Friday, January 06, 2006

Rothko and the saddleblankets

- Navajo Saddle Blanket, circa 1900.

The paintings of Mark Rothko have the power to elicit an almost religious feeling. The paintings seem to vibrate, to emit a low hum which dominates the surrounding space. This is especially true of his larger canvases, the vast colorfields typical of his later work.

This sacred aspect becomes explicit at the Rothko chapel in Houston, Texas. Here, the paintings hang in bare rooms, like vertical prayer rugs.

What gives the paintings their power? One explanation is that the composition of figure and ground recalls an older aesthetic. That Rothko was both creating and also re-inventing, summoning up ancient memories, speaking using the words of a universal language.

I doubt, however, that Rothko was the first to utter these phonemes, these antediluvian words. More likely, I believe that as we trace the past, we discover that even our aesthetic discoveries are a sort of unconscious plagiarism.

The blankets woven by the Navajo, for example, seem to possess some of that same calm. The buyers of these blankets referred to them as "windows" and as "ghost blankets" They were woven to accompany a journey and each blanket contained some of the weaver's hair, a token to ensure the rider's return.

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