The Rothko Effect: Why Does Art Move Us?

The Rothko Effect: Why Does Art Move Us?

The emotive, religious aura associated with Mark Rothko has been documented for decades—but what is actually happening to us when we are moved by a work of art?

The emotive, religious aura associated with Mark Rothko has been documented for decades—but what is actually happening to us when we are moved by a work of art?

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black Blue Painting), 1968. Sold for £2,866,000. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London. 

Written by Sarah Bochicchio


In Untitled (Black Blue Painting), two fields, each layered in inky, bluish hues, float in parallel, broken up with a wavering brownish line. Its variegated textures, composition, and disembodying effect are typical of Mark Rothko’s 1960s paintings—which is to say, it is also very intense. When recalling her first encounters with Untitled (Black Blue Painting), Phillips’ Deputy Chairwoman, Europe, and Senior  Specialist Marianne Hoet, shared that the work “brings you closer to yourself.” Senior International Specialist and Regional Director, Zürich Lori Spector noted that the work possessed “almost a religious aspect that can’t be denied or dismissed even for the non-denominational.”

This emotive, religious aura associated with Rothko has been documented for decades. In Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, 2001, James Elkins’ first chapter focuses on Rothko, using responses left in the visitor’s book at the Rothko Chapel, as well as anecdotal encounters with the artist himself. It is in this section that Elkins proposes, “­­­There is no survey to prove it, but it is likely that the majority of people who have wept over twentieth-century paintings have done so in front of Rothko’s paintings.”

Although the suggestion may initially seem sweeping, it is difficult to deny the emotional effects—and psychological power—of Rothko’s oeuvre. Rothko is not the only artist of the twentieth century to have created work with an experiential intention, but for those who are moved by his paintings, its intensity can be uniquely overwhelming. Rothko’s work has frequently been described as transcendent, miraculous, or sublime—whether Elkins is correct or not, what makes Rothko’s paintings so moving?

“What I'll say is almost trite and obvious: it's complicated,” shares Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurology professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. It is tempting to praise Rothko’s genius on the altar of originality, but, as Chatterjee stresses, “we don't know the answers to most of these questions.” However powerful the Rothko Effect, it is difficult to discern what exactly happens to us, even if we can intuit where we start and where we end. 

The Basic Emotions

Mark Rothko exalted emotions and repeatedly stated their importance in appreciating his work as he intended it to be experienced—as he experienced it. “I’m not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else,” he famously declared. “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions.”

“Rothko calls those basic emotions, but actually in psychology, those are not the basic emotions,” notes Dr. Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College and author of How Art Works, with a touch of amusement. Most psychologists would consider happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, anger to be the five basic emotions, she clarifies. "The emotions Rothko says he wants to convey are more extreme than these basic emotions. One would never say Rothkos paintings are sad. Tragic, perhaps, but not sad.”

Abstractly, there is an exchange between Rothko’s conception of the art as something tragic, ecstatic, or doom-ridden—and the way the viewer interprets the work. There are three elements to this: the artist’s emotions, the artwork, and what emotions are being conveyed. If the viewer can intellectually understand what is conveyed about the artwork, they may not necessarily feel it. If they do, it is a connective moment between artist and viewer, by way of a deeply felt emotion.

It seems to be describing a rather transformative experience, something self-changing, insightful, where you are forced back into yourself  – Dr. Matthew Pelowski

With Rothko specifically, studies have demonstrated a combination of feeling bad, then feeling good that seems to lend itself to that feeling of “being moved." Dr. Matthew Pelowski, a professor at the University of Vienna who has conducted extensive research on Rothko’s emotional effects, has posited that when we look at a Rothko, it is not one instantaneous reception, but a process in which we are confronted with the work and need to re-classify it intellectually, question ourselves, and readjust. The “epiphany” moment may come when our expectations, sense of control, and self-consciousness are reconciled. As Pelowski explains, “It seems to be describing a rather transformative experience, something self-changing, insightful, where you are forced back into yourself.”

Even if we cry in front of an artwork, the experience remains pleasurable due to an aesthetic distance, which allows us to feel a negative emotion with a level of separation. If we are moved by a tragic response or reflection, "It's not as horrible as if the tragedy were happening to you," adds Winner. Winner connects this concept to “benign masochism,” the idea that realizing that there is no danger, no threat caused by the negative experience is a pleasure in itself. The beauty of the art also softens the tragic feelings it evokes.

