Actually Rothko's early work was like everyone's early work: still lifes, nudes. Later paintings are abstractish but contain elements that can be recognized: Greek gods and fragments of sculpture and architecture, a kind of modernist conversation with ancient Greek art. Then the squares: total abstraction.
The question arises: do these paintings "mean" something?
Perhaps, taken together, they might be said to make a kind of statement, something like, "Art does not have to be representational. It does not have to display technical virtuosity. It does not have to constitute social commentary. It does not have to be aesthetically pleasing." But whether any single painting can be said to have a "meaning," well--Rothko almost seems to thumb his nose at the idea. The squares are all untitled: he refuses to even suggest what, or that, they might signify. He refuses to delimit the possibilities of the painting for the viewer.
I think of Picasso, and of Bob Dylan, for that matter. When asked by critics if Guernica--or "Blowin' in the Wind"--was a war protest, both artists replied, in essence, "I won't state that the work is about thus-and-such. It is what it is."
Then, too, I think of my husband, who is, as a general rule, unmoved by works of visual art. When we find ourselves standing together before one, he usually says to me, "What does it mean?" And I usually reply, (with some crankiness, I'm afraid) "Why does it have to mean something? Why can't you just enjoy it with your eyes?"
His question might come of having been a midcentury English major. It was a fad at one time, in English Departments, to aver that works of literature contained in them a Meaning--a singular, pure, universal and eternal meaning--embedded there by the author for the reader with the right tools to uncover, the way a geologist with the right tools might uncover a vein of quartz in a wall of granite. The Cranky Art Lover thinks this notion is entirely silly, and that it fairly ruined several decades of literary studies. For one thing, it lead to an obnoxious pedagogical practice, "Guess What the Teacher is Thinking"--the teacher, presumably, being in possession of the work's Meaning, and the unfortunate students not. I hope they don't teach English like that any more.
For me, the only sensible approach to a Rothko is either a formalist one: the work is made of these materials, and employs these techniques, these lines, shapes, colors, textures, uses of space--or one that looks at Rothko's place in art history: the work was a departure or an extension of thus-and-such; it was an assertion of this or that approach; it influenced so-and-so who came after in the following ways.
In fact, the Cranky Art Lover posits that all art, across cultures and throughout history, from the first cave paintings to the Google graphic of the day, can be explained thus: "I made it this way because it is interesting to look at."
Upstairs from the Rothko was an exhibit by an artist named John Frame. A notice at the entrance to the exhibit explained that, at the request of the artist, no descriptive tiles had been posted beside the works of art. Thank you, John Frame! The C.A.L. is nearly always annoyed by descriptive tiles, which many museum patrons spend more time reading than they do looking at the art. Descriptive tiles, whose blah blah blah necessarily reduces the infinite possibilities for the enjoyment of the piece to a few lines by a distant expert, seem to me to serve as sorry little life rafts for museum-goers. Patrons read the tiles because they want to know what the work means. But this insistence on meaning is an act of pretentiousness on the part of the authors of descriptive tiles, and an act of cowardice on the part of the tiles' readers. The readers want their possibilities reduced, because they are afraid to engage the work on its own terms. They are afraid of the art.
Irritated by the young people playing video games on their cell phones in the Renaissance gallery, irritated by the woman on a bench nearby who was humming to herself, irritated by the hat-check clerk who did not smile at her, the art lover's, wisecracks, the cranky art lover was at first inclined to blame her fellow patrons for their insecurities. But after a rest (on the bench next to the hummer) and on reflection, she decided she preferred to lay blame at the feet of the English professors and the art critics instead.
We don't need a descriptive tile, after all, to appreciate a potter's coffee mug or a drawing on a greeting card. But put a piece in a museum--or a poem in an anthology--and it becomes a fearful object, inaccessible, imbued with a mystery that ordinary citizens have been convinced--by magniloquent and silly experts--they are too stupid to work out for themselves.
After I left the museum I walked up the street to the farmer's market, where hundreds of shoppers thronged, in their rain gear, with their baskets, between stacks of broccoli and garlic spears and bouquets of fresh cut flowers. The air was tangy with the smell of grilling meat. In among the food booths was a makeshift stage, where live musicians were performing pieces by Astor Piazzolla for violin and guitar. The work of Piazzolla is rich and complex and nuanced, with a dozen denotations and connotations in every measure, and with many unexpected turns. Whole tomes could, and probably have, been written about it. Yet there we all were, sitting contentedly on damp benches with our barbecued chicken, listening. Everyone was just enjoying the music with their ears, and no one was afraid.