Some artists paint what their inner eye imagines. Leonardo da Vinci saw it, then painted it. Some artists approach the canvas as Thomas Edison did when he invented the light bulb: as a science experiment. Picasso was like this. Guernica was finished after Picasso drew over 50 studies: the horse's head here, the barbed-wired hand there, until the final composition was just right. But some artists don't want to paint. Some artists will do almost anything to avoid painting. They will drink and drug to quiet the voices in their head... until they are comatose and stupefied, and then the demons take over. They are valves to another world, stopcocking tightly, desperately, attempting with an almost superhuman effort to stop the dark forces from pouring through and infecting others with their madness.
When they awaken, they look at the canvas and see a creation not their own. It is with shock they see their oils depleted and their brushes thick with color. And then they see their canvas with a dread we cannot imagine.
O rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm.
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy. --- William Blake, The Sick Rose
Is it possible that Mark Rothko, one of the great abstract impressionists of the 20th century, was such a portal? His 'fields of color' started out in luminous yellows and blues, vibrating against one another, but his later ones were black, black edged in white, as if light attempted to gain access to his soul, but the irredeemable blackness crowded out any joy and any hope he had. His final canvases were a death mask's black. They have a gravitas that remind one of Nietzsche's warnings about the Abyss:
Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein. -- Friedrich Nietzsche
The voices filled his head with the terrible cries of tortured souls until he was past the point of bearing, a Boschian aural landscape of unending pain, unendurable fires, an Appian Way lined with crucified souls while emperors laughed. The darkness that entered his veins gave respite to his conscious mind. It was during these times that some Otherness took over and motivated his limbs into activity. The white canvas was covered with a light gray. When it was covered, a darker gray layer was added. Then darker. Then darker still. Layers of black were added, like his steps to the edge of night, like steps that took him to the brink of the long fall into a bottomless pit.
What was left was what he feared the most.
They were not paintings, they were doorways to hell, and they were opening. They were beckoning him to step through.
They sat, stacked like a dark secret in a corner of his studio. He tried consciously turning to lighter subjects, but, like some horrible recrudescence, his dark moods returned, and the black fields that burned in his brain like Ebola phlegm reappeared. When the spirits reanimated him, he watched helpless as his hand lowered the arm of the Victrola back onto Mozart’s Requiem and his legs marched his still living corpse in front of the canvas, and he picked up his palette with one color and one brush and began methodically brushing brushing like an automaton brushing black, black on black, over and over again, black like moonless sky in a universe without stars and without hope, black like an open door to death and to an infinity of something worse.
When it was over they cast a deep sleep over him and he collapsed into a sleep of dreams of images, of creatures like Francis Bacon would later paint: steely eyes, mouths with teeth but no lips, half-nostriled noses, torsos without skin, meat on frames of bones, red, meat-muscle red, the agony of skin flayed by unseen powers of unfeeling uncaring beasts, monsters, horrible things. Hours long these dreams were, and he came awake in a sweat, unrested, screaming, weeping inconsolably, knowing that his only end was death, but that death was no end.
"Ah, my Christ!" -- Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
Rothko wanted to burn them.
There was no hope for him; he knew this. There was, however, the small hope that he could summon the power to burn his creations to prevent others from being infected. If they saw these portals to hell, his fear was that the same madness would seize them, and that his paintings would inspire in others the darkness-unto-hopelessness that weighed him down so, and this he could not permit.
In an act that can only be considered contritional and redemptive, he began burning his paintings in a methodical manner. Other artists misinterpreted his actions as the ultimate act of art: to create, and then to destroy, and they admired him for his courage. They were wrong about his motives. In being wrong, they dismissed the greater courage he actually had, for he was not making an artistic statement, he was warring against the terrible strength of his inner demons. His was a salvific act which required a degree of strength they would never have, nor could they imagine the warfare that was playing out in his head as he burned first one, then another, then a third.
His agent had heard, and was alarmed enough to visit Rothko’s studio immediately. Rothko was unconscious on the floor, sprawled across his dark fields like a dead man, the ashes of his burned canvases in one pile, his body across the greater heap of the remaining paintings.
