Portraits of the Absolute: on Mark Rothko

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“Mark Rothko” by Denisova Alesya Alexandrovna (2017). Wikimedia Commons

“There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” – Samuel Beckett, “Third Dialogue with Georges Duthuit”

“What about this ‘nothing’?” — Martin Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”


What does God look like? There are plenty of iconic metaphors for the God of the Jerusalem-based religions — Michelangelo’s old white-bearded man reaching out to touch life into Adam springs to mind — but they are metaphors and need to be understood to be such. If you fail to acknowledge these iconic signs as metaphors, and feeble ones at that, you are toying with idolatry.

Depictions of God abound in Christian art, but they are tagged implicitly with an asterisk: do not take this to be an actual picture of God, for God is not a thing, a large and very powerful creature, an “individual with an essence”, in the words of theologian Nicholas Lash. God is a word we use to signify that which is the origin and destiny of all things, the creator and sustainer of the world who in some mysterious sense is “beyond” being, a “no-thing” that does not so much exist as subsist as the Ground of Being and Nature.

Thomas Aquinas persuasively argued that, because of the divine no-thing-ness we can only intelligibly speak of God, or depict God, by way of analogy. God’s power is like human power insofar as human creatures share in it and display it in their finite way. Likewise with divine knowledge, goodness, and love. But Thomas hastened to add that the even the relation of analogy between God and created Nature is only analogical to the analogical relationships we discover in our finite experiences. God is like the watchmaker who makes the watch, but here we are also using “like” analogically. So in a sense, when we speak of God, or depict God in art, we don’t know what we are saying, we do not know what we imagine and project into stone or paint.

Judaism and Islam have a much more austere view of analogy than does Christianity — they see the dangers as well as the benefits of iconography, and judge that the dangers are far more threatening, more apt to draw people to golden calves and other idols. We think and speak and act in signs, but we must be very careful about the kinds of signs we employ. For Jews and Muslims, images are cognitive dynamite. They are more likely to destroy the soul than words. Why?


In Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of signs there are three categories of sign. Indices show evidence of what is being depicted, and their causal properties: a skull-and-crossbones on a bottle indicates poison. Symbols have no resemblance to what they signify: their significance is a matter or learning the place of the symbol in a system, like language. There is no reason “bird” should refer to birds as opposed to any other assembly of phonemes or graphemes — and in fact there are other words that do the job just as well, like “oiseau” in French and “Vogel” in German. This sharply distinguishes symbols from icons which signify based on an observed resemblance. In one sense, Magritte’s painting of a pipe (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”) is indeed a pipe insofar as the signifying image signifies a (real) pipe. But Magritte is slyly disclosing the slippery distinction between signifier and signified, between a picture of a pipe and the pipe depicted, the pipe itself.

Therein lies the danger of iconic representations of God, the divine, the Holy, the Absolute: we can confuse the sign with the thing. How can these religious representations represent? And if they do not, aren’t we toying with idolatry? Better stick, then, to the written word.


Mark Rothko was born in 1903 in Latvia, then part of the Russian empire, to Jakob Rothkowitz, a pharmacist, and Kate Goldin Rothkowitz. The family was at first Jewish but not religious. Jakob was an anti-religious Marxist who eventually returned to the Orthodox traditions of his youth, and sent Mark, his youngest son, to a religious school to study the Talmud and the Hebrew language. The Rothkowitz family emigrated to the United States in 1913, escaping the densely anti-Semitic atmosphere in Russia. While Mark inherited his father’s leftist sympathies, he drifted away from Orthodox Judaism as he studied art at Yale, where he had to endure the Brahmin bigotry that his father thought he had left behind. He found Parsons School of Design a much more congenial space, and cut his artistic teeth under the tutelage of the artists Max Weber and Arshile Gorky. Rothko was, until his death, a secular Jew, but one whose Jewish identity remained sturdy, much as did that of other Jewish émigrés like Hannah Arendt and Emma Goldman.

With identity comes a certain sensibility, and, I think, Rothko’s painting exhibits it. His paintings are theological in ambition, but constrained by the injunction against depicting God iconically. Beckett’s quote in the epigraph above is especially apt for Rothko. What happens when you need to express the Absolute, the Unconditioned, the Holy, when you have nothing with which to express it (no graven images allowed), and the inability to express it (God is the no-thing that grounds all things, not just another thing, another “individual with an essence”)?

For Rothko, what happened was the development of a style in the huge color-field paintings of his middle and later periods. That style utilized a fairly set format — floating squares of color — that utilized a subtle yet incredibly complex technique, layering thin washes of color on top of each other, juxtaposing dark and light, warm and cool, to create a certain inexpressible mood.

In Being and Time, Heidegger insisted, phenomenologically, that moods are not just subjective states, inner feelings that have no relation to a wider, objective world. On the contrary, moods disclose. They reveal the way things hang together meaningfully, the point where the subjective and the objective meet and annihilate each other, the “no-thing” that backgrounds all the things that can be signified in symbols and icons.

It is difficult to fit Rothko’s work into Peirce’s threefold categorization of signs, but I think his color-field masterworks most closely resemble the sub-category of indices. They reveal by pointing-to, by indicating how the presence of the Absolute, the inarticulable no-thing, manifests itself in moods embodied by color, shape, and airiness. You can’t paint the Absolute any more than you can photograph God.

What you can do, however, is instigate a kind of attunement (Stimmung) with the Unconditioned, with The Holy. You can point to it. You can gesture effectively. And when it comes to capturing moods, color is very effective, and Rothko was a master of color. It is hard to say, with explicit symbols, what red or blue or brown mean. But you can show it, using color as an index. If the skull-and-crossbones means “poison”, the floating squares mean — what? Nothing? But what about this ‘no-thing”?


Wittgenstein, at the end of his Tractatus, made the orphic pronouncement “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” The problem for Rothko being: that colors, shapes, and other indices, when pressed into the service of disclosing the inexpressible ground of being, not only try to say the unsayable but show the unshowable. The failure may be glorious, but failure it is. (Wittgenstein’s Tractatus itself could be viewed as a grand but useful failure — he probably thought of it that way himself.) Rothko’s final masterwork, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, is a mute testament to this. The floating squares are gone. The dominant color is black, with flashes of dark purple and violet appearing, then disappearing. The fact that Rothko was able to make blackness ephemeral and diaphanous is itself a sign of his mastery of technique. But there is something odd and disconcerting with diaphanous veils of black. It indicates a no-thing-ness that is not so much a sublime object of awe than an inscrutable object of anxiety. The “nothing” being invoked and gestured-toward in unsettling, because here we run up against the inherent limitations of writing and imagery. Rothko acknowledges, in these painting, the futility of dragging the Absolute into our field of vision. Art fails at some point: Beckett was on to something when he said that we have no power to express, which leads to the extinguishing of the desire to express. This darkness shines through in the blackness of the Chapel paintings.

But there is also something heroic in the attempt to honor the obligation to express. All analogies of God turn out to be inadequate, a fact about which Thomas insisted we should be mature enough to expect. But even an inadequate expression shows something about what it tries to signify; even an inadequate index indicates something of its object. Rothko’s genius consists in his uncanny ability to give us fleeting and partial glimpses of the no-thing that grounds all things. They are, if not portraits, then signposts for the absolute. No mean achievement.

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Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

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