In the 1950s, Mark Rothko painted with striking color. Eye catching, heart throbbing, delicious colors. Then in the 1960s, his paintings shifted toward grays, blacks, whites, and earth tones. I have been told, and you may have heard, that the shift from bright colors to somber tones came from a descent into depression and eventual suicide.
While there may be truth in that observation, there is another explanation. Gifford Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection in DC, asked Mark Rothko in the 1950s, “Am I right…color means more to you than any other element?” To which Rothko replied, “No, not color, but measures.” (Mark Rothko from the Inside Out, p. 53). Rothko wasn’t principally concerned with color. He was concerned with measures. He agonized over the measurements of the rectangles. But how could someone who painted rectangles agonize over their size? How can Apple who manufacturers rectangles agonize over their form?
In 1998, Apple released the Bondi Blue iMac. After decades of beige computers, it was breath taking. The iMac sold like hotcakes. Apple followed up this success with the candy colored iMacs. Announced with a “Yum!”, these iMacs helped relaunch Apple as a maker of consumer products and put them on a path to becoming the most valuable company ever. Then Apples’ designers became depressed. They stopped making colorful computers. Everything became aluminum gray. And now the new iMac Pro is black. Shortly, we can expect Apple’s design team to commit mass suicide with arsenic laced lattes. Because that’s what happens when designers move from vivid color to gray. Their depressed mood over takes their work, everything moves towards black, and eventually the designer spirals downward into suicide. Right? Or perhaps there is another explanation. Apple shifted focus.
Design trends, like fashion, only last so long. When the design team at Apple reconsidered how they could move forward with the design of the iMac, they changed the form from egg shaped iMacs to the sunflower iMacs. The pivoting white sunflower iMac allowed the screen to float in mid-air so that the user could focus on the screen’s image. The move to the aluminum gray iMac on a pedestal allowed Apple to use a heavier monitor and allowed the image on the screen to take center place. Removing the color and decoration allowed the designers to focus on a crisp, clear form. The iMac became an object of precise engineering with the a kind of clarity found in Renaissance sculpture.
You may have had an experience like this one: I walked into a shop on Vine Street in Berkeley. So many beautiful things. A shiny cheese knife caught my eye. I picked it up. The plane and the handle were so perfectly balanced, the cheese knife felt weightless. It floated in my hand. I excitedly passed it to my brother-in-law and told him to try it. He was astonished at how weightless it felt. To wield it would be effortless. It had no color, no decoration, but it was beautiful because it fit the human form so perfectly.
And what fits the human form more than a rectangle? Doors are rectangles, windows are rectangles, as are houses, beds, couches, sinks, mirrors, TVs, smartphones, tablets, and so many other things. The rectangle is so human a form we forget its there. After ten years of painting rectangles in color, Rothko removed the color. He removed the last possible element of decoration so that the emotional tension present in the painting could take on a new life. Before Rothko painted a number of his color paintings, he drew them in black and white in order to get the proportions correct. If color was the most critical element in the painting, he wouldn’t labored so hard to draw rectangles in black and white.
In a speech to the Pratt Institute in 1958, Rothko said, “There is more power in telling little than in telling all.” Perhaps Rothko’s shift from color to grays wasn’t the slow march toward suicide that we have all been told. Perhaps it was an effort to tell as little as possible. Perhaps it was an effort to move closer to the drama of human experience, to present the deepest emotional tensions of being alive.