RETHINKING ROTHKO

Chris Edwick

A conversation between Vincent Cassar and Chris Edwick

I met today, with a painter named Chris Edwick. He has a vast, bright studio, newly built with a huge glass northern wall, that allows a great flood of soft northern light to illuminate his lush and vibrant canvases.

I was captivated by their scale and sensuality. Chris explained this new series was emerging directly out of his interests in Rothko.

I have a deep connection with Rothko after many visits to the dedicated room at the Tate Gallery, London, my own regular place of agnostic worship. There my experience is not so much of happiness as one of an overwhelming sensation of being alive, but Chris described a sense of unease and even a disappointment with Rothko.

I asked Chris to say more…

I'm really excited…

…about a new series of paintings I’m working on. Inspiration came from a long-standing study of Rothko. This new work stands as a reply in the form of a major divergence and parting from the position he held.

I’ve no idea what other artists are like but I’ve always taken a very rigorous intellectual approach to whatever I’m doing. I’m in my second medium now. I was a fashion photographer earlier. I want to do something that’s really important and valuable. I don’t find myself interested in quick, easy commercial success. I wasn’t like that in fashion. I’m not like that now in painting. I’m interested in the big question. What am I doing on this planet? My natural inclination is philosophical.

Some years ago, I instinctively turned to painting and now I try to analyse this strange and mysterious medium that I’m so deeply involved in, asking as I did before in fashion photography, what is this medium’s potential for me? How do I navigate a way in this territory? I found myself engaged, as many artists are, in conversations with other artists.

gateau with custard and creme caramel… oil on canvas 70 x 113 cms

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Does that reassure you to find someone whose methods and philosophy are similar to your own?

I rarely find that now but when I started painting I got a lot of reassurance from Patrick Heron. I stumbled upon his work on a visit to the Tate at St. Ives. Something immediately resonated with me. It was a lovely collision of inspirations. Patrick was the key turning point, he validated my thoughts, which were to do with…

the profound importance of colour and shape

That’s the basis of my love for painting.

Since then, the value of developing an awareness of other artist’s work is about finding my own place in relation to them. It’s a matter of orientation, not trying to be like anyone else but trying to understand why I am not like them. What’s the distance between me and them? In finding that, I gain a better understanding of where and who I am…all those who create, do this of course…

So why this recent interest in Rothko?

It's been a long standing fascination...

…but there isn’t any element of choice involved. Right now I find I’m in an interesting dialogue with Rothko and Sean Scully exploring certain philosophical differences. You just find that an artists’ work speaks to you urgently. Initially it’s very difficult to find anybody that you might want to have a dialogue with. At art college, you get many books out of the library but end up in a state of bafflement. When you’re 19 or 20 it’s impossible for anybody to get a grip on Rothko, because what he’s doing is intellectually hard to grasp. But that yearning to understand never left me. As the years passed I always returned to delve deeper and so an understanding grew.

As that understanding developed, so too, did a sense of a doubt and disagreement….

melting rubies which it hid… oil on canvas 100 x 140cm

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It’s interesting that you’re looking so closely at Rothko and Scully because, in comparison, all three of you appear to have a certain geometry underpinning your formal qualities.

All artists need...

…a formal language that offers opportunity for unique individual expression but is necessarily flexible enough to allow for growth and evolution. The formal arrangement of the elements of any painting are the primary expressive qualities in it’s meaning. I needed to find the shapes of my colour and a formal solution to the question of “space” that those colours would inhabit in the arena of the canvas. I don’t want splash and dribble in a Pollock style. That’s too diffused. I want clearly defined and highly specific colour as a starting point.

summer promise me… oil on canvas 90 x 130cm

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For a long time I’ve used a configuration of areas of colour in an open pictorial space. The geometry was very informal. Each area of colour arrived at loosely as a simple residual of large playful brushwork. The open space they inhabited is for me a satisfying evocation and allusion to the atmospheric space of the natural world.

Abstraction is allusive and...

…I play freely with the many qualities that are evoked by shapes and colour. The free and easy relationships between the colour areas for me, are highly suggestive of dancers on a stage, or children in a playground with that associated joy, playful celebration and sensuality at the heart of my meaning.

Rothko – Orange and Yellow 1956

Rothko employs the strongest of formal qualities...

…verticality and symmetry, a soft block shape quivering over a soft block shape, a direct straight-on drama, orthogonal to the perimeter of the canvas in a barely breathing, subdued, tightly compressed space. This formal arrangement, regardless of colour, speaks with immense power and authority.

