In 1970, the French poet Franck André Jamme came across a catalogue of abstract art by anonymous practitioners of Tantric Hinduism, and it changed his life. Executed in gouache on found paper, the small paintings had their own distinct resonance, but they also bore a fascinating resemblance to the work of an array of twentieth-century Western artists. Since that pivotal encounter, Jamme has devoted much of his time and energy to collecting and exhibiting the works of anonymous tantrikas. The story of that project reads like a grail quest. Determined to find such artists, who work within discreet initiatory traditions, Jamme traveled to India in 1985, only to suffer terrible injuries in a bus accident and take a medevac back to France. After two years of painful recovery, he tried again. A Hindu astrologer gave him a reading, informed him that his suffering had constituted a karmic expiation, and told him where to find the artists he sought.
Jamme has since traveled to India over a dozen times, acquired a number of paintings, and arranged for several exhibitions. One recent show, Tantra Song, held last year at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, made the Tantric painters of Rajasthan a hot topic. The accompanying book, published by Siglio Press, sold out within weeks; when I wanted to buy a second copy, I had to hunt it down in a small New York bookstore. Unlike Jamme in 1985, I could manage that via the internet, but it was still something of a treasure hunt.
Much of the buzz over Tantra Song revolved around a rather naïve if understandable question: ‘How is it that small works in gouache on paper, by anonymous practitioners of Hindu Tantra, so resemble famous works of Western abstract art?’ In a gamut of media outlets, the works of those tantrikas from Rajasthan, intended for use as aids to spiritual practice, were repeatedly compared to the ambitious canvases of artists from Kazimir Malevich to Brice Marden. Just leafing through Tantra Song is enough to establish that, if you shuffled a deck of Tantric, Constructivist and Abstract Expressionist paintings, most people wouldn’t be able to sort them out. Consider one Tantric painting next to Malevich’s Painterly Realism: Boy with Knapsack:
Or another next to Barnett Newman’s Onement 6:
Those images are adjusted for scale, but in any case the similarities between the paintings aren’t really instructive. After all, there’s no real possibility of influence here. We would do better to ask what makes those Tantric paintings so different from the Western abstract art they superficially resemble. That question means exploring how two similar visual languages in fact express antithetical visions of self, and therefore of the relationship between artist and work. In more than one sense, it’s a question of narrative. And if we want to contrast narratives, Western abstract art offers no better example than that most mythologized group, the New York School, especially its so-called Color Field painters, and above all the most tragic of those, Mark Rothko. Tantric art tells us next to nothing about color and form on Rothko’s canvases, but, viewed in context, it reveals a great deal about the sensibility behind them.
To get at the crucial difference between the Tantric narrative and the Rothko narrative, we can begin with the word ‘tragic’. Rothko’s art—John Golding has rightly called it ‘a wounded art’—arose partly from its creator’s acute sense of tragedy; the tantrikas’ art inhabits a cosmos in which tragedy doesn’t actually exist. Long before any of these paintings were produced, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats pondered that difference in sensibility. In a 1935 letter, he mused about the Chinese sculpture that inspired his poem ‘Lapis Lazuli’: ‘the heroic cry in the midst of despair. But no, I am wrong the east has its solutions always & therefore knows nothing of tragedy. It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry’. Yeats had read his Nietzsche, but he knew a good bit more than Nietzsche about Indic philosophy, and not just the Theosophical mishmash that tried to pass for Indic wisdom. At the time he wrote the letter, he was in the midst of several years’ study and collaboration with a Hindu monk, who among other pursuits had instructed the poet in Tantric principles.
Tantric Hinduism takes many forms, some monistic and some dualistic, but all of its expressions adhere to the principle, common to most Indic traditions, that our true, innermost Self is divine and impersonal, completely free of the miseries that afflict the limited personality. It follows that the supreme goal of human existence is a liberating recognition of that inner divinity. But where other well-known Indic traditions, such as Vedānta and Classical Yoga, advocate renunciation of the manifested universe, Tantra affirms the divinity of the cosmos as the expression of divine energy, usually personified as a dynamic Goddess bodied forth by an otherwise inert God. That play of energies is consummated in the reunion of Goddess and God—an end realised, after however many incarnations, by every soul. For tantrikas, any worldly event, construed rightly, can serve as a gateway to divinity. For that reason, much Tantric practice has revolved around ritual—above all, ritual initiation into a teaching lineage, because Tantra recognises that taking the fast track to transcendence is a dangerous business, not to be undertaken without careful practice and expert guidance.
