Hypnotic, inspirational and spiritual... fans of the artist reveal how they were first touched by his work
Interviews by Hermione Hoby
The Observer, Sunday 14 September 2008
Novelist and critic
He's one of the very few religious painters of our time. And when you go to the Rothko room in the Tate, or the one in Texas, there is a deeply spiritual sense. The pictures in the Tate for instance have definite biblical overtones. Paintings are difficult to discuss; one has to be aware of falling into cliched similes. But I think that those extraordinary pillared pictures look like huge stone gateways to darkness.
The first time I went to see the pictures in the Tate I found them terribly relaxing. I sat there for a long time. When I went to see them again in Tate Modern, early in the morning before the gallery was open, I found them absolutely terrifying. They seemed to be absolutely blood-soaked, almost literally. I thought they looked like bandages with dried blood on them with new blood seeping up through them. This is the power of art. It's always different. And also I had changed, I was 15 years older, it was a different time of day and I was in a different mood, a different mode.
As well as being tragic, his paintings have an extraordinary burr of vibrancy.
Historian and broadcaster
In the late Sixties, early Seventies there was a sort of irreverent, pop-like fizz to the scene - all the old Abstract Expressionists, seemed a bit dated. Rothko seemed like my old Hebrew teacher - very formal and solemn and monumental - mausoleum-like. It just left me a bit cold. I didn't really get Rothko until I found myself in the Tate in 1970. I collided with him by mistake. It's like falling in love across a room, the paintings have this immediate bolt of illumination, this unsettling grip. You could go up really close, which I did, and be enveloped in this indeterminate space which welcomed you creepily in. I didn't emerge for many hours. When you get to be an old geezer you remember these moments with paintings or sculptures: they don't quite make you faint but do put you into a strange hypnotic trance.
I remember thinking Rothko was very affected by Pompeii and archaeology: those paintings are burnt terracotta, they have those magenta streaks on them which you find on the Greek islands. In some ways they remind me of cave paintings. So there is this extraordinary sense of both the modern, primordial and the whole history of what it is when a man makes a mark on a solid surface. And since so much of his work is about appearing and disappearing, it's sort of catnip to a historians, who are preoccupied with the nature of the substantial and the fugitive. History in terms of the big tragic plight of humanity, was very important to him and that appeals to me.
Strange, isn't it, that solid blocks of texture and colour should have any emotional impact when they don't seem to represent anything at all. A friend of mine took me to the Rothko room at the Tate in the early Nineties and from then on I used to go there to sit and think. They don't have any of the hand-hold that a figurative painting has and so they're darker and more frightening. Perhaps they chimed with things I was going through at the time. It wasn't an epiphany, but it was my first step across a threshold to understanding abstraction. It wasn't that it went 'ping' but it evolved from that visit to that room.
If you squidge up your eyes and remove surface detail then you see, deep behind that, the blocks of light and shade: it's like someone teaching you to do that for the first time as a director. That's quite a big thing; normally you're dealing with a lot of figurative surface detail but someone says, hang on a moment, also think about the bigger structures behind that detail and realise that they also communicate. It's not just 'actor picks up teacup, puts it down'. It's also the light through the window and the slab of visual architecture. There is an affinity because I do a lot of work that studies more despairing areas of human behaviour and he's in that zone - though 200,000 times more accurate than anything theatre could do. It's distilled to the edge of possibility.
Ben de Lisi
Fashion and interior designer
As a youngster, I would just get lost in his paintings. I don't think Rothko is ever about words, it's always about colour and contradictions of colour. I found it very powerful - the way that while the rectangles contradicted each other, there was always this synergy between them, a neverending bounce between the colours, whether subtle or loud. I particularly remember having seen Untitled 1953 around the time of my final examinations at art school. I was worrying how I'd fared in them. I went to a field behind my house with very tall grass and I fell into the grass and hid, lying on my back looking at the blue sky. The blues and yellows of the flowers in the field became the stripe in Untitled 1953 to me. I lay there thinking, how am I going to explain myself to my parents if I've failed it? In the end, I passed.
Rothko first came to my attention about 30 years ago when I saw his paintings at Moma in New York. I'd known about Rothko before but this was some kind of revelation. I thought it was the most complete example of a painting I'd ever seen. Everything about it added up. As to whether he influenced me, the answer to that is no, simply because I couldn't imagine such a thing, I would have felt unable to claim that influence. He's one of the most important artists of this century and - here's a jealous artist speaking - also one of the most accessible. It's a question of a lot of emotion - passion - that somehow has been expressed in a very concise, and therefore accessible way. I'm as excited by a painting of Rothko's as I am by Vermeer. I used to go to see his work at Tate Britain fairly frequently but I didn't spend a lot of time there because jealousy and envy would have overtaken me. This envy has abated a bit, but not tremendously. It's wonderful to have for company an artist like him. There is only one Rothko and it's wonderful he's there.