Rothko's "Light Cloud, Dark Cloud" : Consolation in the Heat of Summer
Posted by Ailie on June 14, 2010 - 1:45pm
Categories: On the Walls

Texas summers make me miss spring. The short glimmer of cool weather we have in north Texas always leads me to feel productive and inspired, feelings that are quickly quashed by the claustrophobic heat of summer.  There is a warm intimacy in spring that allows for picnics and open windows, and a sense of comfort with the air outside my home.  The intensity of the summer months quickly usher me inside to hide in the sterility of an air-conditioned world.  This manufactured environment can never compete with the emotional warmth of cooler weather, and the time spent indoors, windows closed, begins to make me feel confined and devoid of this comfort with in my environment. 

One of The Modern’s permanent collection pieces, Mark Rothko’s Light Cloud, Dark Cloud replaces the intimacy that summer has chased away.  The blurred rectangles of color that float on a wash of orange are so serene as to feel even spiritual.  They seem to shimmer and move, and in the confines of an artificially cooled interior, it's as if this painting reaches inside to touch my spirit, connecting me to a greater human family. 

Rothko’s paintings, especially those of his “classic” period like this one, were intended to express his ideas about the human condition.  He did so simply, through the power of color and an almost magical method of applying the paint.  In his early work, Rothko experimented with watercolor, later applying his technique to oils.  He often prepared his own paints, then thinned and applied them in layer upon layer of glaze.  It was this unique method that made his paintings glow with an interior light, ghostly shapes suspended in a wash of oil paint. 

Rothko was a formative member of the Abstract Expressionists, a group of artists who were active in the 1940’s and 1950’s, particularly during the Cold War.  Along with Mark Rothko, they evolved from a repertoire of highly political, figural paintings in the 1930’s, passing through Surrealism and becoming increasingly abstract along the way.  The Abstract Expressionists were united in the abandonment of politics and figures in their artwork.  When the Germans took Paris during the Second World War, the symbolic capital of Western culture disappeared with it, leaving a vacuum for the New York School to attempt to fill.  

Complaints from France about American art had often been that the United States was too young to draw from history or national culture, leading the artists of the New York School to look inward.  They experimented, rather than looking to European art history, in an attempt to develop a unique and creative national identity, finally drawing from the human condition, cross-culturally and through time.  They lived in a time when nuclear war seemed a dark possibility, and could be initiated from either side.  With the looming threat of nuclear fallout hanging over their heads, political loyalty seemed absurd.  They abandoned any reference to the physical world in favor of direct, soul-seeking emotion.

Although Light Cloud, Dark Cloud was produced in a very particular time in history, its denial of then-current events makes it timeless.  As Rothko himself says about his work, “a painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.”  The universality of the human condition can almost be soaked in through the tranquility of the colors and their revealing brushstrokes.  Despite being stuck indoors for the next few months, I have the comfort of this fresh breath of air to uplift me.