Though Tantra apparently began as a practice of often transgressive rituals involving the appeasement of dangerous minor deities, it gradually became more mainstream, in a process the scholar Alexis Sanderson has called ‘domestication’. Eventually, it gave rise to systematic theologies of a scholarly cast. During what might be called the golden age of Tantric Hinduism, the 9th through 12th centuries, such thinkers as Ābhinavagupta articulated sophisticated Tantric philosophies, and developed a mode of inner practice that made outward ritual superfluous. Such purely interior Tantra was largely reserved for a kind of spiritual elite; most tantrikas remained committed to outward observances. Private rituals designed to heighten consciousness flourished. Among them were traditions of meditative painting, executed according to ritual prescriptions and intended to focus divine energy and to serve as dhāraṇās, catalysts for meditation.
The paintings reproduced in Tantra Song are products of such a tradition. Their forms, colors and motifs conform to a sacred language. Colors signify different states or aspects of consciousness or of the Goddess. Spirals evoke the kuṇḍalinī s̄akti, divine energy coiled within every human being like a snake, waiting to be awakened and uncoil toward liberation. A large oval is a Svambhayū lingam, symbol of the Absolute, curved at both ends to show how, in its supreme freedom, the ultimate reality stands on nothing else. Inverted triangles invoke both the generative organ of the Goddess and her extended tongue in her violent aspect as the devourer of all that is impermanent. Red arrows spread across a blue field signify the play of divine energy, which is to say the universe.
The impersonality of this pictorial language, prescribed as it is by tradition, is where comparisons to the Color Field painters get interesting. A Tantric painting may recall Newman’s decisive ‘zips’, Clyfford Still’s daimonic invocations of primal energy or Rothko’s meditative expanses of color and space, but in its origin and purpose it repudiates what those paintings stand for: the individual artist’s solitary and heroic quest for transcendence. Two works reproduced below make the difference clear. The Tantric painting on the left emblematizes the three gunas, or constitutive principles of the universe—inertia (black), activity (red) and tranquility (white). While it bears some resemblance to Rothko’s Black, Ochre, Red over Red, to anyone familiar with Tantra it reads in a definite, traditionally determined way. The Rothko engages us on its own terms, as the expression of a single artist’s unrepeatable vision.
In Kashmir Śaivism, perhaps the dominant monist Tantric tradition, the vision of the universe as the play of divine energy gave rise to the doctrine of the mātṛkā śakti, a mysterious power that links the myriad vibrations of that energy to the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. In an Absolute sense, all existence is the bliss of divine consciousness; the manifestation of the physical universe involves something like a Neoplatonic arc of descent, in the course of which the mātṛkā śakti performs its function of appearing to confine eternity within temporal and spatial limits. Within those constraints, the cosmos is, in effect, a text. As is your level of consciousness, so is your comprehension of the text; a wise man reads not the same cosmic book a fool reads. One should therefore aim to achieve, partly through effort and partly through grace, an elevation of consciousness culminating in the liberating realisation that the text is really God. The unrealised self is only a discourse, a fiction, imprisoned in the self-fulfilling delusion that it is separate, autonomous and less than perfect. The only real narrative is the master narrative, God’s cosmic game of self-concealment and self-revelation. A tantrika can rest assured that even the darkest-seeming story in the cosmic book leads to the ultimate happy ending.
This completely affirmative vision of life is partly what Yeats had in mind when he wrote that ‘the East has its solutions always & therefore knows nothing of tragedy’. In ‘Lapis Lazuli’, he observes that ‘all perform their tragic play’, but goes on to insist that underneath all our individual and collective dramas rests an unassailable ‘gaiety’, personified by ancient sages looking down on history from a sacred mountain. To be sure, there’s a nod to Nietzsche’s amor fati there as well. It’s as if Yeats is setting before us a choice: we can have the tragic joy of amor fati, or we can see tragedy for the shadow-show it is and dissolve our illusory separateness into the bliss of divine perfection. If the often great poetry and the often questionable behavior of his final years serve to indicate, Yeats himself waffled to the end.
