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The Form and Meaning of Threshold Imagery in Mark Rothko’s Mural Paintings

정은영 1

1한남대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

This paper explores the religious meaning of Mark Rothko’s mural painting series in the 1950s and 1960s, in an attempt to reconfigure and reconcile the conflicted relationship between contemporary art and religious or spiritual aspiration. Focusing on the images of window-like forms in Rothko’s Seagram mural paintings(1958-59) and Rothko Chapel painting series(1964-1967), I explore the spiritual significance of a threshold in Rothko’s late years, and argue that window- or door-like forms in his late murals not merely represent an opening to enter through but embody a passage of the viewer’s inner transformation or existential transition. Rothko’s so-called “color-field abstraction” has been mainly viewed as the epitome of high modernist painting which explores the essential properties of the medium, namely,color and flatness. This formalist reading of Rothko's abstraction, however, obscures his life-long spiritual, if not particularly religious, endeavor to induce experience of existential change. In this regard, the Seagram murals and the Houston Chapel project were critical moments to him since they finally provided him with the opportunity to realize his ambition to create an environment where the viewer could experience an existential transformation or transition through paintings. As suggested in this paper, the door images in these mural paintings carry the very meaning of transition and transformation. Yet, the two mural projects are differentiated in terms of the nature and degree of the visual embodiment of spiritual transformation. The Seagram mural series achieved only halfway the passage from the physical to the spiritual as the murals were not installed in the specific place for which there were created; almost placeless, the series were scattered around the world, including the Tate Gallery in London,the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura. But most of all, the skeletal form of a door or window in the Seagram murals seems to remain a tentative and dualistic transition since the door imageries seem to be at once opening and closure. On the contrary, the Rothko Chapel paintings are absolute in that the door imagery, if any, is either a total opening or a sheer closure. Without any specific forms of doors or windows, however, the deep purple monochromes and dark maroon blackfigure paintings constitute themselves a threshold through which the viewer is invited to pass beyond. As in the mission statement of the Rothko Chapel, it is “a sacred place, open to all, everyday”, a place where the very spiritual experience of the environment occurs as a transition and transformation.

Citation status

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