In his early work during the mid 50’s he had a tendency toward warm bright colour which presented in this intense, commanding formal arrangement achieves a quality that’s invigorating, thrilling and ultimately ecstatic. He reaches toward the sublime.

This moment passes. If we imagine the formal qualities of a painting are like a tone of voice, these earlier paintings would speak with a rich and sonorous tone like Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas and in the early work this voice speaks of a warmth and delight in colour vibrancy…but later on that delight in sensual colour is gone. Eventually, we hear a doom-laden voice like Darth Vader announcing with a bleak finality that death will come to us all…

Rothko – Black on grey 1970

What then is the nature of your doubt with Rothko?

I think he surrendered to the idea that life was essentially tragic; this is where my doubt and disagreement begin to grow.

In his most famous quote he declares, “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom”.

The ecstasy drained away and all that was left was a sense of tragedy and doom. This idea begins with the Greeks and is still prevalent in our stories. Shakespeare deliberately took most of his heroes to a tragic end. Thomas Hardy made the beautiful Tess and then dragged her to her doom. Arthur Miller argued for the tragedy of the common man. Authors and playwrights love tragedy, the notion that life is a bitch and then you die…

...I don't, I violently disagree

As a twilight grew in Rothko...

…insidiously, like a cancer, he painted with extremely diluted colour pigment making ever more intangible, amorphous, ethereal colour sinking darker into midnight blues and dusky maroons. Seeing mankind as essentially tragic, he drifts into a pitchy, sombre night.

The late paintings in the Rothko Chapel at Houston are virtually black.

My own very personal experience of a classic Rothko painting finds a slowing of time, into a more contemplative mind frame, a turning inward of thought and awareness, a greater apprehension of “self” in this time and this space all of which happens with quite ferocious intensity because of those immensely powerful, dynamic, formal qualities. So Rothko brings me face to face with my inner self with all the intensity of a magnifying glass. All carnality eliminated, the vast darknesses of the Houston Chapel paintings seem to offer me nowhere to go but inward on a cerebral journey into my own psyche…

...where I find NOTHING

This is where my disagreement with Rothko becomes emphatic. For me, this is not a spiritual experience but a mere intimation of mortality.

I live in the country and my focus is outward...

…and I try to assimilate and comprehend the moment here and now and it’s overwhelming. How many little creatures are in the hedge? How many buds bursting into spring bloom on that tree, How many cells are in my body? The DNA at work… nature feels infinite and boundless, but also rich and miraculous in material abundance and sensuality; each blade of grass, the humming bird, the orchid, the oak tree and the rainbow…the ecstasy of nature…and a euphoric human world of response in laughter and joy in poetry, dance and music. This is the source of my very own personal spiritual experience. It stands in stark contrast to the empty darkness and the un-knowing in the Rothko Chapel.

For myself, spiritual experience is everything that is in opposition to the propositions of a Rothko painting. Rothko asks me to look inward and contemplate the tragedy of mankind but I want to look out of myself and celebrate. I want to look to the light, the boundless ecstasy of nature and the triumphs of our human creative minds. My Rothko Chapel would be painted all in white to spark a meditation on the light of our sun that makes life possible and to represent the glow of our own enlightenment. That for me, would be a spiritual experience.

What am I to do? I think my role is to celebrate and this seems to me to be the GREAT SUBJECT, worthy of attention; natures material abundance and sensuality and the enlightenment of our human conciousness.

…just your own internal shadows and darkness? You resort to looking into the neurosis of the self, something I see a lot in metropolitan art. I think Rothko cut himself off from life. Isolated in a New York loft, surrounded by the concrete jungle. He seems to have nothing but whisky and cigarettes for solace in the face of despair. I think he forgot the humming bird, the orchid, the oak tree and rainbow…eventually, only the razor and the blood seeping across the floor. Losing sight of nature always seems to lead toward entropy and death.

Many artists have instinctively known this and left the metropolis to re-invigorate their work. Vincent left Paris and found the sunflower in the Provençal fields. Pollock left Manhattan to spread his canvas on the flat land surface of Long Island followed by De Kooning who found the blissful light of nature on the Atlantic at Sag Harbour. Hockney returned to the Wolds of his youth. Heron and Gillian Ayres both knew how to make nature their garden of inspiration and as Sean Scully became wealthy enough to get out of New York his sour, clashing, pugilistic odes to the metropolis turned into great sweeping Landlines. Even Damien Hirst’s spot paintings have morphed into hand made splatterings the evoke tree blossom…

How much does your respective backgrounds have to contribute to that?