Earlier in his career, Yeats had called himself one of the last romantics, but he had nothing on the New York School. Rothko, Newman and Still described their art in almost Shelleyan terms of revolution and transcendence. Arriving well after the heyday of modernist manifestos didn’t keep them from promoting their art as a liberating, regenerative force. Thomas Hess, something of a true believer in Newman, numbered them among the ‘intellectuals’ of the New York School, as opposed to such supposedly less cerebral luminaries as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Newman, the most outspoken of the bunch, declared that his subject was ‘the self, terrible and constant’, and that ‘Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life”, we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings’. Still was downright cantankerous, railing against ‘the conspiracy of social culture’ and regarding his art as opening ‘a direct, immediate, and totally free vision’. He styled himself as America’s answer to William Blake, but his fulminations against ‘cultural opiates’ carried a sulphurous whiff of Ayn Rand. Rothko, like Newman, tended to frame things in more frankly spiritual terms. He wrote of ‘the urgency of transcendent experience’ and ‘invading forbidden ground’—Prometheus with a palette. ‘The people who weep before my pictures’, he insisted, ‘are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them’.
That sort of talk makes easy pickings for critics like Donald Kuspit, who sees in Rothko and Still’s work a ‘straining for transcendental effect’ that undercuts their ambitions. A rather different sort of strain is more to the point. The stories of Rothko, Newman and Still involve a good deal of sturm und drang. Rothko especially was no tantrika engaged in a ritually and traditionally grounded practice of painterly meditation; as an artist, he was a solitary quester for the Absolute. Whether he strained for effect in his paintings is debatable, but there is no question that he strained for the effect of being Mark Rothko.
In the somewhat ironically titled ‘Irascibles’ photo of 1950, fifteen denizens of the New York School present a deliberately inoffensive image to the readers of Life Magazine. Newman, ‘the Professor’, occupies the alpha position, comfortably ensconced, at least for the moment, as the Phineas J. Whoopee of American painting. Still, tall and lanky, one foot resting on a stool, seems the least serious about this marketing exercise, offering just enough of a wry grin to assure the viewer that he may be with this crowd, but he isn’t of it. Of a set of mostly purposeful-looking painters—Ad Reinhardt, standing sturdily in the rear, looks almost like hired security—only one completely fails to accord with the prevailing mood. Rothko occupies a foreground spot in front of Newman but to the side. The torso turned away from the camera, the hesitant, almost fearful sidelong glance: this is a man who wants to command your attention but won’t look you in the eye. Vulnerability and aggression vie for dominance. You can see the narrative persona hardening into fixity.
It was probably inevitable, then, that when Rothko, Newman and Still fell out it was largely over control of the narrative. At the heart of the discord lay the question of who thought up what first. As Thomas Hess observed, ‘That one might owe a debt to another becomes not a matter of simple ordinary fact, but a major issue of debate—like a trial for high treason’. When Robert Motherwell carelessly speculated that Newman’s vertical ‘zips’ were probably inspired by the jagged verticals of Still’s canvases, Newman took such offense that he ended up never speaking with Still again. Simple envy and backbiting over commercial success took its toll as well, as each painter wanted to make money without surrendering the high ground of artistic integrity. Still declared the others ‘little men’ who catered to the market, and abandoned New York for rural Maryland, where he began hoarding most of his paintings. After an acrimonious split with Rothko, Newman recalled, ‘It was Rothko who in 1950 said to me that he could not look at his work because it reminded him of death. Am I to disagree with him? Why should I look at his death image? I am involved in life, in the joy of the spirit’. Even the artists’ comments on their own work often took the form of veiled jabs at their former collaborators. Still’s dismissal of ‘pseudoreligious titles’, for instance, said more about his contempt for Newman than about his own work, while Newman’s insistence, despite his own rhetoric, that talk of ‘the transcendental, the self, revelation, etc.’ in art is facile was surely a swipe at Rothko.
But at the time of the photo, Rothko, Newman, and Still got along. Still would later recall long walks talking philosophy with Rothko. The philosopher they may have discussed most, certainly the one who influenced Rothko most, was Nietzsche. Still’s fiercely nonconformist rhetoric, his insistence on the artist as a man striving in solitude to overcome conditioned thinking and feeling, and go ‘beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance’, smacks of Zarathustra’s exhortations. Rothko loved The Birth of Tragedy in particular, read it several times, and shortly before his suicide indicated that he was planning to write an essay on his debt to Nietzsche. At some point in the 1950s, the decade in which he produced his finest paintings, he jotted on a notecard, ‘Apollo may be the God of Sculpture. But in the extreme he is also the God of Light and in the burst of splendor not only is all illumined but as it gains in intensity all is also wiped out. That is the secret which I use to contain the Dionysian in a burst of light’. His note to self echoes what Nietzsche called ‘the mystery doctrine of tragedy: the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything existent, the conception of individuation as the prime cause of evil, and of art as the joyous hope that the bonds of individuation may be broken in augury of a restored oneness’. As Yeats surely recognized, it almost sounds Tantric.