He acted with good intentions, the agent did, and with no small amount of enlightened self-interest. These would be saved until such time as Rothko came to his senses, for the agent had supposed Rothko’s drug usage was causing the immolations. The canvases were removed for safe keeping, and some were sold.
The galleries showed them to stunned critics, who raved, and to art museum curators, who bought for collections. The paintings were disturbing, they said, disquieting. Others said that the paintings were Zen-like in their peacefulness. Galleries and art museums would show them with subdued lighting on big walls, with benches which permitted people to look at the blackness and stare, and have the unsettling feeling that the paintings were staring back at them. Seeing a black Rothko for the first time was a transformative experience. It was a painting utterly without compromise. No one came away untouched.
Hell on earth is fear of a death that offers no comfort. Death as a journey not to a Paradise of normality, but to an eternity of Pain Hell Torment Fire Without Ceasing.
Oh unhappy man that I am!
For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. -- St. Paul, letter to the Philippians 1:21
The release of his paintings was like the opening of Pandora’s box. The demons were released, and Rothko had failed.
Death offered him no palliative. He could, however, stop the production of more paintings. So he did what he could.
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live
And then thou must be damned perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease and midnight never come;
Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente lente currite noctis equi.
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament! -
One drop would save my soul - half a drop! ah my Christ!
Rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;
Yet will I call on him - O, spare me, Lucifer!
Where is it now? 'Tis gone; and see where God
Stretcheth out his arm and bends his ireful brows.
Mountains and hills, come, come and fall on me
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God,
Then will I headlong run into the earth:
Earth, gape! O no, it will not harbor me.
You stars that reigned at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist
Into the entrails of yon laboring cloud
That when you vomit forth into the air,
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,
So that my soul may but ascend into heaven.
-- The watch strikes
Ah, half the hour is past; 'twill all be past anon.
If thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,
Yet for Christ’s sake whose blood hath ransomed me
Impose some end to my incessant pain:
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be saved!
O, no end is limited to damnéd souls!
Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?
Or why is this immortal that thou wast?
Ah, Pythagoras’ metempsychosis - were that true;
This soul should fly from me, and I be changed
Unto some brutish beast. All beasts are happy,
For when they die
Their souls are soon dissolved into elements,
But mine must live still to be plagued in hell.
Cursed be the parents that engendered me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.
-- The clock strikes twelve.
It strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!
-- Thunder and lightning.
O soul, be changed to little water drops
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found.
My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!
-- Enter DEVILS.
Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile!
Ugly hell, gape not – come not, Lucifer –
I’ll burn my books – ah, Mephistopheles!
-- Exeunt DEVILS with Faustus ----- Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
On February 25, 1970, Marcus Rothkowitz lay down on the floor of his studio with a razor blade in his hand. He positioned himself as far from a telephone as he could. He thought that perhaps in a moment of weakness he would cry out for help, an ambulance, a doctor, anything. He did not want to be rescued. He did not want to be resuscitated.
He lay down with his feet spread apart and his arms apart. He wanted never to get up again. The small rational portion of his brain told him he should lie down flat. After what he would do, he would go into deep shock, and if he was on the floor he would then not be able to get up. This was good. He wanted to die.
He had locked the door.
The voices in his head were so loud they were screaming. They were wailing stop stop STOP STOP NO NO NO, louder and louder they screamed.
He slit his left arm on the inside of his elbow, severing the arteries. Blood fountained out of him so high the pool of blood measured six feet by eight feet around his body. Quickly, with the tiny bit of strength he had, he did the same with his other arm.
His head collapsed back to the ground. His consciousness watched as his eyes’ field of view – the eyes are the light of the soul, his eyes were his instruments, his artist’s all, the most sensitive of all of the sensitive gifts he’d had – went from taking in the entire ceiling above him (he’d painted it black… he? He? Was it he? Or was it them?) to becoming a cone, and then a narrow cone, and then a tight cone. As he felt his life force ooze out of him, warm, and as his vision grew narrower and narrower and all he was left seeing was the black above him…
… he smiled.
The voices were getting quieter.
He smiled, and then he died.