Everything.

I had the extraordinary fortune to grow up in a very different world to Rothko. As we witnessed the first summer of love in ‘67, I escaped the metropolis when my family moved from London to the soft and tender haven of rural west Wiltshire. The constraints of Modernism were released as I became concious. I saw Lucy in the sky with diamonds and was taught that we’re…

...stardust, golden and need to get back to the garden.

My life has enabled me to come to very different conclusions about things. Rothko emerged in a world of harsh realities. Born into the Jewish faith in 1903 in a hostile Russia, his family left for America. Rothko experiences all those tribulations of the immigrant, the Great Depression and 2 World Wars. Such a life is impossible for me to imagine. Living through the savagery of 2 world wars seemed to scar and hang like a dark cloud over those generations. The soul searching and ingrained sense of tragedy that lingered in the imagination of the Abstract Expressionists can hardly be surprising.

Is there a musical equivalent or sound to your work?

It would be flamenco where the inevitability of Death seems accepted and understood but confronted with an almost erotic exhilaration and contempt; that guttural earthy cry, the wild thrumming of the Spanish guitar, the dancer in rapture, stamping her feet. That’s the ultimate sensuality. A drama, full of life and rapture in utter DEFIANCE of death….That’s the stance I take in painting, so I make work that look like this…

gateau with an ice cream lemon and lime topping over a bed of strawberries and coffee cream… oil on canvas 90 x 130-cms

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In a new series of works I decided to take and explore those formal qualities Rothko once used, to make them anew in my own way. My ambition is to take that intensely authoritative formal arrangement and subvert and bend it to my own philosophy of celebration to give a contemporary echo to Rothko’s intent.

I stretched the vertical format outwards to a horizontal, to soften the authoritative tone and invoke the landscape of nature but retain the symmetrical formation of shape hovering above another below. My colour is richly pigmented to return to and evoke the vivid sensuality in the daily texture of experience and applied freely and playfully to recall the joy and bliss in the moment.

The most profound thing I can do is be very playful...

…to focus on joy. I want to bring in the opposite dynamic. Rothko wants stillness. I want energy. Rothko wants silence. I want music. Rothko wants spirituality. I WANT SPIRITUALITY but not one that’s sought in the dark night of the soul but in natures sensual abundance.

gateau with strawberry and dark coffee cream with a lemon and lime icing… oil on canvas 90 x 130 cms

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Does this new series have a title yet?

I call this series “gateaux”

Painting is allusive. That’s it’s expressive power. I noticed a certain visual similarity in this formal arrangement to the appearance of a cake and want to make playful allusions to this. The cake is a wonderful invention of mankind; a perfect symbol of joyful celebration in sensuality. At life’s special moments when we celebrate the marriage of two people or the anniversary of our birth we make a cake. Making a cake is an act of love. De Kooning once said that “flesh is the reason oil paint was invented” but it’s also particularly good at evoking custard, cream, strawberry, blueberry, caramel, cinnamon, lemon, lime…I could go on…

I believe spirituality resides in the rich sensuality of existence…. not in negation, abstinence or denial, not in the meagre, or the tenuous but in diving headlong into the very deep-end of the rich tapestry of life, awakening our awareness to its giddy intoxicating intensity of abundance…For me that’s where real spiritual experience lies…in the ecstatic….

This has lead me to rethink Rothko….

gateau with dark chocolate lavender icing spiced orange and smatterings of coffee cream… oil on canvas 70 x 113 cms

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Chris’ paintings are astonishingly alive! Like him. The brush strokes and the vibrant colours leap out at you! I can see where his journey has taken him. How every step has been a considered one and the reasons behind each stage of his journey.

And he’s right that Rothko’s paintings did get darker as he got older. It moves away from life into death. Perhaps I just loved that golden period and hadn’t really considered much else. I think I was secretly disappointed to discover he had committed suicide but we don’t know what goes on in another’s mind.

It is necessary, sometimes in life to laugh at the gods, poke fun at your heroes, lighten up the reverence you have for something as you dismantle it. Take joy in the absurdity of life and celebrate the sensual as Chris is doing, As it is not about dreams as Rothko would have it. It’s about being alive.

 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy some further reading

Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out

Christopher Rothko
328pp – £15.67

The Artist’s Reality

Mark Rothko
176pp – £13.21

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