But the Nietzschean vision has clear limits, and a sharp edge separates its notion of transcendence from that propounded in Tantra. Though he advocated tearing aside ‘the veil of Maya’—an Indic phrase he surely lifted from Schopenhauer—even in his earliest work, Nietzsche regarded transcendence not in the Tantric sense, as divine self-recognition, supreme consciousness and eternal bliss, but as a temporary immersion in the Dionysian flux of undifferentiated vital force. Individuation may be the root of all suffering, but there’s no real rising above it; the only path to exaltation, at least for those strong enough to travel it, is to fearlessly and joyously embrace the tragic human condition. This no longer sounds much at all like Tantra. Laughing in the face of suffering and death isn’t quite the same as knowing they’re really blissful perfection misapprehended by a shrunken and delusional self.
A Nietzschean fatalism must have meshed neatly with the life experience of Markus Rothkowitz, who as a child left behind persecution in Russia to meet with poverty and bigotry in America, and who saw himself as following an exalted if torturous calling. This is not to buy into the myth of Rothko as peintre maudit; he was, much of the time, an expansive and gregarious man, a great talker. But it isn’t a stretch to suggest that he remained trapped in a narrative of exile and alienation, which to some extent must have driven his quest for transcendence, for the ‘return to the Garden of Eden’ that, according to Newman, all art seeks to accomplish.
That notion of trying to recover a kind of prelapsarian state goes some way toward explaining Rothko’s note about trying to capture the supreme burst of Apollonian splendor. In seeking what he called ‘a consummated experience between picture and onlooker’, Rothko really did want to give gallery-goers religion. Newman had proclaimed that the Abstract Expressionists were making cathedrals out of themselves; in Rothko’s case, it was making cathedrals out of galleries. His obsessive vetting of buyers, his reneging on the Seagram’s commission, and his suspicion of gallery owners partly arose from his conviction that his paintings were sacred objects, and should be hung so as to define sacred spaces. The Rothko Chapel was merely a final, emphatic restatement of his central thesis.
Critics have questioned how far the paintings live up to that billing, but the sheer visual impact of a first-rate Rothko is hard to deny. Kuspit’s assertion that ‘[s]haped color is not in and of itself transcendentally convincing’ goes after a straw man. As Rothko protested, his paintings are hardly just about shaped color; one need only ponder the lunar darknesses of the Rothko Chapel to feel how much his work relies on a sense of space. Consider two strong works from the 1950s: Ochre and Red on Red and No. 203.
The subtly layered colors are stunning—they seem to pulsate from both their own saturation and their resonance with adjacent fields. But if the paintings were all about those energies, they would be no more interesting than Adolph Gottlieb’s ‘Blast’ series—very fine works, to be sure, but intellectual exercises, meant chiefly to sustain a dynamic tension between integrative and disintegrative forces on the picture plane. In these Rothkos, color, light and space merge: richness and luminosity of color become depth and radiance of space. With their soft borders, sometimes wavering, sometimes nebulous, the color fields of Ochre and Red on Red and No. 203 almost seem to breathe, and the space around and behind them, especially as glimpsed in the horizontal gap between, seems to recede into incalculable distance. Gazing at either of these paintings feels like standing before a gateway into a space at once indefinable and completely real. And the revelatory power of that space, that color, that light, doesn’t so much tease us out of thought as catapult us into silence. The paintings may not encode a mystical tradition, but they function like dhāraṇās.
Rothko himself, in a 1954 paper, expressed how he wanted his pictorial space to convey ‘penetration into knowledge or revelation, which means the removal of veils’. Unlike the ritual, iconographic productions of the Tantric painters, his works convey that sense of depth and presence without invoking any traditional system of signification. They really do read like attempts to ‘contain the Dionysian in a burst of light’—to capture on canvas the moment just before annihilation. But they also suggest the Tantric moment of emergence, when the primal unity has begun to divide into subject and object but the mātṛkā śakti has not yet confined consciousness in its web of letters. At the mercy of inspiration, unsupported but also unconstrained by ritual prescriptions, Rothko outstrips the tantrikas. The closest analogue to his best work isn’t abstract Tantric iconography, but Van Gogh’s wheatfield, trembling on the verge of dissolution.
