Human emotion is complex and nebulous. Through literature, philosophy and many other forms passed down through the ages, we have attempted to make sense of emotion, perhaps in the hopes that doing so will make sense of our existence. Art gives us a way to bring those intangible emotions to the surface. By looking at the formal qualities and process put forth by three artists and influencers of the Abstract Expressionist movement, abstract art as an invoker of emotion will become apparent. The work of Mark Rothko expresses emotional meaning through formal elements and transparent process.
Abstract Expressionism “became the encompassing label, in spite of the fact that the movement ultimately included certain styles that relied on explosive, multi-colored brushwork and others that relied on monochromatic fields of smoothly applied paint.” This new style varied in formal qualities and spanned across painting, sculpture and photography. Essentially, in the 1940s, post-Second World War, and beyond, viewers needed a way to define this new wave of bold aesthetic that they were seeing. It proposed a new way of viewing the world and human imagination in forms unlike realistic nature and figures. It gave form to the unreal, the abstract parts of life, in response to some of the twentieth century’s most traumatic events.
Author Jenefer Robinson writes of emotion in relation to the arts. “What exactly are emotions? Are they feelings, behavior, physiological symptoms or judgement?” Many philosophers, theorists and cognitive scientists claim emotion to be purely subjective and completely dependent upon a person’s own unique experiences. While this is an acceptable approach, this thesis will argue that Rothko, Pollock and Motherwell provide a window into universal emotion, employing bold formal qualities that can speak to all as well as intimately attract and impact the individual.
First, the process and work of Mark Rothko will be explained. Rothko (1903-1970) spent much of his artistic career exploring the expressive nature and provocation of human emotion. Although his style shifted and expanded throughout his career, he is widely recognized for formal qualities such as rectilinear-shaped fields of immense color and purposeful, sometimes overwhelmingly, large scale of canvas. He made it known that he aimed to evoke awe-inspiring experiences in those who could reach beyond the ordinary, materialistic world. Regarding theory, Rothko writes in a statement titled “The Romantics Were Prompted”: “Freed from a false sense of security and community, the artist can abandon his plastic bank-book, just as he has abandoned other forms of security. Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar. Free of them, transcendental experiences become possible.”
The key term in this statement related to emotion is transcendental. Rothko proposed art as a way for people to travel to unknown places far beyond the familiar and mundane nature of life. Rothko’s style and presentation evolved over time, producing wide range in shapes, figures and colors. However, several canvases came to form a common thread in motive, while carrying varying moods and emotions. This paper present two pieces of Rothko’s work that share in motive but differ in encouraged emotion.
In Figure 1, Rothko’s Green and Tangerine on Red, viewers experience this window into another world when confronted with three particular impactful formal qualities: scale, shape and color.
Mark Rothko, Green and Tangerine on Red, 1956
Oil on canvas
7ft 9in x 5ft 9 in (2.37 x 1.75 m)
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
First, the observer is immediately impacted by the scale of Green and Tangerine on Red. Spanning almost eight feet tall and six feet wide, this piece has the power to attract and then surround, blanket, and enclose on its observer. This is an attempt to invite us into the transcendental experience that Rothko speaks of and to consider our existence in relation to it.
In addition to scale, color is identifiable as a formal quality conveying emotion. Even though the two dominant colors are bold in nature, they equally demand attention. The color changes in values within the unique shapes and diffuse into soft values and edges. The color weakens in areas, and gains strength in others.
Next, the observer would examine the unique shapes that can be found in many of Rothko’s pieces. In some of his work, the shapes touch, in others they do not. They are unique, and while similar in form, differ in interaction and purpose, as do people. In Green and Tangerine on Red, the shapes are bold in color and both converge and diverge from the center. The observer may wonder if the shapes are emerging upon the moment of impact or, instead, in the midst of separation. The quality of the shapes blur and diffuse around their edges as if they either struggle to continue or they soften before the moment of impact. These elements in concert evoke emotions of uncomfortable tension that demands to be addressed; a representation of drama and traumatic response unlike the familiar. Rothko intentionally confines these shapes within the edges of the canvas, trapping them, and ultimately trapping the observer in this state of emotional contemplation. What is pulling them? What is pushing them? Overall emotions that are presented in Green and Tangerine on Red include torment and tension, as well as weakening exultation.
The second piece in this style is Rothko’s Untitled, Black on Gray. This work was created in his final years of life as a part of the series, Black Paintings. Here we see a change in formal qualities when compared to Green and Tangerine on Red. Both pieces invite observers into a transcendental experience but differ in approach. Untitled, Black on Gray “bring[s] to the fore the formal tension that Rothko sought to imbue in all of his work, but which some viewers, he felt, lost sign of, seduced or distracted by the luminous colors he employed elsewhere.” 
Mark Rothko, Untitled, Black on Gray, 1969
Acrylic on canvas
80 1/8 x 69 1/8 in (203.3 x 175.5 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Mark Rothko provides us a window into our inner emotions, ones that cannot be best represented in forms familiar to a materialistic world. To reach these emotions, we need to the abstract work of these artists for us to ask more questions, wonder more and seek more. When presented with images that are realistic in form, we may feel emotion within them, but it is far to easy and not challenging enough to reach that transcendental experience of emotion. To review the points made, through formal qualities and unpredictable processes, Rothko lead the way in reforming what art is and the role of both the artist and the observer.
 Clifford Ross, Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990), 16-18.
 Katy Siegel, Abstract Expressionism, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2011), 1.
 Jenefer Robinson, Deeper than Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) 5-8.
 Jennifer Blessing, “Mark Rothko, Untitled Black on Gray. Guggenheim Museum, https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/3535 (March 5, 2019).