Rothko on research


Mark Rothko, a favorite painter of mine, once put forth a manifesto with Adolph Gottlieb about the nature of art in 1943:

1. To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.

2. This world of imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.

3. It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way not his way.

4. We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.

5. It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted.

6. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing.

7. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.


What’s so striking to me about these statements is that you can replace the various uses of art and painting with research and theory and the manifesto works just as well. Most points seem to translate directly. Rothko’s second point may be the hardest to defend as the rejection of common-sense may invoke a knee-jerk reaction from the pragmatist in us all, but I’d be willing to interpret it as a romanticized expression for the necessity of imaginative and original research questions. The fourth point is my favorite. It speaks to the excitement of finding a simple yet powerful theory that brings transparency to prior opaqueness. Lastly, the final point about the subject must be timeless and tragic: I’m not sure exactly what Rothko means by timeless, or rather how literally he meant it. Humanity is obviously not timeless, so I’m not sure how a piece of art – which by necessity reflects the human condition – could truly be timeless. Now, assuming he meant timeless to humanity, then I think it’s a fantastic point. The best answers to questions are not temporally locked, but true everywhere and as long as humanity is bumbling about.

(Yes, physics, I can see your smug look from here. You’ve got the “timeless” thing locked down. Congrats.)