Collision 20: January 2019

Mark Rothko, Orange, Red, Yellow — 1961


Karel De Sadeleer


The facade of a museum in Marseille reads voir, c’est comprendre. I don’t believe it. How can we comprehend without words? Is it possible to bypass language? Is the response to a work of art comparable to the silent reply to a spiritual encounter, a mystic prayer that consists of eye movements, directed by impulses that were in their turn triggered by the confrontation with something seemingly incomprehensible?

Perhaps the slogan is a pun, says the girl that was there with me: seeing gives you insight. Or it’s the other way around – when you enter the museum, you will be able to believe your eyes. Ah, wordplay, I say. So you need an understanding of language to get what the show is all about. She shakes her head in hesitation. Then the slogan is only meant to lure people into the museum, I say, with the promise that their brain doesn’t have to do any hard work. All they need is a set of eyes to help them see, and when they see, they’ll understand. Crafty, I admit, but it’s nothing more than a political strategy.

Perhaps the slogan is to be interpreted as an ironic statement, the girl then says. Double trouble, I say, because in order to understand irony, you need to have a firm grasp on both meaning and style. The synthetic approach, she said. Call it what you will, I said, the synthetic approach or the purest evil, but that’s what it is.

The synthetic approach may have gone out of fashion, I later realized, and it seems to have done so quite some time ago. Dutch literary criticism in the interbellum, for example, was contaminated to the bone by a discussion about the essence of literature: form or man. Should we first of all pay attention to the authorial persona and the message he delivers, and appreciate the morality of the tale, or do we fall – perhaps even: fall in love, head over heels – for the stylistic beauty of the text, no matter what the message could be?

Somewhere along the haphazard lines with which we trace the evolution in literature, popular literary criticism decided to fork in two basic paths. Stupid as the dichotomy sounds to me, I have the impression that it’s still common these days to prefer one over the other, and most of the time it’s the focus on the man that prevails – more specifically: on the persona of the author – in the sense that literary criticism focuses both on the author as a moralist and the text as something of a morality play, and much less on the autonomous qualities of the text. What the girl called the synthetic approach may be the best or most useful concept we have in order to get to a real appreciation of a literary text.

The girl and I decided against entering the museum, and we had a swell time in Marseille, but I just couldn’t seem to shrug the French slogan off, for more than one reason, the most obvious one being now that it reminds me of a Wallace Stevens poem.

What we see is what we think.

At twelve, the disintegration of afternoon
Began, the return to phantomerei, if not
To phantoms. Till then, it had been the other way:

One imagined the violet trees but the trees stood green,
At twelve, as green as ever they would be.
The sky was blue beyond the vaultiest phrase.

Twelve meant as much as: the end of normal time,
Straight up, an élan without harrowing,
The imprescriptible zenith, free of harangue,

Twelve and the first gray second after, a kind
Of violet gray, a green violet, a thread
To weave a shadow’s leg or a sleeve, a scrawl

On the pedestal, an ambitious page dog-eared
At the upper right, a pyramid with one side
Like a spectral cut in its perception, a tilt

And its tawny caricature and tawny life,
Another thought, the paramount ado…
Since what we think is never what we see.


What we think is never what we see. There is a distortion between what we see and what we think. The words we use to contemplate the thing are shrouded in a mist, even if they haven’t been voiced. The thought is a fantom to the thing – a fantom or a shadow. Whichever way you look at it: something that comes after.

The thing itself has an unambiguously autonomous quality. A rose is not a rose. It’s something that exists both in- and outside of language. Just like a painting of a rose. Or any painting, any work of art.

In some circles, works of art have been referred to as sovereign. I don’t know about that. It rubs me the wrong way because I connect the idea of sovereignty with something that resembles a feudal system: there is a “leader” whose rule is law.

If art takes, or has to take, that sovereign position, then it’s almost untouchable. One might find that a very strict interpretation of the word “sovereign”. It could even be too strict. Whatever the interpretation, whatever the strictness, the notion is steeped in a problem with authority that goes way back.

