformly seem to be made to “function well in the realm of high-end, hyper-contemporary interior design” (which is not to say that any of them are bad – I like the works of some of these artists – just to say that taken together they’re a little boring). Robinson asserts that Zombie Formalism is driven primarily by market concerns – these are the type of paintings that sell, and therefore they will be the kinds of paintings produced and shown (all of this contributing to a massive financial and aesthetic art-world bubble).
Jerry Saltz, the Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine, points out another feature of Zombie Formalism – its intentional suitability to digital reproduction. “Most Zombie Formalism,” Saltz writes, “arrives in a vertical format, tailor-made for instant digital distribution and viewing via jpeg on portable devices. It looks pretty much the same in person as it does on iPhone, iPad, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram.” Art speculators are not interested in acquiring works that they have a personal connection with, they are only interested in works that might sell. Therefore, they don’t require any interaction with the original, they only require its image, and they require it fast. The zombie formalists respond (they need to eat too) by creating art that photographs well, that looks as good in a PDF as it does on a canvas. These paintings, Saltz maintains, are made to be taken in all at once, to be grasped immediately – the market has no time for reflection, only transaction.
It is against this backdrop, of the degraded original, of art as commodity, of art as image of art, that the Pace Gallery in New York recently held its exhibition “Mark Rothko: Dark Palette.” As the title suggests, the exhibition was comprised entirely of the darker works in Rothko’s oeuvre. Replacing the vibrant oranges and yellows that comprise many of the artist’s most famous works are deep purples, blacks, rust, and ash. These are, to my eyes, his most accomplished works, both in terms of Rothko’s own thought about his work and their contemporary importance.
In his treatise, “The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art,” Rothko writes that the role of the artist is similar to that of the philosopher, but whereas the philosopher works towards “the end of human conduct or, more precisely, to ethics,” the artist “must reduce all of the subjective and objective with the end of informing human sensuality” or “the human experience of things.” Rothko saw his work as a direct insight into his sense of Being. The intimate nature of his work (in addition to his own moodiness and elitism), led Rothko to be highly selective and guarded about just who was allowed to see his paintings. In a [revealing (and funny) story from 1958](and funny “revealing (and funny) story from 1958”), Rothko was commissioned to create murals for The Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. But after viewing the site, he declared, “Anyone who will eat that kind of food for those kinds of prices will never look at a picture of mine.”
Elitism (or is it just a hatred of overpriced food) aside, Rothko could not accept a cheap viewing of his work, and his work, particularly the darker paintings, make this same demand. The brilliantly colored lighter works have a certain immediacy to them. Their radiance is such that the eye cannot escape looking – they glow, even upon first glance. A cursory glance at Rothko’s darker paintings, however, will yield only a flat plane of purple and black. And for viewers who stop there, the painting will be missed, and unfortunately, Rothko’s caginess in regards to his work will have seemed justified– they will not have actually seen the painting. This is because Rothko’s darker canvases are an invitation towards deep looking.
Rothko has the uncanny ability to blend colors, not only with one another, but with themselves. At the edges of each color block, the pigments begin to fade – wispy threads of light clinging to the block that appears to be their source. If we look at “Untitled, 1962,” we see not three, but four blocks – the two black blocks, the orange one, and then the larger purple block surrounding them. The purple block has its own wisps, intertwining with the edges of each of the smaller blocks. Because of their proximity to one another, the orange, purple, and black all blend in the ethereal middle ground between the blocks, and it is here, in this no-man’s land, that the first magic of Rothko occurs. The border regions irradiate the blocks from the outside, and this is the first source of luminance that we notice. The second, more sublime (in the true sense of the word) effect takes place within the blocks themselves. Instead of the wispiness of the edges, we have a dense, swirling mass. The black seems to blend with itself – as if light could use itself as a surface for its own reflection. The two dimensionality of the painting is disrupted. Each block appears to recede inward, backwards along the z axis, towards an immense, dense and empty mass. Stare long enough and close enough, and the effect takes over the entire canvas. The entire work flares outwards just as it pulls you in and suddenly you’ve never seen a black so bright and the orange is purple and the outside is in and the edges disappear… It’s dizzying, slightly terrifying, and incredible.
It is precisely this sublimity that is nontransferable, that cannot be replicated on a screen or print (or rug, or wallpaper, or coffee mug – I admit to being guilty of having had a cheap Rothko poster up in my college dorm room) – and it is this non-transferability that renders Rothko’s work so important for our current image saturated and image driven world . Rothko’s work has, like that of any artist of such established prominence, been commodified and reproduced, but because the reproductions all appear cheap, crude, in comparison to the original, the paintings have retained their power. It’s important to note that reproductions of Rothko’s work are not more cheaply or expertly made than any other reproduction, simply that the very nature of his paintings renders all reproductions inadequate. Not so with Robinson’s zombie hordes.
Back in 2015, the New York Times reported that “the growth in the number of photos taken each year is exponential: It has nearly tripled since 2010 and is projected to grow to 1.3 trillion by 2017.” Living in this world of images causes us to filter experiences through their explicit suitability for reproduction. This photographic way of seeing is hardly a new phenomenon – even back in 1977, Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal book of essays “On Photography,” “Today everything exists in order to be photographed.” Sontag was speaking of reality, but if we are to see the trend of Zombie Formalism as a new paradigm for artistic creation, then we can see that art has fallen into this trap as well. It is not the art work itself that matters, but the image of the work. This new reprioritization risks devolving art into simulacrum, that is, copies without originals – it seems that we are trending towards works created only as images of themselves, hypothetical works traded between art speculators like credit, or as Saltz puts it, “Art as bitcoin.” (There are exciting aesthetic and philosophical possibilities here, but I can’t help think that we’d be losing something were this to become the norm.)
Look at any image of Rothko’s work on the internet, and, unless you’ve seen one of his canvasses in person, it will prove lackluster and disappointing (Rothko is a paradigmatic case, but he is hardly unique in this regard. Most art loses something in transfer, but Rothko’s especially so. Anselm Kiefer, among many more, is another artist whose work especially suffers on the screen). And here lies the danger for artists like Rothko in our world of images – that if their art cannot be reproduced, it will go forever unseen. Of course, Rothko enjoys such an established place in art history (and the art market) that his work does not run this risk, but the current generation and future generations of artists will inevitably feel the pull of making their work reproduction friendly. With “Mark Rothko: Dark Palette,” the Pace Gallery has not only given us a chance for reflection and deep looking by bringing together Rothko’s most meditative works, it has also given us a chance to reevaluate the power of physical experience. Rothko’s paintings demand to be viewed in person, and this demand reminds us of the (potential) hollowness of reproductions. As we become more and more absorbed in this world, this universe, of images, the question is will we continue to meet the demands of work like Rothko’s? Or will we content ourselves with the screen.
Jake Romm is the Forward’s culture intern. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org