The Radiance of Rothko

Rothko at the Deutsche Guggenheim museum

In an attempt to describe the radiant effects of his paintings, the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko borrowed the term "inner light" from the art-historical commentary on such masters as Titian, Rembrandt, and Turner. The phrase—ethereal yet unerring—rang true even to his critics, and it helped him transcend the notion of being a mere colorist or abstractionist. What he was reaching for was something much larger, something his great predecessors had found: the poetic Sublime.

Five Rothkos and six other works are on view in On the Sublime: Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, James Turrell, at the Deutsche Guggenheim museum in Berlin from July 7 through October 7. Klein and Turrell, with their emphasis on color, space, and perception of light, are inspired mates for Rothko, and in a sense, all three artists have attempted to conjure the Sublime. Klein (1928-62), the Neo-Dada provocateur, developed his own ultramarine paint, which he called International Klein Blue, and exhibited a series of same-sized monochrome blue panels that invited the viewer to commune with the "void" of the cosmos. For Turrell, a contemporary artist whose meticulously constructed installations give form, depth, and mass to colored light, perception itself is the many-faceted route to the Sublime. And for Rothko, the "inner light" in such paintings as Untitled, 1949 expressed nothing less than "the basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on."

Rothko never liked group exhibitions, but one is tempted to imagine that this genius of poetic expression would have given his blessing to a show as harmonious as this one.