Leaving aside the strictness, I think the aura of untouchability sheds a hazy light on one of the problems from which the institutionalization of art originates: as people (in general, some exceptions notwithstanding) have proven time and time again to be incapable of dealing with something that refuses to be understood or even to be integrated in society, they have looked for ways to “categorize” it. Just so they have done, and still do with art. Be it a new style, a new practice, a new perspective – whatever it is, over the past centuries or millennia it’s been discussed, rolled on its back, like a dead animal almost, and finally labeled as something that we can get a grip on. Inscribe it in a school. Make it part of a movement. Give it a sociological explanation. Connect it with every philosophical thought on the planet, like a children’s game on a rainy day: connect the dots, and you get an entirely different work of art. Something that wasn’t there before and that can only emerge from all the thoughts spun around it. A metaphysical Christo, so to speak.


When we take our students on a study trip, one of my colleagues – a painter who stopped painting because “he realized he would never be a Picasso” – will always manage to assemble a group of students around him because they like the way he shows them around museums or exhibitions: he tells them the petites histoires or the salacious details about an artist. “Warhol had a factory where Reed came to play – the Reed, you may not know, who was forced to undergo electroshocks to deal with a condition that was not socially accepted in those days. When Warhol died, Reed made an album with Cale that was called Songs for Drella.” Volatile stories and anecdotes, hundreds of them – each consisting of nothing more than the tipsy mumblings we remember when we wake up from a dream – and it works, because students seem to be triggered by those anecdotes, but to me it sounds fundamentally wrong. The anecdotal approach turns the work of art into an extra of its own history. Somewhere in the periphery of the stories you’ll find the work of art.

It’s a common practice. Whenever you read a text in a Belgian or a Dutch magazine about Rothko’s work, for example, you’ll read something about the personal dramas he struggled with. The struggles were real, on an almost palpable level, but mentioning them seems like a writer’s strategy to cope with the fact that he will always have a hard time finding words to talk about Rothko’s work.

How does one write about Rothko’s sublime works, or how does one convey the alien experience of seeing his works in real life? One could feel the urge to resort to a simple, straightforward descriptive approach – here Rothko used a violet gray, and there a green violet –, but even the most carefully chosen words will reveal a semi-personal perspective. One could revert to the synaesthetical circumscription: chance might have it that music and colour come together in one singular artistic act, revealing more about our senses than about anything else. One could try a different approach, maybe the technical, the biographical, the psychological, the psycho-analytical, the neurological or the intertextual. Or a combination of all approaches, an all-encompassing approach that leaves no stone unturned.

All to no – or at best: little – avail. A writer who believes he has found a way to talk about Rothko’s paintings and get to the heart of what they are or do, has gone mad. His attempts at writing something sensible resemble the endeavours of an archaeologist who’s picked up a rock and tries to tell from it the entire history of the world. It looks as though it’s been carved out of a mountain by a man with an imaginary pick axe, but it smells of thunder and lightning, and when you hit it with a hammer, it sounds like something that was fabricated in a fiery furnace. Or there’s a smoothness to the rock that belies the rough past it carries with it.

Sometimes there’s no telling between the archaeologist and the circus ventriloquist who’s unpacking, showing and mocking the luggage of ages, relishing in the abundance of human language.

It’s a tantalic exercise: no matter how much we stretch our arms or our tongues we’ll never get within touching distance.

Much like the researched rock, Rothko’s works are things that cannot be understood just by looking at them, and the only way to deal with them, is to envelop them in words so that they become something we can seem to understand. The same happens with other monolithic works of art, such as those made by John McCracken or Anne Truitt, for instance. Volumes that speak for and about themselves, and nothing more.

Anne Truitt’s 2010 exhibition was titled Perception and Reflection. What we perceive, I assume it might mean, forces us to reflect. It both appeals to a different understanding and exudes a different kind of intelligence, one that belongs and doesn’t belong at the same time. Call it an intuition, or an intuitive understanding, even though the latter seems to entail a major contradiction. A grasp on things that doesn’t seem to come from any intellectual activity.

