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Why Rothko is important

left_alignedimgTechnology exists within the space of a given historical horizon. So do aesthetics, language, logic and even sense. We can easily forget how momentary things are — how specific and located they are. The onset of the age of silicon has swept the perceptual field so thoroughly that meaning appears as located only within the space of its parameters. As digital workers, for varied reasons, we should remember the broader history of human expression, and try — so much as is possible — to ground the present in the past and the future. This is the meaning of timelessness, or being out of time.

Our knowledge is always limited when set within the wider scene upon which our given horizon comes into being. Rothko can serve as an example of a man and an artist — and a visionary — that consciously stepped out and back from his time. He did something new, but also something basic. Amid the 20th century breakdown (some may say development) of painting as such, from impressionism to expressionism and the emerging, chaotic abstract scene, to pop art and the abandoning of the artist as author towards thought itself as the author, with print technique and later digital art, Rothko returned to the very base of visual expression: emotion.

“Can we create, by way of design, relations and connections, and an experience, as deep and as basic as what Rothko did with paint?”

left_alignedimgDepth is inevitably lost in digital media. Ultimately, everything can be reduced to an original one or a zero. The technical parameters of designing for digital media also have an impact — principally, designing with numerous variations in access in mind, from slow speed connections to much higher bandwidth, as well as server resources, search engine algorithms, responsive design stipulations, and other factors. There is a structure, of sorts, to take into account in digital media that is different in traditional media, like painting. But nonetheless, the essential task should, I believe, remain the same, if executed different: it is not only to hit a range of technical parameters, but to create in the digital world designs that speak to, or exist in, a place that is out of time, and primary as such.

For these and other reasons, Rothko is important to digital artists and creators. He is both a sign of our times, and a challenge to meet. Can we create, by way of design, relations and connections, and an experience, as deep and as basic as what Rothko did with paint? I see the tremendous step forward made by the lead design team at Google in these terms. Material design is a conscious effort to give great thought to the relation between design and the end user, and it raises the bar for designers as they think about and execute solutions to real world media challenges in the digital arts.

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1 February 2015
Ian Douglas

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