Let It Express Itself: Post Modern Art and Cosmopolis

1 Aug

4th. article in our 7-week series on the film Cosmopolis

Eric Packer, the central character in Don Delillo’s novella Cosmopolis, asks Didi (portrayed by actress Juliette Binoche) if he can purchase Rothko’s Chapel and all of the paintings inside.  Why are the works of Mark Rothko central to this literary work and what do his paintings symbolize?

First, we should look at Mark Rothko, the man.  Mark Rothko(Marcus Rothkowitz) was born on September,25 1903 in Dvinsk, Russia which is now Daugavpils, Latvia.  When he was ten years old, he and his family immigrated to Oregon.

In 1923, he moved to New York and began taking art classes at the Arts Students League.  His most famous works consisted of two, three, or four rectangles aligned vertically against a colored ground which became his signature style.  He wanted his paintings to have  metaphysical and spiritual symbolic meanings.1

In the late 1950’s, Rothko was commissioned to create paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building designed by Mies Van der Rohe.  However, Rothko did not deliver the paintings because he believed that they would only provide decoration.

It was these paintings that the de Menils saw when visiting his studio.  The chapel was founded by philanthropists John and Dominque de Menil. In 1971, the chapel was dedicated as an intimate sanctuary to people of all beliefs.

According to the mission statement of the chapel :  The mission of the Rothko Chapel is “to inspire people to action through art and contemplation, to nurture reverence for the highest aspirations of humanity, and to provide a forum for global concerns.“2

How does this tie in with Eric Packer?  Given his character, he was always searching for something outside of himself to fulfill him.  He had everything and nothing.  Rothko wanted his paintings to have a meditative, spiritual feel.  DeLillo uses Rothko’s Chapel and society in his novella to demonstrate one central thing that everyone forgets nowadays.  Sharing is Caring.  Just as Eric wanted to hoard Rothko’s paintings for himself neither can society hoard money without someone feeling the strain.

To view Rothko’s paintings please visit :www.nga.gov/feature/rothko

To view Rothko’s chapel please visit: www.rothkochapel.org/

Also see 3rd. article in the series; Cosmopolis: Skewed Products

Please join us for an open discussion from Wednesday 8/1/2012-Friday 8/3/2012

51 Responses to “Let It Express Itself: Post Modern Art and Cosmopolis”

  1. Open Book August 1, 2012 at 9:37 AM #


    What an intimate article. I did not realize you were this sensitive to the art form.

    When I tried the link to the Rothko Chapel it did not work. Here is another link to the Rothko chapel:

    • Open Book August 1, 2012 at 10:24 AM #

      The link Paris provided in the article is now working.

  2. Open Book August 1, 2012 at 12:03 PM #


    Q: Do u see some similarity between Rothko and E. Packer self-destruction given how Rothko died?

    • Open Book August 1, 2012 at 7:39 PM #

      I realize this question is a bit convoluted or stupid. However, I found it fascinating DeLillo would choose Rothko for Eric to identify with, given he committed suicide in a very violent manner. When I read how Eric wanted to hoard Rothko’s paintings, I thought this might be a hint DeLillo was giving the reader regarding Eric’s fate that perhaps Eric was seeking to emulate Rothko’s death.

  3. littlebells August 1, 2012 at 12:32 PM #


    Wowzers!!!! Fantastic research! I am fascinated by this. What’s interesting is that I believe the art forms we seek represent more about us than we realize. I can’t wait for this discussion.

    • parisienne August 1, 2012 at 3:52 PM #


      Thank you! I think that any type of art is our way (as humans) of expressing ourselves in a non-violent manner consistent with who we truly are.

  4. parisienne August 1, 2012 at 8:16 PM #


    I’ve been trying to comment to you but my PC went weird. (Seriously, I need a Mac) but i did notice the similarities between Rothko and Packer. However, i have not finished the book. I think that Packer wanted to by the chapel because he wanted people to feel just as dead as him inside (if i can’t have it why should they?) He isn’t spiritually fulfilled.

    I think that Rothko tried to give that to people, I just don’t see how he did. IMO, I don’t see how his paintings are meditative. Anyhow, I don’t know that much about Rothko to comment on why he committed suicide. I’m learning though. 🙂

    • Open Book August 1, 2012 at 11:27 PM #


      Ah! I’m glad I’m not alone in noticing the similarities between Rothko and Eric. When reading, I was wondering why did DeLillo choose Rothko & Rothko Chapel given this was Rothko’s dark period and his last body of work? Also, when Eric is speaking to Didi he brags about loosing millions as if eluding that he’s entering into a dark period himself.