One could argue that the difference in scale gives Rothko’s paintings more impact—Rothko’s expanses of canvas dwarf the tantrikas’ works on found paper, all of which approximate the dimensions of a standard writing pad. Rothko himself famously claimed that he painted such large canvases so as to grant them a kind of autonomy and make the experience of viewing them ‘intimate and human’. But scale isn’t simply about size. It’s a more subjective quality, born of viewers’ sense of their own significance in front of the work. By that measure, a small Tantric painting of a cobalt-blue Svambhayū lingam, singing with energy, has imperial scale. Even Newman—he of the outsized Vir Heroicus Sublimis—understood this fundamental principle.
Though Newman also talked transcendence, he seems to have kept a safer distance from his art. That might have been because he was scantily trained and short on technique, but it’s more likely a question of sensibility. Newman’s paintings are less revelations than inscriptions, as if for him the real action lay not in the finished work but in the internal deliberations that gave rise to it. In Rothko’s mature paintings, deliberation and execution, experience and expression, are fused; no amount of analysis can parse them out.
That identification with his work explains why Rothko’s achievement came at an ongoing cost. He regarded his paintings almost as children sent forth into a hostile world, once saying that a crowd of people looking at a painting struck him as blasphemous. It all supported a narrative in which he remained at the mercy of his work, which offered him only fugitive brushes with transcendence, and his audience, who might or might not understand what his paintings offered them. As a 1948 letter makes clear, the myth of Rothko as tormented visionary began with the artist himself:
I am beginning to hate the life of a painter. One begins by sparring with his insides with one leg still in the normal world. Then you are caught up in a frenzy that brings you to the edge of madness, as far as you can go without ever coming back. The return is a series of dazed weeks during which you are only half alive.
This anguished process was partly what Rothko had in mind when he referred to ‘the wages that might come of invading forbidden ground’. In the end, the wages were far higher.
The suicide of a gifted and accomplished man is far too opaque a thing to support much speculation, but Rothko was an intellectual, and his violent death—he sliced open his brachial artery in his studio—begs the question of what role the contents of his capacious intellect might have played in that final decision. Many forces—alcohol, depression, marital strife, perhaps even a conviction of artistic failure—may have contributed to Rothko’s end, but perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his final despair was his attempt to live with one foot on either side of what might be called the mystical divide. Rothko clearly ached for a mystical sort of transcendence, for experience of a higher reality, but his reading of Nietzsche offered him only exaltation of the creative individual will in the face of destruction. He sought to integrate it all into a neo-romantic sense of the artist as visionary, but the result was a volatile compound of mystical aspiration and heroic fatalism, expressed through Promethean metaphors in which his ‘rapture’ had to be ‘snatched…from the Gods’. His sensibility suffered from the same flaw Dostoyevsky had diagnosed in the romanticism of a century before: the misguided conviction that transcendence is something one can possess, that it can somehow be encompassed by a soul brilliant and daring enough to consummate the quest. But real transcendence can’t be fit into a quest narrative; what it does is explode narrative. The problem for Rothko—and Nietzsche’s tragic-heroic vision offered him no consolation in this—was what happens after the explosion. When your sense of self is wed to a fatalistic narrative of alienation and tragedy, but your paintings, and your experience of making them, utterly refute those limitations, where does that leave you?
The last thing Nietzsche wrote before entering his final silence was a postcard to a friend: ‘Sing a new song for me: the world is transfigured and all the heavens rejoice’. He signed it, ‘The Crucified’. We’ll never know exactly what experience he wanted to convey, but his juxtaposition of exaltation and torture calls to mind not only his own early theory of tragedy but also Rothko’s untenable contradictions. And it sheds some light on why Rothko chose to remain within a narrative that offered him episodes of transcendence but withheld lasting fulfilment. In A Vision, his own strange brew of Nietzschean amor fati and mystical aspiration, Yeats reflects on a character in a Noh drama, a young girl who chooses to inhabit the hell of her own narrative: ‘She is surrounded by flames, and though the priest explains that if she but ceased to believe in those flames they would cease to exist, believe she must, and the play ends in an elaborate dance, the dance of her agony’. The anonymous painters of Tantra Song, working within a fully articulated mystical tradition, would surely side with the priest; one would think that Rothko, so bent on capturing epiphanies, might take the same course. But he had far more in common with the girl.
We choose our narratives, and, perhaps without realizing it, Rothko committed himself to one that wasn’t really about transcendence, but about yearning tragically for transcendence. It didn’t gain him liberation, but it did make for a more compelling storyline, and it allowed him to produce some of the most captivating art of his time—paintings that require neither ritual investment nor orientalist exoticism to endow them with extraordinary power. The problem was, the narrative could only end in despair.