Somewhere along the way, mankind has found the ability to withstand its own instincts. The fear of the unknown, for example, is not quite gone, but it’s been abutted by a keenness, and perhaps even a fondness, to come to terms with that which has not revealed itself fully yet, or that which refuses revelation.


It’s impossible, though, to keep track of the volumes that keep on being written about Rothko’s works. The urge to write about Rothko is like an insatiable hunger. Feed it, and it comes back stronger. Perhaps there’s a certain value to the volumes piling up year after year. They may not reveal much about the work itself, but they reveal something about the society of man who’s made it possible for artists to thrive, or at least to exist as artists within that society.

A French gallerist I talked to in Marseille told me there’s plenty to say, or to talk about, so much so, even, that all talkers together concoct a frame that’s made from verbal, conceptual and historical references full of personal experience and other kinds of white noise – word jazz blown out of a wide-open mouth. The smell is ours to imagine. She seemed a little upset at my suggestion that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to say something sensible about Rothko’s works without taking a detour. In the blink of an eye she came up with two artists – John McCracken and Anne Truitt – whose works possess the same qualities as Rothko’s body of work. Maybe she is right, I thought, but at the same time she was merely suggesting another detour: metonymic talk, or talk-by-proxy. If you can’t talk about the work of one artist, you link it with the talk about another artist’s work.

Or you link it with something that resembles it. In its otherworldliness, for example, Rothko’s work reminds me of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first time it appears in the movie, at dawn, it’s a disturbing presence, to say the least, for the primates who inhabit the planet where it’s installed itself. Aghast, the simian flock attacks it because the monolith disturbs the natural order in which they’ve been living. Call it harmony, call it a law of necessities, call it anything that could explain things the way they are. The members of the flock have no words or concepts to identify the invasive object, nor do they have a language that’s in any way applicable to understanding it. The only possible reaction to its sudden appearance is an act of fearful violence.

As such, the monolith could be a visual metaphor, a symbol for all things sublime. A vertical cut in perception. No one has a grasp on it. Monkey or man, there’s no fathoming it. Never mind where it comes from or who put it there.

Had they had the language, one could think, the primates might have been able to give the monolith a place in their little, underdeveloped community. They might have been able to discuss its origins, or the color and the shape it took before it travelled to their immeasurable planet. They might have looked for a meaning, or a message. They might have given it a name, or called it a being from elsewhere – alien or fantom, all the same. It wasn’t there yesterday and it’s here now. There must be something to that. If there’s nothing to it, it’s just cosmic irony.

But the primates in the movie didn’t have a language with which to respond to the apparition. They only had the thing itself and the visceral questions it asked of them, to which they replied with visceral answers: a simian harangue.

Maybe that’s a good thing. God knows which names they might have come up with. They might have called it a rose, for all I care, but it’s not the name that matters, I think – it’s the thing itself, just like in another of Stevens’ poems.

Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow…
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
of sleep’s faded papier-mâché…
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry – it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.


Just like the monolith in A Space Odyssey, I imagine a work of Rothko suddenly appearing in a public space – say: a square in Berlin. It could be Potsdamer Platz, or the Gendarmenmarkt. Any place of historical significance that’s managed to retain some, even if it’s very little, splendour at the cost of being a textbook tourist hotspot. An open-air, theatrical place-m’as-tu-vu with a passe-partout twist. The square can be a juncture for commuters, or it can be used for mere gallivanting, or for manifestations of the masses celebrating themselves.

The Rothko work has been put in a place where it doesn’t seem to belong and in its bewildering vulnerability, very much out of its context – and I hesitate here to write “out of its natural context”, because a gallery or a museum is everything but a natural place, yet it might still be considered by many to be the best or most logical place for a work of art to show itself, or allow itself to be shown – the work is lost on the Gendarmenmarkt or on Potsdamer Platz, not because it’s out in the open, but because people instantaneously recognize it as a Rothko, even if it is a Rothko out of place, and by recognizing it, they dismiss it as nothing more than that. It’s lost because of its recognizability as the work of a famous artist.

