The thing to remember about contemporary art is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rothko wasn’t just saying “isn’t this pretty?” any more than Hemingway was just writing about an old man and the sea. Contemporary art is in a conversation with every painting that came before it. But since that conversation is long, entirely visual and not well-publicized (articles that mention how much a piece was sold for never talk about why), it can be really difficult to understand what an artist is saying just from looking at it.
I’ll try to give a brief overview of the narrative leading up to Rothko. This well be over-simplified and contain errors:
Painting for a long time after the Renaissance was about the rules of positing. How too paint people. How to use color, shadow, and contrast. Composition. You worked really hard to learn these rules, then tried to improve the art. This produced a bunch of beautiful paintings that approached photorealism.
Then people started to question these rules. They started to intentionally break them to see what would happen. Impressionists started painting everyday scenes instead of royal portraits. They made things blurry, top capture emotions rather than detail. They used visible brush strokes, at once reminding the viewer that they were looking at a positing, not a real landscape, and making the painters presence, and personality, an important party of the aesthetic experience.
Then you have a bunch of movements that continue along this trajectory, breaking long-established rules about how one should paint. Post-impressionism distorted forms to express a mood, used color wildly, abstracted real objects into geometric shapes. Surrealism, cubism, art nouveau, and a ton of other movements played with these themes and tried new things.
By the time the mid-20th century rolls around, it seems like every taboo had been broken. How many ways can you paint a still-life? One solution was to not paint anything. As in any thing. A painting didn’t have to be anything but an expression of the artist’s creativity, or a commentary on painting itself, without having to use a subject (a landscape, a nude) as a vector for the ideas. Painting could just be about painting, our the process of painting, or the experience of looking at a painting.
Rothko’s journey followed a similar trajectory to the one I’ve described for all modern art. He stayed painting as an impressionist, doing landscapes, city scenes, etc. with influence from the Surrealists, he became interested in myth and mythology, and the compares turned him onto primitive art and children’s art. All this was in an attempt to hack into something deep inside the viewer, to express an idea in a visual language that was more direct and pure than painting a seaside scene. He would use simple symbols that were meant to hit the viewer deep. Unfortunately, these works weren’t well-received, so he figured his theories weren’t right. He broke with surrealism and went full abstract.
This was the beginning of his “multiforms”, the paintings he is most famous for (including the one above). The theory was, as best as I can understand it:
When you look at a painting of a tiger, you are not just looking at the tiger. You are relating it top every other time you’ve seen a tiger, which lets you pull back from the experience, view it from above, not from within, experience the tiger only from a distance. But when you look at his paintings, they aren’t “of”anything. You’re not allowed to reduce it and categorize it. You have to dive into it, experience it, let it seep into you. He recommended that you get as close to 18 inches from the canvas so as to really immerse yourself and confront the unknown.
This discussion is definitely flawed and very incomplete, but I hope it helps illustrate why this want just a hack saying “ain’t these colors purdy”, and why some people may think it’s quite valuable.