When we think about what art is the best or most important, our minds typically target work that we associate with newness. We will hash out justifications for our choices, such as: it was the first painting to…, he was the father of…, it changed the way we see…, it changed the course of art history. It’s not unlike how we think of the development of technology – it builds and progresses with newer technologies replacing old ones, which become obsolete. We value invention and ingenuity, and await the next unexpected marvel. But there’s a difference between progress in science and in art. To make scientific advancements, one must thoroughly understand the science that came before in order to build upon it or rethink it. In art, however, we may only look to a generation or two before us, and can fashion newness without having a sound knowledge or mastery of prior art. Nevertheless, we still presume that, like science, the new in art encompasses the old. That is a mistake.
In the side-by-side images of the Whistler and Rothko paintings, it’s easy to see that Rothko hadn’t used color or form in a way that would have surprised Whistler. The Whistler piece isn’t really a painting, but just a color scheme for a dining room. Nevertheless, it is obvious that he understood the subtle beauty of soft bands of solid color, and even with interposing thick brushy lines.
Below is one of Rothko’s quintessential paintings in his signature style, and a damned fine example. Buy how revolutionary is it really?
Whistler is not mentioned as an influence on Rothko at all. Instead we will see Matisse listed, or the Surrealists. It may be true that Rothko didn’t follow Whistler, but the comparison may also be avoided because it could, to a degree, undermine the “radicality” of Rothko’s artistic accomplishment. New American artists may have also wanted to distance themselves from the perceived regionalism or even parochialism of their predecessors, instead aligning themselves with the mainstream thrust of European art history.
In the nine paintings below you can see that had Whistler lived to see Rothko’s paintings, and if he were in an irascible and curmudgeonly sort of mood (being 119 years old), and wanted to reassert his artistic legitimacy, he could have easily knocked out some Rothko-esque works.
If 116-year-old Whistler were hard up for money, and his old paintings were considered too hokey to sell, he could just crop or retouch them and palm them off as the work of Rothko. Rothko used a more vertical format, and colors that contrasted more, but I don’t imagine this would have posed Whistler any trouble, because he well covered that territory in other paintings.
Rothko is a fine painter, and should be valued for the quality of his canvases irrespective of their ostensible newness. I think Rothko would acknowledge an indebtedness to past art, though perhaps not to Whistler; and while heralded as the preeminent color field painter, he is a traditional artist in the sense that he tried to make a transcendent art that would move the spectators’ emotions or spirit. In the broad perspective, however, Whistler may anachronistically encompass Rothko, rather than the other way around. We may presume that just because Whistler bothered to put a few barely perceptible lights or a tiny person on a landscape that he couldn’t make the mental leap to envision a purely abstract canvas without them, but I doubt it would be beyond his scope. Rather, I think we flatter ourselves both as artists and art audiences in assuming our vision automatically outdistances that of our predecessors. To do so is probably standard for the modern era, but it may have reached a chronic stage, where newness for newness sake (and that newness in superficial appearance only) is thought to trounce, in the snap of a finger, the entire oeuvres of the best artists of centuries past. The most outstanding example of this was, of course, Marcel Duchamp’s turning a urinal on it’s side, calling it art, and in so doing presuming to make irrelevant all art which came before, or at least all painting.
Newness in art is commonly seen as a break with the past, best if it is shocking, whereas newness in science is an integration and expansion of the past. Isaac Newton, who was surely a purveyor of a new vision that absolutely challenged the way people perceived their universe, famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But in the art world of today, it is only the past few generations that hold any relevance. We erroneously take it for granted that something which is new, or merely new to an art context, must be an extension of all that went before, when it is more likely just an irrelevant quip. And unlike science, the art of today does not make the art of prior artists obsolete, because our experience of daily life can never supplant their expression of their relation to the time and environments they lived in.