Calling it a Rothko is very much a performative act, a perfunctory, administrative manoeuvre, much like putting a stamp on a document so that it can be put with the rest, whatever the rest is, and however high the stack. Identified and stamped, the work of art is no longer a work of art, but an item that can be stored away in the mental drawers of a public consciousness, or an item that can be sold and bought.


This is where language shows its ugly, feudal face. The Adamic function of words and human speech in general – naming things, making them graspable and thereby appropriating them so that they fit in a world view – has leant itself, over the past centuries, to paving the way for an almost imperialistic tendency when it comes to talking about things. Name it, and it becomes yours, or it suits your very own perspective.

For a moment there I toyed with this – admittedly, very naive – suggestion: to get rid of the artist’s name. In order to see the work for what it is, people need to forget that it was made by a specific artist. The name tag, often functioning as a quality mark, or as the first means of identification, also labels the work as being of importance, or of no importance whatsoever, in a certain cultural and socio-economic context. If it’s a Rothko, we recognize it as a work of art, and that’s that.

Someone should buy it. Fork out enough money enough, at least, to please the market and the eyes perennially fixed in disbelief on the market’s ways put a stamp on it, open the vault, put the Rothko away, close the vault and forget that the Rothko even exists. If it ever comes out of the vault again, it’s going to be an even more expensive Rothko. Treat it as if it’s a living thing that doesn’t need light or people seeing it a monstrosity that grows in interests.

That’s what I remember from the two months I spent in Luxemburg. Kennedy Avenue is lined with spectacular buildings. There’s the university, the library, the European Parliament, the beautiful Philharmonie, the masochistic modern art museum, and a nest of banks, the latter of which all boast basements filled with works of art that the world will never get to see. The girl I met in Luxemburg – she worked at the Philharmonie – said: Ah well, what else would you do with them? She shrugged. Exhibit them, I said. Allow them to be seen.

The look of disbelief I saw on her face, was new to me in those days.

She was the girlfriend of a video artist who had, a couple of days before our conversation, celebrated the vernissage of a group show at the Luxemburg museum. His work was a conceptual rehash of Rear Window and he called it sculpting with frames. After the opening there had been a dinner party at a communist Italian restaurant that we crashed – “we” being my friend, the genius assistant and myself – and where I got so drunk on that communist bastard Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that I was literally blind for the better part of the night. Anyway, I was seated opposite the artist and his girlfriend. They were both beaming with joy for different reasons: his work was part of a group show at the renowned museum and she was his girlfriend. There’s no shrugging that off. We talked a while, exchanged pleasantries, as people do who have nothing to worry about, not even about the art works that might disappear forever in the vaults of the Luxemburg bank that’s subsidized the entire show and might be about to buy it.

From Luxemburg, the zaniest of towns, I carry quite a few memories, and most of them are contaminated by the stench of foul play on the part of art dealers, museum directors, collectors and everyone else who sees works of art as a commodity. It was the same in Basel, the first time I experienced an art fair. The art fair is a stage lit with the flickering lamps of alleged good taste, but behind the scenes it’s no more than an ordinary, bad-tasty market with future interests on display, disguised as works of art or even as mantlepieces. Art Basel disgusted me, up to the point where I had to turn my back on the assembled salesmen and their bigoted talks about the artworks they were selling. That’s something I’d rather not remember, but I can’t seem to erase it.

The French gallerist told me that there’s little opportunity for a contemporary art gallery in Marseille. She didn’t know how to explain the hardship she endured while trying to establish something that resembled a local art market. Good thing, I thought. Establish your art market somewhere else. If les Marseillais don’t care about it, then don’t try to shove it down their throat, or up their eyes.


Something else I remember is the indignation, not so long ago, at the start of the Rubens year in Antwerp, caused by an older artist operating on the fringes of society – anarchist, nihilist and cynic, all in one, and if such a combination is incredible or even impossible because it crashes into the tree of its own contradictions, that’s all the better. He said that Rubens’ paintings were a load of hyped muck, no better than the ill-crafted rubbish that belongs in an abandoned junkyard, or at least that the paintings were (and still are) far inferior to Rubens’ drawings. Public outcries ensued the elaborate sacrilege. That Rubens would be rubbish is utterly foolish. No?

