Rothko's Negative Theology

Matthew Lovett


This paper argues that the progression of Mark Rotho's painting, from his early, surrealist work to his more famous and more abstract Classical paintings, can be read as following the same structure as outlined by Pseudo-Dionysius' apophatic theology.  In his Divine Names and Mystical Theology, Pseudo-Dionysius describes a process whereby one speaks, and fails to speak, the divine.  He describes a process that begins in sensory experience and ends up, after ascending by way of negation, in an ";unknowing"; beyond the intellect, a ";darkness beyond light.";  This ascension is motivated by what he describes as ";yearning"; and ";beauty.";  I argue that both Rothko and Pseudo-Dionysius begin their accounts of beauty in corporeality and recognition only to, through negation, move beyond it.  That is, I read Rothko's paintings' progress from specifically religious subject matter into almost pure monochromatic abstraction to mirror the progression of the mystic ascending towards God; Rothko, like Pseudo-Dionysius, negates the form of the body, the form of religious imagery, in his attempts to give the viewers of his painting an experience of transcendence.  


Christian Mysticism; Abstract Expressionism

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