Interpreting Abstract Art Through Dialogism

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Adey Zegeye


In this essay, I will refer to Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogic principle as a framework to interpret the color field paintings of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. I will demonstrate that Rothko’s classic paintings act as an interface to the system of abstract expressionism and ideologies surrounding the movement. I argue that we can understand Rothko’s work through exploring his dialogic network and in result identify patterns and connections useful in discovering meaning.


“The most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees” – Mark Rothko

Meaning is created as a dialogue and is an activity to engage with and contribute to (it is continuous and not fixed). “All meanings, values, and ideological functions of a work are not properties or perceptible feature of or in the physical thing, but only emerge when communities of interpretive agents are enacting the learned patterns of symbolic correlation that form the meaning system in which the work, and they as interpreters, participate” (Irvine, 2018).

When asked about the meaning of his color field paintings, artist Mark Rothko replied, “silence is so accurate” (The Art Assignment, 2015). This statement reveals Rothko is inviting the viewer to reflect with the work rather than identify it. Rothko’s challenge was to create intimate and emotion-based art that would be presented within a rigid system (the museum) and through a limiting medium (the two-dimensional surface). He went through multiple styles before reaching one that freed the viewer from the question of a single meaning. As a student of art, Rothko knew that no artwork can stand in isolation from the system in which it belongs. He also knew that the two-dimensional surface proved inadequate in creating visual depth. Analyzing these two issues as a part of the larger dialogue within Rothko’s network, allows us to uncovers the thought behind his expression.

Artist Networks and Influences (A Dialogic Approach)

Mark Rothko moved to New York in 1923 and began studying at the Art Students League under Max Weber, where he adopted Weber’s figurative painting style (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). He also learned about cubism, Matisse, and the German expressionists (The Art Assignment, 2015). The next significant influence to the development of his craft was modernist painter Milton Avery (who also attended the Art Students League). Avery was best known for his use of color (which proved to be a large influence for Rothko), but he was also known for using non-conventional forms of representation which likely influenced Rothko’s views and principles surrounding expression. Avery’s home was a meeting place for artists such as Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. These expressionist artists later formed a group called The Ten and exhibited together between the years of 1935 and 1939 (“The Ten Whitney Dissenters,” n.d.). All of these artists shared similar views and philosophies, which is reflected in the elements of their work as well as the presentation of their work in museums. They were all “unified by their belief that abstract art could express universal timeless themes” (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012).

Milton Avery, Rothko with Pipe, 19361936 Milton Avery, Rothko with Pipe, 1936

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The 1940s marked a shift in both thinking and outward expressions by Rothko and the community of artists to which he belonged. It was during this period that Rothko began to use abstract painting to “explore the relationship between the painting and its viewer” (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). This role of the relationship between artist and observer is a central concept to understanding Rothko’s thoughts and ideas behind his art.  

Influenced by the works of Nietzsche and Carl Jung, Rothko began searching for ways to depict universal emotion and the subconscious mind (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012). At first, he used classical myths as a “source of eternal symbols,” then he transitioned to a Surrealist-inspired biomorphic style (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012). Gradually, his work became more and more abstract and by 1949 he transitioned into his classic style known as color field paintings.

Mark Rothko, The Omen of the Eagle, 1942, oil and graphite on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.107

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1944/19451944/1945

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1944/1945, ink on paper hinged to cardboard, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.181

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In uncovering Rothko’s thoughts behind the evolution to abstraction, it is useful to apply Bakhtin’s dialogic principle for context. One common form of the dialogic process is looking at an expression (in this case Rothko’s paintings) as a response-interpretation relationship (Irvine, 2018). To do this, we ask “what conversation is this work participating in and assuming is already in progress before another expression is made?” (Irvine, 2018). Bakhtin’s view states that “an expression in a living context of exchange is the main unit of meaning, and is formed through a speaker’s relation to Otherness (other people, others’ words and expressions, and the lived cultural world in time and place)” (as cited in Irvine, 2018). Therefore, meaning is not found in the physical properties of a work but “emerge when communities of interpretive agents are enacting the learned patterns of symbolic correlation that form the meaning system in which the work, and they as interpreters, participate” (Irvine, 2018).