(For a moment, I myself was baffled too. It sounded too outrageous to be taken seriously, but he went on about it, like a lunatic, and his words could not be mistaken for irony or anything worse.)

That’s what freedom of speech gets you. It’s free of charge, but not without hazard, especially not when you speak out about anything or anybody sanctified by a common history.

The funny thing about freedom of speech in Dutch is that we call it “vrijheid van meningsuiting”: freedom of expressing your opinion. You’re entitled to say anything at all, but that’s no absolute law, of course – as if anything made from words could ever be absolute – because there are some abhorrent opinions, so I heard, which could get you a couple of years behind closed doors, and if you’re really unlucky, in a padded cell. Whichever: say something uncouth, and you’re outlawed. On a rational-ethical level, I can come to terms with that, but it doesn’t sit well with the anti-authoritarian urges that sometimes manifest themselves. I heard someone call it anarchism, which I won’t deny just yet.

Anarchism entails a naive optimism, or at least a belief in the pygmalionesque malleability of society, more so, at least, than do the ideas of their political opponents. It’s a belief based on the kindness of people. Kropotkin, for instance, very much believed in the ability that people have to come to an agreement on any kind of subject. Chomsky too, when asked to describe the anarchism he stands for, proclaims the possibility people have to speak up, or speak amongst each other – thereby relying on the responsibility they have to question authority, whichever form it takes, whoever is trying to establish it. Question it, make it prove its worth. If it proves valuable, reasonable, workable or sensible in any other way, then maybe you can accept it. If it doesn’t, refute it.

That basic belief in the goodness, kindness or willingness of people to come to agreements, as shared by Kropotkin and Chomsky, or its exact opposite, the belief that people are unable to accept the unacceptable, could be laid bare by the way people approach the monolith. By turning it into a symbol – not even something that can be bought or sold, but something that works as a mediator between this world and the next, for example, or as a representative of a world that’s inhabited by a plutocracy of gods and demi-gods called Warhol, Picasso and Rothko, for instance – that which cannot be known becomes a particle of our shared understanding of things: the tantalic exercise.

Approach a work of Rothko for what it is – whatever that may be, since I find it very hard to explain it in any kind of existing language – and it will much more likely appeal to your capacity for self-reflection. Perceive and reflect.


Anyway, you just can’t say anything about the work of art without saying something about the artist, apparently. Not when you’re talking about an institutionalized artist like Rubens. Or Warhol, Picasso or Rothko. When you criticize the canonized artist or the canonized work, no matter how well-founded your criticism may be, you criticize the foundations of a common cultural ground in which art has been able to flourish, even if it’s only temporarily, often to lose its gloss or flavour when the art market rears its head. Or its tail. Or both, only for the head to start chewing away on the tail, like an Ouroboros.

That common ground is fertilized over and over again by a man-made political and educational system and the equally man-made (or man-managed) mechanism of the market. Caught in a web of concepts and other tools that come in handy when the thing itself will not reveal itself too easily. Knowledge, for example, or at least the kind of knowledge that resembles a system of nuts and bolts.

Criticism of anything associated with the name Rubens – or the brand Rubens, even – seems to entail criticism of the broader socio-cultural context. Lose the name, the persona or the celebrity, and you might lose the categorization, and thus get rid of the political appropriation. That’s what I thought – for a moment.

The problem, of course, is this: there’s no creation without a creator. In all his enviable largesse the artist gives us his works, and by giving them to us, his audience, whichever way you want to look at it, he gives us a reason to talk about them.

As such, I think it’s almost impossible to suggest an alternative in order to allow art to take up that particular sovereign position within the society we know.


