Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and their painting styles

The end of WW2, the explosion of the atomic bomb, and the realization that mankind had developed the ability to destroy itself were all factors in creating a mood of introspection and reflection.  Although most abstract expressionists were trained in traditional forms of art making, they saw representational art as incapable of expressing emotion.


Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock both developed their painting styles in New York during the 1940s and 1950s.  They were a part  of the group of artists known as the abstract expressionists.  Although each of the artists associated with this movement worked in a very individual style, they were linked by the desire to find a new means of artistic expression.  Rather than including recognizable objects in their work, they used the elements of painting such as color, line, shape, brushstrokes, texture, and light, to express emotions.  Their influences included Native American, pre-Columbian, Mexican, and African art, along with the modern European movement and surrealism, which looked to dreams and the unconscious for subject matter. The paintings are completely abstract, with no recognizable objects from the real world, or non objective, and the purpose of their art is to create expression and emotion.


Abstract expressionism can be roughly divided into two general types.  Jackson Pollock was representative of “action” or gesture painting, in which the artist’s process and movements are an important aspect of the end result.  Mark Rothko’s work is an example of color-field painting, in which the artist is more concerned with creating an overall field of paint.  Pollock created many “drip” paintings, That included black and white along with color, and most of Rothko’s images consisted of three floating rectangles in various color combinations.  By turning to new forms of expression, Pollock, Rothko, and their colleagues brought American painting to international prominence and for the first time, an American city, New York, replaced Paris and other European cities, as the leader of the art world.


There are many comparable qualities between two specific works by the two artists;   Pollock’s most ravishing, atmospheric painting, Number 1, 1950  (Lavender Mist), and Rothko’s, Orange and Tan Both abstract works present the audience with new concepts:  Rothko presents the idea of simply viewing color as a work of art, and Pollock presents brilliant methods and beautiful chaos.


We have seen how Rothko and Pollock, like so many Modernist painters before them,  tried to explore painting and concentrate on what is particular to that medium: paint, surface, and canvas. In so doing, we have seen how they got rid of what had become the traditional subject matter of painting and have started a new revolution in painting.


Because of his use of unique technique and his brilliant innovations expressed through his art, Jackson Pollock was more of a success than Mark.  Pollock\’s very large piece, Lavender Mist  has nice untraditional horizon lines on which perspective relies.  All artists in that time would routinely use oil-based paints brushed onto a piece of already stretched canvas.  Rather, Pollock took a large piece of untreated canvas, spread it on the ground and used cans, sticks, garden trowels and stirrers to apply oils, enamels and aluminum house paint to the surface. The canvas was not stretched until ithe painting was finished.  Pollock would first lay the canvas on the ground and drip paint onto it.  He said that it was essential to “walk around it, work from all four sides, and be in the painting.”  Part of the result is random, but there is much evidence of control.  Pollock’s technique allows us to envision his movements while creating the painting.  In Lavender Mist, Pollock did not have an established horizon line or a foreground/background relationship in which to focus the eye.  Instead, the focal points are erratic and by not using formal art elements to show a three dimensional relationship in the space, Pollock was able to use the varying thicknesses of paint to his advantage therefore creating an immense three-dimensional feel to the work.  The painting is defined by sweeping lines of dripped and splattered paint;  a web that fills the canvas.  In gesture art,  line and mark making are important elements to create  movement.  Polloc’k’s accentuated strokes move across the canvas while clearly defined black and white strands establish unity and balance.


In The National Museum of Art, Lavender Mist  is displayed on a wall by itself.  This adds to the grand gestured lines throughout the piece because there is no interference with any other art works.  When admiring the painting, one becomes engulfed in it’s ability to capture the viewers and like much Pollock himself,  Lavender Mist  was an unusual and exciting modern painting.


Mark Rothko can be compared to Pollock because they were both pioneers of the abstract expressionist era and came up with many new and interesting ways to create art therefor creating a new way of thinking in among Americans.  By 1949 Rothko had introduced a compositional format comprised of several vertically aligned rectangular forms set within a colored field that he continued to develop throughout his career.  Color, for which Rothko\’s work is most known, is his most formal art element is ironically the same element that sets him apart from many other artists of his time.  It wasn’t a common idea to simply display color for the audience to appreciate. His classic paintings of the 1950s are characterized by simplified use of form, brilliant hues, and coats of thin color washes.


In his work, Orange and Tan, Rothko presents the same rectangular elements as do the rest of his color-field collection.  We can see that Rothko has kept the distinction between foreground and background because the rectangles seem to float in a tan mist. Furthermore, the horizon line is maintained by the border between the rectangles.  Rothko\’s interest lies in color and the laying on of paint. You can see gradations of color of each layer because the painter is stressing the relationship between hues. He has stripped painting of its need to refer to the outside world and concentrates on what he thinks makes a painting a painting: brushes, shapes, color. Rothko, like Pollock does not care about traditional drawing, but rather about color and lines.  He smeared the edged of the rectangular shapes into the background hues of the painting defining that color is the pertinent element of his work, rather than shape.  This is an interesting aspect to all of Rothko’s color-field paintings because the blending creates rich colors around the shapes.  This may be because he was placing emphasis on the fact that even rectangles can be painted in an abstract way and portraying an exact likeness isn’t always wanted


Despite the similarities that Pollock and Rothko’s abstract paintings show, the techniques differ greatly.  Rothko’s methods and techniques of painting are much more traditional than Pollock’s.   Pollock’s awkward placement of canvases and his resourceful use of tools are much more dramatically modern than Rothko’s more traditional methods of painting.  Instead of laying the canvas on the ground like Pollock, Rothko places his canvas on an easel.  He applies very thin coats of paint, not only with brushes, but also with sponges and cloths to avoid leaving brushstrokes.  Most of the results are controlled despite the muffled edges of the rectangles.  What is interesting about Rothko’s idea for Orange and Tan, and other similar paintings, is that he attempted to eliminate as many artistic elements as possible so that the audience would only concentrate on hue.


Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothkos’ art in the mid 1900s started a new string of abstract and modern art.   The two artists shared the idea of breaking away from the limitations of traditional “exact likeness” painting and moved toward something fresh and exciting.  The creation of their art work was approached by the two in different ways and Pollock gained more success from his brilliant methods and his thought processes for making art.  But, Rothko had a great idea to present simple color to the world and had much success in  creating a way to eliminate all other competing distractions from the painting.  Both artists helped to make a huge leap for artists around the world and will be remembered for their brave contributions to modern art.

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