Mark Rothko‘s abstract paintings have long been recognized for their simplicity, elegance, and profound emotional impact. However, Rothko’s work is not often associated with the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which emphasizes the beauty of imperfection, transience, and simplicity. In this essay, I will argue that Rothko’s paintings embody the principles of wabi-sabi aesthetics and demonstrate how this influence manifests in his works.
Wabi-sabi is a concept rooted in Japanese culture that values the beauty of imperfection, asymmetry, and simplicity. It is often associated with the tea ceremony, Zen Buddhism, and traditional Japanese art forms such as ceramics, calligraphy, and gardens. Wabi-sabi embraces the idea that beauty can be found in the imperfect, ephemeral, and incomplete. It is an aesthetic that values the natural world and the passage of time, celebrating the impermanence and fragility of life.
Rothko’s paintings embody these principles of wabi-sabi in several ways. First and foremost, his work is marked by a simplicity and minimalism that eschews decorative elements or extraneous details. The paintings are composed of large, monochromatic fields of color that are often asymmetrical and irregularly shaped. For example, in Untitled (Black on Maroon) (1958), a large black rectangle dominates the canvas, but upon closer inspection, one can see that the edges of the rectangle are not straight lines but rather rough and uneven. This irregularity highlights the hand-made quality of the painting and emphasizes the idea of imperfection as a source of beauty.
Furthermore, Rothko’s use of color also reflects the wabi-sabi aesthetic. His palette is often muted and earthy, consisting of browns, grays, and muted greens. These colors evoke the natural world and suggest a connection to the earth and the passage of time. In Untitled (Green and Tangerine on Red) (1956), the central field of red is surrounded by a border of muted green and tangerine, which creates a sense of depth and dimensionality. The effect is one of subtle harmony and balance, suggesting a respect for the natural world and an appreciation for the impermanence of life.
Finally, Rothko’s paintings also embody the wabi-sabi aesthetic in their emotional impact. Rothko once said, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” His paintings have a contemplative and meditative quality that invites the viewer to slow down and reflect. The large fields of color create a sense of space and openness, which encourages a deep engagement with the work. The effect is one of quiet beauty that emphasizes the fragility and impermanence of life.
In conclusion, Mark Rothko’s paintings embody the principles of wabi-sabi aesthetics in their simplicity, asymmetry, muted color palette, and emotional impact. His work suggests a deep respect for the natural world and the passage of time, and a recognition of the beauty that can be found in imperfection and transience. As such, his paintings are a powerful expression of the wabi-sabi aesthetic and a testament to the enduring power of this Japanese concept.
Rothko, Mark. Untitled (Black on Maroon). 1958. Tate Modern, London.
Rothko, Mark. Untitled (Green and Tangerine on Red). 1956. Private Collection. (Cover image)
Saito, Yuriko. “Wabi-Sabi: A Japanese Aesthetic in Contemporary Art.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55, no. 2 (1997): 105-117.