      ITA I don’t see how a persons dark period could be spiritually uplifting? However, in the Victorian era suicides were seen as romantic and transcendent the more dramatic the greater the experience. I have two more questions for u.

      Q: Have u ever been to Rothko Chapel?
      Q: What defines Rothko’s dark period as Post Modern to u?

      • parisienne August 1, 2012 at 11:47 PM #


        I have never been to Rothko Chapel, have you? I don’t know how i would define his dark period as post modern. I’m having trouble defining his dark period as anything to be honest.

        I don’t see how squares on a colored background can be seen a spiritual or meditative unless one is also taking “supplements” to help one complete this experience.

        However, I think that humanity as a whole are always seeking to find their way back to God or as some call it “Oneness”. There are many names for God yet it is the same. He never changes. So I think that if people want to find something in Rothko’s work that works for them on a spiritual level that’s great. If they want to find God on any other level that works for them that’s great too.

        The problem lies with giving one person to much power. Think Jim Jones, David Koresh. People that follow these types of people either cannot think for themselves or are doing so out of pure fear.

        The one thing that I think people forget and even i have trouble remembering sometimes is :God is within not without.

        • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 7:09 AM #


          U said: “I have never been to Rothko Chapel, have you?

          Me: HAHAHAHA! No! Brother can keep that. I’ve not visited the R. Chapel. Mainly because I seek the light. Seriously, I’m too wimpy. I’m aware of how color, scale, shapes and texture can impact my psyche, I would probably be so depressed and ready to off myself after.

  5. Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 12:22 AM #

    Paris, thanks for great article. Given the passion for contemporary fine art, I was really caught by surprise by the depth of interest shown by the author.

  6. Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 12:25 AM #

    The first thing I wanted to discuss is DeLillo’s knowledge of visual art appears to be really high. Musically speaking, I would describe DeLillo speaking in a hierarchy of two registers. Unfortunately the low register would be the simplest of the two, the high register would be dedicated to the most complex content.

  7. Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 12:32 AM #


    Like you said in your article about selfishness, his interest in the Rothko Chapel seemed to be partially related to work in HIS collection.

    Again DeLillo used the low register to discuss the “Rothko Chapel” and other aspects of his collection. You know the geometric, color field, or white paintings described as having “knife applied slabs of mucoid (:meaning like mucous) color” as defined on Pg. 8. This stuff was likely extremely conservative abstract expressionist garbage, he doesn’t even bother to mention the artist(s), the kind of stuff that would embarrass most serious New York collectors. Despite being a digital wizard in the financial markets, IMHO DeLillo was saying Packer had little or no taste in regard to being a collector of the fine arts.

    Paris, obviously Packer was into Didi but did you understand why exactly Eric was into fine art in the first place?

    • parisienne August 2, 2012 at 12:54 AM #


      I haven’t finished the book yet but I would venture to guess that Eric was into fine arts because he was looking for something that would allow him to feel that he had a sense of self. For example, there are some people that need to feel that they are accepted by their peers so they purchase material goods that are viewed in society as being valued.

      Perhaps I missed the point Delillo is making.

      • parisienne August 2, 2012 at 1:06 AM #


        Perhaps Delillo was trying to say (in regards to Eric being into fine arts) that some people purchase fine art without regards to the economy. IMO, Delillo is showing us as a global economy not to throw our funds down the drain.

        Why would one person own paintings that are worth alot of money and hang it on their wall? What type of fulfillment does that bring them? They very well could have turned around and given that money back to the community in which they live.

        If that happened, we wouldn’t have seen all the Occupy movements that we did.

        • Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 2:27 AM #

          Oh, but that is a far more practical consideration, why put money into paintings when it could fulfill so man other needs? It’s hard to disagree Eric’s kind of a jerk but it’s also not hard to doubt it he was only doing it for the prestige it might give him.

      • Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 2:26 AM #


        Hmmmm… I would buy that. I wasn’t questioning whether one should collect fine art, I was wondering solely why?

        The story isn’t about me, but I’ve collected things to remind me of experiences and places I either want to remember or need to recollect. Yet abstract expressionist work is not representational so it won’t picture something you may have seen. I initially thought it was something that cemented their relationship. Maybe it was something that they had together.

        I was wondering whether something mentioned in the early part of the book might have jogged your memory.

      • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 4:53 PM #


        No u did not miss the point at ALL! Trying to explain Post Modern Art sometimes can be like trying to explain complex derivatives. IMO!

