Mark Rothko: Transcendent Emotion

Utter Rapture

“There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.” – Arnold Bennett

Taoism is one of the most eminent religious and philosophical constitutions of Eastern Asia. Cultivated for over two millennia, Taoism endured years of transformation and interpretation, yet has retained its basic principles. Tao (or Dao) translates as the “path” or “way” of life; therefore, Taoism speaks to the ebbs and flows, balance and orderliness, of the universe (Hansen, C., 2007). Due to its fluid nature, Taoism speaks to the impermanence of all things. Existence is the lack of the eternal, as nothing is everlasting. The process of decay is then just as encompassing as birth or renewal.

Art, as described by Semir Zeki, seeks to find truth in an ephemeral world (Zeki, S., p. 11). An artwork, then, pursues the truth in a single moment of time; it hunts and captures a fleeting instant. By freezing a great moment, the artist achieves eternal magnificence.

Or does he? Is a gust of wind more powerful than a hurricane; a single tree bigger than the forest; a man greater than his country? What if the orchestra gives the composition in full instead of in one, aggregate chord? What if instead of capturing one vital breath, art could seize the entirety of an epoch’s flux? More importantly, if this is even possible, how would we process such an overwhelming absoluteness – how could we?

It is true the mind takes great pleasure in finding meaning. But when the mind is simply given meaning, a process devoid of investigation, a confrontation unlike no other occurs. Never in this instable world of change do we happen upon sheer truth in its most pure form, for it is something that we must seek. Art, however, is known for breaking rules. Art can present us with the problem, leaving us to chase the answer; or, it can present us with just the answer. And when this happens, the mind collapses under the pressure of utter rapture.

Mark Rothko, Russian-born American abstractionist, bestowed the world with two very important things: first, how tragic decay is as influential as joyous emergence; and second, how both of these processes of life can be transcribed through paint. What emerges from his display of these phenomenons is a spiritual journey, free of cultural and generational bounds, absorbed in full by the viewer within an instant.

Chemical Emotion

Art’s most infamous quality is its instant transportation of emotion. It can make the viewer feel involved, rejected, loved, or betrayed. This intense response is quite captivating, able to defy the threat of familiarization, and has the tendency to mature with our physical selves. A good painting can be like an old friend, a bad memory, or a perplexing proposition. In any case, time can testify for the ever-enduring magnitude and credibility of art’s persuasion.

Not all art is merry, but arousal comes in all forms. For example, classical tragedy describes the horrific demise of a beloved yet flawed hero. A tragic tale can have massive emotional effects on its viewer because of empathy. We feel the hope and pain in the connection we draw from the hero because we identify our own struggles with his. Although tragedy often takes form in story, it also takes formulates in art.

In his book, Pictures and Tears, Chicago art critic James Elkins, describes a phenomenon that some viewers experience while viewing art: they are simply moved to tears. He names Rothko as a prevalent culprit. Judith Kay Nelson, author of Seeing through Tears, said that, “Elkins believes that more crying has been done in front of Rothko’s paintings than before any other 20th century artist, with Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ placing a ‘distant second’”. Elkins hypothesizes that Rothko’s paintings are “unbearably full” or “unbearably empty”.


No. 2, 1951.                                      Untitled, 1968.

Presence, representing attachment, or emptiness, representing loss, are both abstractly communicated through Rothko’s art, moving the viewer so innately and so deeply, that they weep. How, then, can a sequence of color blocks generate such emotion?

Neurologically, the process of viewing art involves many areas of the brain. Two of these systems are largely responsible for the culminated interpretation: the limbic system (which hosts emotion, behavior, personal identity, and long-term memory functions) and the neocortex (which hosts cognition, sensory perception, and conscious thought). The brain activates both of these systems to work together and pick away at the artwork until it arrives at some sort of logical and emotional conclusion as to what it perceives.

So then, Picasso’s cubism reveals movement, Monet’s waterlillies reveal luminosity, and Rothko’s color fields reveal… what? It seems as though there is no room to decipher the material because it is only what it is – fields of color. Again, the question is raised: how do they generate such great emotion?

Many critics believe that Rothko’s works are tragic, an argument that supports his tearful viewers. But, why? How does his art reveal only emotion, not the laws of physics or material substance, but just emotion? Maybe, these works appear tragic because they are, actually, a tragedy. The heaviness of his composition manages to maintain a hopeful quality. The suspended regions of luminescent color appear unwary, yet doomed. Our hero is awaiting his fate. The human ability for creativity and imagination is boundless, and so, these works may somehow demonstrate a story of tragedy through fields of color.

