“What to look at when there is nothing to see? Abstract Painting and the Aesthetic Experience in Mark Rothko’s paintings”

2017 edition

Helena Cañadas Salvador

Standing in front of a big human-sized canvas painted with dark colour, the feeling of being lost without anything to see and quite annoyed is a usual reaction nowadays, as it was already for the mid and early XX century with the birth of abstraction. The aim of my research is to rethink or redefine the aesthetic experience that we can have, for example, in front of the Rothko Chapel panels (1966-67). In fact, the paintings that M. Rothko conceived for this Ecumenical chapel in Houston are the main object of study of my thesis and, through them, we may be able to reveal how subtle the game proposed is when painting uses its own means (visual, spatial) to “represent” that which we would normally think of as having no image.

What to look when there is nothing to see?…” will therefore present the active decision that these paintings, and by extension some contemporary art, require from us during the aesthetic experience—or better, the aesthetic act—when we let ourselves be affected by the painting. We establish a parallelism between the aesthetic act and the via mistica for the transformation it performs on the subject. The relationship between both is then raised by the symbolism of the darkness, as a necessary path of loss that is followed by the revelation to which this mystery leads. A link is also built with the Apophatic mystics, to find in the negation the real affirmation of what is not approachable with language. A breakdown of speech is needed and this is why abstraction can be considered a solution of a grammatical crisis; to continue to express the spiritual communion of oneself with the universe.

Art has changed because reality constantly changes and so should our glance when there is nothing to (only) see in a painting, but feel within. An inward turning is necessary to learn how to see with other ‘eyes’ than the physical ones, to approach the mystery somehow contained, the presence in the absence.