During the 1940’s Rothko felt strongly that the social climate surrounding World War II should be reflected in painting. The realities of war changed the thought process behind creating and in response the desire to be truthful and create meaningful work. Rothko felt it was irrelevant and irresponsible to continue artistic traditions (The Art Assignment, 2015). In response to the events surrounding the war, Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman wrote a manifesto to the New York Times expressing their ideologies, which can be interpreted as context for understanding their work. They wrote, “we favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth” (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). From this dialogue, we can infer that the choice to abandon form was in rejection of past techniques because ideas of representation changed. At this time in history, these artists were in dialogue about the meaning of art in comparison to what it meant in the past, and were shaping their meanings based on their own historical context. Showing the process of change in paintings became the central focus, primarily shown through the layers  of paint in each artwork, and in calling attention to the creation process. Modern artists’ use of technique to change perception supports the claim that meaning is created in the community that perceives the art rather than in the art itself.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1945/19461945/1946

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1945/1946, watercolor and black ink on paper, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.175.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 19481948

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1948, oil on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.120.

The manifesto also directly addressed the common idea among painters (up until this point) that the work’s content was not important, but rather the level of expertise shown (physical attributes). Rothko and fellow expressionist painters believed that “there is no such thing as a good painting about nothing” (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). They also asserted that “the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.  (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). This example shows that meaning is an active, continuous discourse that changes over time depending on context (Irvine, 2018).

Abstract art abandons forms and is a rejection of traditional academia and other forms of conformity. In order to free the mind of the viewer, there has to be as little reference to something outside of the work as possible. This allows the viewer to experience the work (without distraction) and focus on the emotions and layers it took to create it. When Rothko started focusing primarily on color (1947), he ultimately found his classic style. His color field paintings feature color as the main subject with floating rectangles positioned vertically against a colored ground on large canvas.  Once adopted in 1949, Rothko used only this style for the remainder of his life. He believed that this style successfully “eliminated all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer” (The Art Assignment, 2015). Prior to this point, color was usually tied to narrative content but Rothko used it as a source for accessing emotion (The Art Assignment 2015). In the dialogic process of response, we know that expressions can be unpacked or approached by identifying what they are responding to, rejecting, or cancelling out. In this case, Rothko’s use of elimination was found in a search for clarity (as a way to reach the observer), and in in this way, his thoughts were reflected in his work. All that is left to observe is layers, depth and color (which is used to activate emotion). Rothko had to create clarity in his mind, before clarity could be revealed to the viewer. 

Mark Rothko, No. 8, 19491949

Mark Rothko, No. 8, 1949, oil and mixed media on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.147

The Museum as Mediator of Rothko’s Color Field Paintings: The National Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection

Rothko understood that the way his work was mediated would contribute to overall viewer reception. For this reason, he “strictly controlled the environment of his paintings, demanding they be shown in low-light, in groups, encountered in close quarters and never mixed with work by other artists” (The Art Assignment, 2015).  Controlling these elements resulted in creating an environment that encourages viewers to reflect with the work rather than see the work as a separate object meant for viewing. Keeping the outside world out – is a well-known concept in the Art System. Galleries and museums often strive to detach the viewer from the concept of time entirely. O’Doherty explains that the white cube represents “a transitional device that attempted to bleach out the past and at the same time control the future by appealing to transcendental modes of presence and power” (1986). Similarly, creating a room just for the Rothko works creates the idea that the space is sacred, unattached, and transcendent.

At the Phillips Collection, all of Rothko’s requests are realized. His color fields are exhibited in a secluded room called “The Rothko Room.” By designating an enclosed space within the rest of the museum, it is physically separated from categorization. Outside of the entrance, there is a description revealing the history and concept behind the curation of the room. Visitors are also informed through a sign that it is intended by the artist to be a meditative space. Therefore, visitors are asked to disconnect from their phones and refrain from taking any pictures inside the room. One bench is placed in the center of the room (as per Rothko’s request), and invites the visitor to sit in stillness. There are four paintings (one on each wall) inside the room, and a maximum of eight visitors allowed inside at a time. This keeps the space from becoming a crowded area. There is very limited lighting inside the room, which also helps limit distractions (as light can be taxing especially when exposed for long periods of time). Notably, The Rothko Room at the Phillips was the first permanent space dedicated to Rothko’s work. The last sentence of the description reads, “the room is the result of a rare understanding between the artist and patron.” Perhaps Rothko managed to preserve the intentions behind his art (a daunting task for any artist) by viewing his work as an experience instead of an object.

