Tag Archives: Subway Face

Mark Rothko and Langhston Hughes – Subway Face

28 Jan

Today we are going to take a look at one of Mark Rothko’s early works called “Entrance to Subway” which is part of his series about New York City’s subways.

Mark Rothko, Entrance to Subway, 1938

Paintings from Rothko’s subway series don’t really display an outstanding skilfulness, they are not breathtakingly beautiful either, but their mood is striking. Rothko used an everyday urban scene and transformed its simplicity and banality into a psychological portrait of society’s alienation and depersonalisation. The series, painted mainly in the 1930s when Rothko was in his thirties, is filled with thin elongated figures with mask-like faces, tired commuters detached from themselves, their environment and each other; there’s no communication between figures. They seem so mute, apathetic and defeated. One can almost feel the heaviness of silence between them. Instead, they pass the time reading the newspapers or immersed in their own thoughts as they wait for the train, or for Godot? In “Entrance to Subway”, the lost souls of New York City’s wasteland descend into Hades’s underground where tall brown column stretch in a repetitive never-ending row. The urban scenery and the energy of these paintings reminds me of Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes laden with anxiety and frenzy. Still, if Kirchner’s thin figures are about to burst from anxiety and frenzy, then Rothko’s figures are about to melt into a shapeless grey puddle.

Mark Rothko, Subway, 1937

A visual detail to notice here is the dominance of colour over the line. Rothko said that “colors are performers” and indeed, it seems that the figures or the tall columns were made out of single brushstrokes. There is little or no shading and brushstrokes are thick and visible, leaving the edges of colours visible, just as they would be in Rothko’s later works. Although in “Entrance to Subway” the colour palette is rather cheerful with those blues, purples and yellows, in other paintings of the series a murky palette of browns prevails. Rothko had some strong opinions about the importance of colour on a painting. In 1936 he started working on a never finished book which was suppose to explore the similarity between children’s paintings and the art of modern painters which was inspired by primitive art. His thesis was that “the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color.”

It took a long time and a lot of experimenting and thinking for Rothko to find his own unique artistic path. These paintings are merely the seed of what was to become of his art. As we can see in these early examples of Rothko’s art, it is clear that he always wanted to portray a deeper truth, the tragedy of humanity with spiritual overtones, but he didn’t know quite how to achieve that until he found an artistic path that was entirely his own – colour block painting.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Woman in Subway Station), 1936

Mark Rothko, untitled, (The Subway), 1937

I feel that there is something so romantic about these ephemeral city experiences. The pointless frenzy over a train that eventually arrives whether you spend time worrying about it or not, the tired faces, the fact that you will probably never see the person that sits opposite you ever again, for better or for worse. Langhston Hughes, a poet of the Harlem-Renaissance took a more cheerful approach to the subject than Rothko and here is his short and beautiful poem called “Subway Face”:

“That I have been looking

For you all my life

Does not matter to you.

You do not know.

 

You never knew.

Nor did I.

Now you take the Harlem train uptown;

I take a local down.”

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