Mark Rothko (1903–70) is known for his prolific production of large canvases combining a palette of meticulously-chosen colours with a different dominating colour (or colours) in each. It is these creations which earned him a pronounced reputation on art’s world stage. Orange and Red on Red is one of these creations.
While Rothko’s work is not a direct response to this passage from Mark, it is nevertheless possible to make connections between this painting and the Gospel narrative, especially if one is of the Christian faith. In the first place, Rothko himself said, ‘There is no such thing as good painting about nothing’ (Rothko and Gottlieb 1943), and declared that he was ‘interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on’ (Bishop 2017: 12). Few feelings could be more basic or more powerful than those incited by the idea of the afterlife. Hence, the dominant red colour would make it easy to associate it with the constantly repeated reference of Mark 9 to the fire which ‘is not quenched’. Since the worm that never dies is equally repeated along with the fire, that too may be awakened in a viewer’s imagination. In addition, the white brushstrokes that appear on the canvas do bring to mind the shape and colour associated with worms.
Rothko’s works have been hailed as ‘an experiential connection between the viewer and the art’ (Bishop 2017: 11), as they invite people to engage with the painted surface, to ‘dive’ into it and make it their own. So there seems every reason to welcome the religious associations that can awaken when the texts and images of Christian faith come into dialogue with this work—when, following its creator’s advice, the faithful attempt to ‘experience’ it from their particular perspective.
The worm that never dies may consume all, until everything blends into a captivating, colourful emptiness.
Bishop, Janet. 2017. Rothko: The Color Field Paintings (San Francisco: Chronicle Books)
Rothko, Mark and Adolph Gottlieb. 1943. ‘Letter to Edward Alden Jewell, Art Editor, The New York Times, 7 June 1943’, printed in E. A. Jewell, ‘The Realm of Art: A Platform and Other Matters; “Globalism” Pops into View, 13 June 1943’, The New York Times, p. 9
42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.,47And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.