A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.”- Mark Rothko

As quoted in ‘Mark Rothko’, Dorothy Seiberling in LIFE magazine (16 November 1959), p. 82 

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At the National Gallery of Art East Building, an entirely different space from the Phillips, the goal of full immersion and tranquility is also realized in a different way. The NGA has placed Rothko’s work in the Tower (the highest part of the museum). Walking up the the last level of stairs to reveal the room full of color fields evokes the same initial response as the Rothko Room: a gasp for air. The two main difference between the museums is size and lighting. The NGA has lots of natural lighting (and leads to an outside terrace). Although the National Gallery has ten paintings (more than double the Rothko room) the works still hold a strong presence.  In this museum, the weight of history is felt more than at The Phillips because of the physical journey taken through time and space. To get to the Tower, you have to climb stairs (a masterpiece in its own right) and walk through history leading up to abstraction. The effect is grand because as you travel through modernism, the works become more and more abstract, the final result is freedom— room to breathe. 

@tatimrqs - Tower stairs at National Gallery of Art East Building - Free museum on the National Mall

Stairs to the Tower in the NGA East Building, photo source: @tatimrqs

Image source: National Gallery of Art, East Building. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Value in Networks, Shaping & Influencing Perception Today

Looking at one node within the system (key influencers, styles, or philosophies) reveals connections and patterns through which one can discover meaning. One of the important influences in creating value within the art world are the critics associated with specific movements. New York was the center of the art world during the 1950s and 60s, meaning that Rothko’s location was an important factor in circulating dominant ideas contributing to abstract expressionism. Along with location, art critics and curators played a large role in choosing artists to develop relationships with and promote by exhibiting their work in the top gallery spaces. The art we know wouldn’t be art if it were not for it’s audience. For Rothko, collector Dominique De Menil’s interest in his work lead to further credit and recognition of his name. In unity with his vision, she remarked that his paintings “evoke the tragic mystery of our perishable condition,” and ended up commissioning  him for one of his largest projects, the Rothko Chapel (The Art Assignment, 2015). Additionally art critic Clement Greenberg was a strong influence in Rothko’s career as well as for the movement of abstract expressionism. These final examples show how networks and relationships are key to cultural reception and meaning making within the art world. 


Through unpacking Rothko’s process (rather than the elements within the picture) it is clear that his color field paintings act as an interface to the meaning behind his work (and the abstract expressionist movement at large). As such, his paintings become meaningful when placed in a dialogic context. The conversations he participated in within his community (questioning form, depicting reality, the problem of the two-dimensional surface, and translating the deepest emotions of the human condition) lead to his final response: color field paintings. The example of Rothko’s  letter to the New York Times uncovers his thoughts and purpose behind the work  — he was driven by questions. The key question was how to eliminate the obstacles between the idea and the painter, and between the idea and observer. He eliminated the first obstacle through “stripping away cultural and artistic clutter to get to the essential philosophical and pictorial elements” (Rothko, 2015). At the same time, he eliminated the obstacle of painter/observer by achieving “direct, sensual communication of human emotion”(Rothko, 2015). If we view these works as a conversation, rather than a one-way process, we are no longer separate from the work. This unity makes the idea behind the art visible.

“The most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees” – Mark Rothko

Works Cited

Arnason, H. H., & Mansfield, E. C. (2012). History of Modern Art(7th ed.). Boston: Pearson. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018, March). Semiotic Foundations – Visual Semiotics. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018). Bakhtin: Main Theories. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018). Irvine-Bakhtin-Dialogism-Intertextuality-rev.pdf. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018, March). Art and Museum Interface. Retrieved from

Mark Rothko: Classic Paintings. (1998). Retrieved from

Mark Rothko: Early Years. (1998). Retrieved May 3, 2018, from

Mark Rothko: The Artist’s Reality. (n.d.). Retrieved from

O’Doherty, B. (1986). ODoherty-Inside_the_White_Cube-1-2.pdf. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press. Retrieved from

Rothko, C. (2015). Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out (1st edition edition). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

The Ten Whitney Dissenters. Retrieved from

The Art Assignment. (2015). The Case For Mark Rothko | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios. Retrieved from

The Rothko Room. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Works Consulted

Biography of Mark Rothko. Retrieved from

Edwards, S., & Woods, P. (2013). Art & Visual Culture, 1850-2010: Modernity to Globalization. London: Tate Publishing and The Open University.

Martin, T. D. (2010). Psychosis and the Sublime in American Art: Rothko and Smithson. Tate Papers, 13. Retrieved from

Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986

Wolf, J. The Art Story: Theory – Flatness history. Retrieved from