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"On the Sublime: Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, James Turrell"
2001-07-07 until 2001-10-07
Guggenheim Museum, Berlin
The sublime is an experience with something so boundless, grand, or dangerous that it inspires awe, fear, or
veneration. Historically, artists and writers viewed magnificent landscapes, hazy yet luminous seascapes, and vast
regional vistas, or representations of them, as prime catalysts for this transcendental response. On the Sublime explores concepts of the sublime as
manifested in the work of Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, and James Turrell. Rather than using the representational
models of nineteenth-century Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich, and J.M.W. Turner, Rothko, Klein,
and Turrell create sublime experiences for the viewer through seemingly simple combinations of abstracted color,
light, and space.
Although the concept of the sublime is most often identified with nineteenth-century Romanticism, the first century
CE philosopher Longinus is credited with one of the earliest discussions. In On the Sublime, Longinus defines the
sublime as an expression of a great spirit that has the power to provoke ecstasy. However, the topic only
gained prominence with the 1756 publication of Edmund Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our
Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful. According to Burke, terror and pain are the source of the sublime. He
contrasts this idea with that of beauty, rather than associating the sublime as part of the beautiful. Burke also
associates the sublime with immense objects or places. In his highly influential Critique of Judgment (1790),
Emmanuel Kant outlines the sublime as a notion that can apply only to the mind, rather than to the object which
induces these emotions. However, Kant argues that an object that attempts to represent the boundlessness of an
experience may also be considered sublime.
Many critics have hailed Rothko's work as transcendental, creating spiritual work for secular times. Rothko
canvases of the 1950s and 1960s engender a sense of sublimity through their size, space, and light. Painted with
thin layers of paint that allow the color beneath to show, the saturated canvases seem to radiate from an inner light
source. Rothko's floating rectangles vacillate between figure and ground, focused and hazy, creating a tension
within in the composition and perhaps within the viewer.
Like Rothko, Klein used color to create a sense of infinite space. However, Klein refused to paint with multiple
colors because he did not want to create tension within the composition. Dissatisfied with the lackluster quality of
available materials, Klein created International Klein Blue, a deep ultramarine pigment suspended in synthetic resin.
This color is often associated with the sea and sky, which are usually perceived as limitless to the human eye.
Klein, interested in the viewer's emotional response to his Monochrome Adventure, hoped viewers would be able
to experience the Void through a uniformly painted color field.
Turrell's installations also confound our perceptions by using light to create ambiguous and otherworldly spaces.
Space, in the work of both Klein and Turrell, often seems boundless and awesome, but the subject and medium of
Turrell's works is light. In early works such as Afrum I, Turrell projects light in corners, creating seemingly
three-dimensional shapes. However, these hovering objects flatten and dissolve, depending on which angle they are
viewed from. The viewer must allow the eyes and mind to grapple with the spatial uncertainties and vacillation
between two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms. Rather than creating a representation of the sublime,
Turrell engenders a sublime experience for the viewer.
The works of these three artists have greatly impacted our understanding of the sublime by expanding its visual
definitions over the course of the twentieth century. By investigating space, color, light, and vision, these works
encourage us to reconsider our relationship to the outside world and to examine our inner selves.
Mark Rothko (1903 - 1970)
(Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red), 1949
Copyright Kate Rothko-Prizel and Christopher Rothko/
VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2001