Thinking “in Rothko”: Verbiage, Vision and Silence

Rothko no. 10
Rothko no. 10

I’ve been thinking “in Rothko” lately.

“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing; no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden time, for then we had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, and consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where they can root and grow. We must all hope that they find them.”

This was part of a speech Mark Rothko gave in 1969. He was talking about art; specifically, art in a world that was moving from the shocking and often morose modern expressionist phase (following World War II) into the colourful embrace of pop art, mass advertising, and sensationalist consumerism.

I find myself stuck on Rothko’s “pockets of silence” idea, though less in the context of art and more in terms of the information-abundant and creatively productive world many of us choose to live in – a world that somehow manages to be inspiring, challenging, patience-testing, ego-knocking, beautiful, excessive, self-congratulating, self-deprecating, exaggerated, humble, vulnerable, disingenuous, and gut-wrenchingly sincere, all at once. It’s a world that is often moving too quickly to find the value in those “pockets of silence”; in steady, rooted growth over rapid expansion and production for the sake of production.

Despite the attraction many of us feel toward that world, one largely built on “verbiage, activity, and consumption,” I often wonder if we are creating and championing genuine visions that are of true value and utility to those around us, like a hanging canvas, or something more transient and superficial, more akin to a throwaway magazine.

I’m inclined to believe that we all worry sometimes about our contributions to this world – I know I do. I fear the day my work becomes associated with irrelevant verbiage, or for taking up space for the sake of making my mark, or for adding only style with no substance. I think about the moments where my behaviour resembles Rothko’s intentional fogs and blurry shapes, when the lines that define me as an individual blur and shift to accommodate the observer. These happen when I get caught up in the frenzy of creating for the sake of creating; when I step out of the shadows, whether of my own volition or propelled by outside forces, to take my place in the limelight.

I wonder if perhaps part of the solution to these worries lies in attempting to consciously exist in the space Rothko described: living as though there is nothing to lose, only visions to gain; channeling our energies toward allowing ourselves to “root and grow” rather than add one more chirp to the chorus.

Maybe we ought to think seriously about finding our own pockets of silence, and using them as opportunities to pause and reflect on the quality of what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it. I suspect that these breaks in production and consumption can encourage and fuel the visions Rothko’s so fondly talked about throughout his life. Me? I seek out my own sacred silences – places that enchant my spirit; actions that restore my balance; people who bring about vision by virtue of their coexistence with others.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of considering “which condition is better for the world at large,” whether you’re more inclined to seek those pockets of silence or identify more with the hyperkinetic world of verbiage and consumption, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise for each of us step back, reflect and consider the nature of our contributions to this world.

Are you drawing the bold strokes and defining lines that separate colour blocks, adding depth and clarity, and clearing the fog of abstraction? Or is your input best viewed from afar, as part of the whole – well intentioned, but not improved upon closer inspection?


My huge thanks to MH for input & edits to this post!


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