“I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
-T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
A looming, layered, orange cloud thunders above the deep blue abyss below. The large fields of color pulse with hovering energy. I stare. I am mesmerized by what once was a canvas of color, but is now a portal of spiritual bliss. As the artist would have wanted, the lighting is dim and I stand close in his honor. I am immersed in the layers of turpentine-paint, seemingly alive. It moves toward me, yet pulls away. I see nothing–nothing discernable. But I know it is not nothing, not just a flat cloth with paint, not just blocks of colors. No. I am in front of a void waiting to be filled, a window, beckoning me through its frame. I feel hopeful, but tragic. Uplifted, but suppressed. Ecstatic, but tense. I feel it from within. Floating in front of me on the wall of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art: Mark Rothko’s No. 14, 1960.
In a 1951 symposium, Rothko exclaimed that viewers who wept and broke down in front of his later paintings had “the same religious experience [he] had when [he] painted them.” Looking at Rothko’s earlier work, however, this religious experience was yet to be found. His process of creation evolved from painting portraits, still lifes, and landscapes to finally, embodied before my eyes, the abstract.
In 1938, Rothko painted The Subway Series, a set of paintings depicting various scenes from New York’s underground. Entrance to the Subway is the culmination of the series, showing anonymous impressionistic figures descending down the stairwell and coming in through the entryway to the subway system. Sixteen years prior, T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land, an obscure modernist poem delineating nothingness and despondency in an urban environment. Though it is unknown whether Rothko ever read The Waste Land (it is possible he had been exposed to it), The Subway Series almost mirrors the ingrained themes of Eliot’s masterpiece.
Eliot’s work speaks to the metropolitan life. He lists the cultural cornucopias: “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal.” Finishing the stanza with “unreal,” he tells the reader how our conceptions of vibrancy in city life is only a facade, an illusion. Entrance to the Subway relegates New York to a stuffy, cramped room. There is no glamour, no riches, no luxury. Even the colors lack vibrancy; they are dark, acidic, and pastel. The damp light described in The Waste Land depicts a character who “gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit,” as the figures in red and gold do in Rothko’s painting. The idea of a glorious, colorful city has no place in Rothko’s Depression-era New York.
Rothko’s characters have no faces and no identifiable traits other than the mono-color scheme of their clothes. A binding soullessness prevails. They descend down stairs to the trains, into a solid block of color, a space of emptiness. A character in the The Waste Land poses questions and answers “‘What is the wind doing?’ / Nothing again nothing. / ‘Do / ‘You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / Nothing?’/ […] Is there nothing in your head?’”
Rothko recognized this despondency around him, and wanted to find a way to transcend it, to go beyond the Eliot-esque terminal waste land, to ultimately ascend from the stairwell into the light. He set out to paint big rectangles of shimmering color, layered in extremely thin coats of paint saturated with turpentine; the canvas became full of depth, flatness disappearing with each layer of paint. The all-over composition, indistinct boundaries, and vastness of color were able to dominate the viewer’s vision. Revolutionary in his approach to painting, now sublimity defeated existential bleakness.
Still, not all of the waste land is left behind. The contrasting colors evoke a sense of tragedy, suppression, and tenseness too. It evokes a dialogue within oneself of the human condition, the complexity of existence.
As I stood in front of the painting, the clouds of color pulsed. I could hear thunder. But this wasn’t sterile thunder rumbling across an empty wasteland. This was thunder accompanied by water. I could taste the water. I could feel everything, and see the nothing. There was life, and life-taking. But prevailing over all, there was elevation. There was the ascent from the tunnels running beneath our lives.
Images: Courtesy of National Gallery of Art and SFMOMA.
Scribbles is a series of student reactions to art at Stanford, the Bay Area, or the world at large. Originally conceived as a project responding to the Anderson Collection and modern art, our scope has broadened to conceive of our own writings as visceral scribbles to the visual realities we face daily. (Contact the visual arts editor for submissions!)