If this is so, the audience is receiving an entire tale of a hero’s rise and fall through one large and simple abstraction. It is possible. Certainly, this provides reason for the taxing emotional episode that most viewers impart. This tragic work is an investment that we buy into because we succumb to our own vulnerability and empathetic ways when confronted with such an honorable and hopeful tale. It is absolutely unbearable how full and simultaneously empty we feel because we have felt it in our own lives before.

Empathy is an incredible thing. When you watch someone feel sad or see someone in pain, we feel what they are feeling. This is due to a particular type of cell that we humans share called, mirror neurons. For example, when you witness someone pricked by a pin, your “pain neurons” will fire off as if you, too, were pricked (Ramachandran, V. S., 2006). Thus, the “self” is no longer distinguished from the “other”. Mirror neurons allow infants to learn through observation, shed light on the contagiousness of yawning, and provide reason for the pleasure we receive from say, romantic comedies.

Much research has yet to conglomerate on mirror neurons. So, let’s take a moment to speculate. If humans have the ability to literally feel what another human is feeling, can this translate to other entities? In other words, if you watch a tree’s branches sway gently in the wind, do you feel gentle? Does a sunset make you feel warm from the heat or complete from the day’s end? We frequently use metaphor to describe these feelings and so it seems feasible that we may not be lying, we may actually feel that way. In turn, Rothko may give us tragedy through color, and it is not at all odd that we suddenly feel tragic.

Spiritual Emotion

Let’s now revisit Taoism. It seems as though Western precepts dictate that the end of a life form is tragic. We mourn as a result of death, we lament as a result of failure. Taoism on the other hand does not constitute the same ethics. The end is just one phase of existence. The end is not tragic.

In the early 1960s, John and Dominique de Menil commissioned the work of Mark Rothko for a chapel in Houston, Texas. Dominique believed that “A chapel should remind us of sharing,” (Rounds, D., 2006) and thus sought out a universal language that is appreciated by all: art. Rothko produced 14 large, dark and intense paintings, void of literal subject, for the chapel.

Northern view in the sanctuary, Rothko Chapel


Somehow, his works are deeply spiritual, granting a meditative state to its onlooker. This meditation places the viewer in a state of wholeness, a place where they can see all of life from beginning to end and back to the beginning. If in fact, a chapel should remind us of sharing, Rothko reminds us that we all share Tao.

Tao then reminds us that tragedy is just another form of life, just as encompassing as joy; their emotional weight equates. Rounds (2006) says that to “stand in the center of the Rothko Chapel, surrounded by these strict shapes and somber colors, is to be overwhelmed by their intensity and to be calmed by their stillness”. The Chapel’s director, Mary Welch, says that, “the Chapel turns you back into yourself. You get to see who are and what you bring to it” (Rounds, D., 2006).

Isn’t that exactly what empathy is? When confronted with another’s sentiment, we are instantaneously infused with the same experience, allowing us to know ourselves and our own experiences more intimately. To relate to others is to know oneself better. We all see ourselves in Rothko’s art because it is figuratively symbolic and therefore cross-cultural and without historical context. We relate to these passages of time, this Tao, this path of life; how could we not reach out and feel their power?

And so, we weep. Too magnificent the decree of life.

Transcendent Emotion

Mark Rothko, is but one of the world’s most talented artists. He and many others selflessly dedicate their livelihood to the creation of Truth, the materialization of the internal. What transpires can only be described as something spiritual – metaphysical, ethereal, and intangible.

What we must note here is the ineffable. Critics have written millions of words in hopes of pinpointing what technique, which method, artists use to paralyze our waking life. But art, like all of the world’s most valuable and rewarding Truths, is not meant for reduction. In fact, it is hardly meant for reduction. No words can truly capture the experience of empathy, they can only define. No words can elucidate a spiritual experience. What is the use in delineating what the artist has consummated? The transcendent emotion, the sublime, that we humans experience is simply ineffable.


Elkins, James. (2004). Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. Routledge, Preface pp xi.

Hansen, C. (2007). Taoism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Nelson, Judith K. (2005). Seeing Through Tears. Routledge pp 211-212.

Ramachandran, V. S. (2006). Mirror Neurons and the Brain in a Vat. Edge Foundation, Inc.

Rounds, D. (2006). Painting Emptiness: Impressions of the Rothko Chapel. Religion East & West, Issue 6, October 2006

Zeki, S. (2002). Inner Vision. New York, Oxford University Press.



  1. I love the irony in the fact that “materialization of the internal” can only be described by words such as “spiritual, metaphysical, ethereal, and intangible.”
    Nice piece.

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