The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Rothko on Beauty, Friendship, and How the Emotional Exaltation of Art Mirrors Human Relationships

People often weep before the paintings of Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903–February 25, 1970) — something he believed was a different side of the same spiritual transcendence he himself experienced while painting them.

In The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art (public library) — that remarkable compendium of Rothko’s little-known writings on art and storytelling, published by his children three decades after his death — the beloved painter examines how this contagious rapture of art works its magic on the beholder and, in doing so, exposes the invisible mesh of mutuality binding us together in a web of human affection.

Mark Rothko

Writing nearly a century after Leo Tolstoy’s insightful assertion that “emotional infectiousness” is the most important criterion for good art, Rothko considers the function of beauty not only as a deeply emotional experience but as a bonding agent that creates deep resonance between those beholding it:

The perception of beauty is definitely an emotional experience. That does not mean exclusively the human emotionalism of sentiment or sensuousness (as has already been shown), but instead that the process involves an exaltation which is communicated to us through the emotional system. This exaltation is usually composed of sentiment, sensation, and, in its highest state, intellectual approbation… Beauty conforms to the demands of the spirit. The experience of beauty may also be a sign of the reception of the creative impulse.

Rothko is careful to point out that technique alone doesn’t make for transcendence:

Skill itself is not an index to beauty. Of course, the artist must have sufficient means at his command to achieve his objective so that his work becomes convincingly communicative. But clearly it is something else which the art must communicate more than this before its author is seated among the immortals.

Noting that a wide range of creative stimuli can elicit the experience of beauty — from sculptures to sonatas, from paintings to people — Rothko examines to the undergirding psychological commonality:

Beauty … is a certain type of emotional exaltation which is the result of stimulation by certain qualities common to all great works of art.

Mark Rothko, ‘Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red’ (1949)

But Rothko’s most delicate point deals with the parallel between beauty and friendship — both the emotional exaltation of aesthetic pleasure, he suggests, and the warm resonance of human affection require an intimate tango between abstraction and particularity, between infinity and finitude. With an eye to Plato’s definition of beauty, Rothko writes:

Plato … states that somewhere in nature there exists an actual prototype, an abstract absolute of beauty, of which all the manifestations are simply different facets.


To feel beauty is to participate in the abstraction through a particular agency. In a sense, this is a reflection of the infiniteness of reality. For should we know the appearance of the abstraction itself, we would constantly reproduce only its image. As it is, we have the exhibition of the infinite variety of its inexhaustible facets, for which we should be thankful.

Let us consider the case of our relationship to our friends. We love them with a common love because we all participate in the common prototype of humanity, but because each human being is a new and different manifestation of this prototype we want to know more about each one. Yet we should not be able to enjoy our friends at all if they could not be referred to the common prototype, for through the recognition of this identity with the prototype are we able to make sensible observations of differences.


Our notions of beauty today are essentially Platonic.

One is reminded of Anne Lamott’s moving meditation on friendship and the difficult art of letting yourself be seen, in which she urged: “Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you.” How often do we find ourselves too afraid to let others see beyond the neatly packaged prototype of what we appear to be and into the particular manifestations of our singular humanity, the very source of our beauty?

The Artist’s Reality, more of which you can devour here, is a beautiful read in its totality — a rare and revelatory glimpse of the convictions and creative credos from which some of the most powerful paintings in human history sprang. Complement it with Selden Rodman’s fantastic forgotten interview with Rothko, Oscar Wilde on art and temperament of receptivity, and Jeanette Winterson on why reaping art’s most transcendent rewards requires the paradoxical experience of active surrender.

Published May 29, 2015




Filed Under

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the and affiliate programs, designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to books. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book from a link here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)