In these moments, when we are moved by an artwork, a collection of brain areas called the Default Mode Network is activated. These areas are turned off when we are stimulated by the outside world but are turned on during periods of daydreaming or introspection. That this introspective network is “on” during emotional encounters with art would imply that the artwork may prompt us to think about our own lives—and perhaps it is during this period of reflection, whether conscious or not, that we are emotionally affected. However interesting the suggestion may be, it is not conclusive, Winner cautions, “We just don't have direct evidence for that.”

"The other piece around that," adds Chatterjee, "is something that is called the Executive Control Network, which is almost the command and control center of the brain that is directing things." This area ends up decreasing in activity when we are absorbed in a work of art, meaning "our mind is not being controlling." Chatterjee suggests there may be a link between this absorbtion and the feeling of transcendence associated with being moved by a work of art, whether that work is a painting by Rembrandt or Rothko. 

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808/1810. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.

The Sublime

Although we may not have direct scientific evidence yet, the discourse around Rothko accounts for an introspective, meditative quality. The dialogues around the artist often use the word "sublime," which is a notion closely associated with Romantic-era paintings and nature's vastness. Dr. Hans Maes, a senior philosophy lecturer at the University of Kent, points to David Caspar Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, in which a far-away figure, cloaked in dark fabrics, stands at the edge of the shore. The blackened sea laps the sky; the sky suspends in ribbons of grey-blue. In this painting, the figure is invited to reflect on their life, the moment they are in, and, as a result, the passage of time. But Rothko “takes out the figure in the painting so that you are the one who is confronted with something that is infinite, vast, or impressive.” The viewer, in a way, becomes the monk looking out to sea.

Rothko’s works, Maes notes, share many qualities with a vast seascape—not just in their horizontal bands in luminous colors, but in their formlessness. In a Rothko painting, there are no hard lines, they represent an endless depth, in which you may feel yourself dizzily disintegrate. They seem to almost blur out the world, blocking anything sharp or recognizable in your periphery. “There’s nothing determinant, and there's no object in it, there's absence, there's infinity, there's formlessness,” explains Maes.

For Maes, the term “sublime” may not be the most accurate—because what we are feeling in this moment is not the vastness of nature. What we feel when looking at Rothko may be melancholy, which he says, “is elicited when we contemplate harsh or difficult existential truths in such a way that something we value comes into sharp relief.” For example, standing before a Rothko may disorient you from the present, prompting reflections on time's flight—how quickly and slowly your moments with the work will pass. 

The artwork makes available an emotion through which our thoughts, absorption, or even curiosity transform.

In this way, Rothko’s paintings are more like tools that allow us to experience a level of self-reflection—or the transcendence that is so often described in relation to his work. Philosopher and writer Dr. Federico Campagna explains that for Rothko, paintings were “instruments to serve a function. What was this function served by the paintings? He always speaks about the fact that a painting has to be a miraculous object.”

“The miracle is the moment in which you're capable of seeing inside an object, something that is in no way detectable,” Campagna elaborates. “In that object, you see something beyond words, beyond language and beyond understanding.” This “being moved,” as Maes and Campagna describe it, does ultimately feel akin to moving from one mode of being to another. The artwork makes available an emotion through which our thoughts, absorption, or even curiosity transform. 

In a work like Untitled (Black Blue Painting), the transformation exists in the movement from darkness to light. Campagna argues that “Because the painting already performs the darkness, the tears are already in the painting. To maintain the balance of the room, the viewer has to laugh.” Untitled (Black Blue Painting) can be an all-encompassing world, calling upon the balance between darkness and light, hidden in its unfinished depths. “You paint it for what it is, but don't forget that just behind the edges, there is something lighter.”

Like the process described by Pelowski, “being moved” unfolds as we try to understand, are frustrated, and arrive in a new, abstract space, driven by the artwork and the emotions it activates. In other words—and in Rothko’s words—“you are in it. It isn’t something you command.”



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Mark Rothko: Black Blue & Elsewhere

Philosopher Federico Campagna finds light and optimism behind the dark colour fields of this 1968 work by Mark Rothko, ‘Untitled (Black Blue Painting)’. Referencing Rothko’s writing and his claim that ‘Paintings should be miraculous’ Campagna delves into the artist’s work through the lens of the sacred.



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