Untouchable as a work of art may be in all its non-functionality or in its essential refusal to meet any public demands, it is still an inherent part of society – whichever society that may be. Though I don’t agree with the idea that a work of art would necessarily be a reflection of a Zeitgeist – Rothko’s works are just as much a reflection of a certain time as they are a personal expression of a universal intuition or of a weird, alien or altogether new knowledge of reality – I do think that certain (socio-economic and philosophical) times trigger certain works. In that sense, an artwork cannot be considered as something that’s side-lined or even cast out.

Re-reading the above paragraph, I cannot but catch myself red-handed. I’m using concepts. Going back through the entire text, I see that I’m a serial offender. The circus ventriloquist is me. Maybe there’s no avoiding it.

The realm of words is not a one-to-one translation of the realm of things. It’s both a construct and a tool. As a construct, it’s inherently transformable. That protean nature of language is a result of the changeable nature of the world. As the world changes, language changes, and as language changes, concepts change with them – the dance of the Ouroboros. Our understanding changes, never letting us get a firm grip. Tantalism over and over again.

As a tool – granted: a formidably transformable tool – language is considered to be functional. We use it to craft an understanding of things by pouring them in concepts, notions and ideas. The functionality of the concept can only be derived from the linguistic clarity with which it’s been designed. Just like any other tool, it’s subject to possible improper use. If the concept is (or has to) be abused, then the abuse derives of obscurification, obfuscation or misappropriation of language. In the latter case: the cloudier the langue, the better it serves the purpose of shrouding that which is being talked about in a web of words.

Perhaps it’s a good thing, then, that the primates in A Space Oddyssey didn’t have a language yet with which they could talk about the alien presence in their midst. Their words would have done what ours do now: lay a claim on things. (On the other hand, if they had had a language with which to craft concepts, they still wouldn’t have been able to give the monolith a place within a structural framework that stretches from food over sleep to power.)

The monolith returns in A Space Odyssey. Let me rephrase that: we, the viewers, return to the monolith. As the story progresses, or as time lapses, astronauts land on moonlike planet and find the monolith again – anew. It appears in a scientific construction site, where it looks enshrined or turned into a sacred object – something still unfathomable, but at least it’s fenced by, or encapsulated in, a vague sense of something that might drive them towards some understanding. The suggestion of a spiritual quest is enhanced by the processional parade and by the eerie chanting on the soundtrack – human sounds without any pre-determined meaning. Not a scrawny cry, but a bungled Kyrie Eleison.

I don’t know whether Kubrick wanted to make a joke out of the astronauts’ behaviour, or whether he was making a meta-comment about the art of film-making, but the astronauts then do something that looks, in retrospect, like an act very much out of time: they assemble in front of the monolith and have one of them try to take a picture. The monolith refuses, however: the moment the astronauts find a pose, it emits an excruciatingly high sound – a beep from outer space, so to say – which makes the men cringe and try to block out the sound.

Because of its authorlessness, and because it utterly lacks in both referentiality and self-referentiality, the Space Odyssey monolith is to be considered more as a token of maximal autonomy than as a symbol or a metaphor, simply because reading it like a symbol or a metaphor is an all too human way of dealing with it. The monolith is not a symbol pinpointing certain truths, meanings, messages or any other kind of human projection.

Thus, Rothko’s work should be dealt with as a thing that does not stand for anything, that doesn’t carry a meaning, that doesn’t point – metaphorically or metonymically – towards a certain message or truth, that doesn’t try to say anything at all. Because it doesn’t say anything, we should say anything either. Of course: all things that can’t be spoken about, trigger attempts at speaking anyway. If we can’t understand them, then we can ambush them with words or gestures, as did the astronauts in A Space Odyssey.

The third time we see the monolith, it stands in a futuristic bedroom. Interpretations of its presence there vary: it’s a tombstone, a sentinel, a wordless verdict, a bank vault turned inside out, the representation of an otherworldly spirit, the ghost of the past and the future, the dark mirror of our dreams and fears, or anything we can come up with to give it a place in the realm of our language. Any one of those interpretations could be true, truthful or valuable in some other way. It doesn’t matter, I think. What matters, is that it offers us, besides the plurality of its possible interpretations, something else, something I can’t seem to put in words, something akin to the sensual pleasure of inebriation.