  8. Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 2:28 AM #

    Sorry I got distracted from what I was saying earlier. Going back to my odd musical analogy the more complex artistic events seemed to be discussed in a lower register and were discussed for multiple pages instead of just a few sentences.

    I don’t know if you got this far yet but, two of the biggest events of the book we’re executed by performance artists. I’m speaking of the protest/performance (scaling protestors, rat costumes etc.) in Time Square and the Pie terrorist who attacked Eric in front of a restaurant. André Petrescu, (in another reference to abstract expressionism) he was described as the action painter of crème pies on pg. 143. Verifying he was an artist he referred to a video documenting his recorded attack as being “museum quality”.

    Was it common for actors in the circles you ran with to expect performance artists to come from the visual arts? Or did you expect them to originate from theatre backgrounds?

    • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 7:16 AM #

      Ah! Great discussion CR and Paris.

      Paris mentioned above: “I don’t know how i would define his dark period as post modern. I’m having trouble defining his dark period as anything to be honest.”

      Me: CR how would u define Rothko’s dark period compared to the 1990’s performance art protest?

      • Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 7:01 PM #

        What a difficult question; I will try to spare you an awfully controversial answer. To be honest I may think my answer is a little unfair but I want to see how different motivations are between different creative.

        Many in the art world think these events fairly strangle (or discredit) the Abstract expressionist project. I would be a little more lenient or gentle (it was a very tough time). Please tell me about what you think of these artists when you consider many went out of their way to hide from the complex issues of their era. I took this from an academic web site in California:

        “As we noted earlier, Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture (1961) promoted the values of abstract expressionism and argued against images that directly portrayed social or political messages. Such non-representational art contrasted sharply with the highly pictorial style of socialist realism, and came to be thought of as “more objective” despite its abstraction. Many artists who were politicized by the Vietnam War and other efforts at colonialism rejected Greenberg’s ideology as incapable of expressing their outrage at the military interventions and propaganda campaigns used to justify them.”


          • Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 7:03 PM #


            • Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 7:04 PM #

              So if you read the previous statement it’s kind of hard to take the expressionists seriously in regard to caring about the society they lived in. Also the art world, like so many other cultural worlds sometimes lays it on pretty thick. There was a time when the Rothko Chapel was the Stonehenge of the visual arts. Today now that they use the room for as a concert hall, panel discussion room, and an appetizer & h’orderve refreshment station for public event presentations. Ten steps better than a quasi-spiritual coat check room we might accept people just aren’t as awed as they used to be.

              Eric buying this status symbol just means he’s a willing collector of obtuse relics from the past. There’s a saying that many young people know the price of everything but don’t understand the value of anything. In this regard I completely agree with Paris’ evaluation.

              • Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 7:05 PM #

                Amazingly the protest of the film looks as convincing as many protests we saw at the time. I mentioned these events earlier.

                Cosmopolis: – street riots, giant rats. Fire and

                • Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 7:06 PM #

                  Cosmopolis: Petrescu

                • littlebells August 2, 2012 at 7:20 PM #

                  CR, my head just exploded. In a good way. 🙂

              • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 7:07 PM #

                CR I applaud u!

                U Said: “There’s a saying that many young people know the price of everything but don’t understand the value of anything. In this regard I completely agree with Paris’ evaluation.”

                • Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 7:10 PM #

                  Thanks and hope IMHO I answered your question.

                  • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 7:25 PM #

                    Yep! Perfect! Wonderful and Magnificent!!

  9. Open Book August 2, 2012 at 4:49 PM #


    I loved the fact u chose to focus on Eric’s obsession with Rothko in your article. For me, it was the perfect set up for transitioning into a discussion about Post Modern Art. I will explain what I mean by this later.

    • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 6:58 PM #

      IMO DeLillo shows Eric to be a novice when evaluating artwork. He shows he’s collecting art as a status symbol. He over simplifies the abstract paintings in his collection to keep from connecting to it’s social implications and relevance of its period. IMO DeLillo really highlights Eric’s controlling, subjective and existential tendencies by the paintings he owns and chooses to poses. Yet, the post modern performance art protesters of his day Eric treats their issues as frivolous in the very beginning. In this video Rob really, really demonstrates just how unconcerned Eric is with current social concerns.

      • parisienne August 2, 2012 at 11:56 PM #

        Thank you for so eloquently explaining what i could not up thread.

  10. littlebells August 2, 2012 at 7:16 PM #

    Hi everyone!

    I’m enjoying your discussion. 🙂 the only thing I know about art is if I like it or I don’t. Haha! I’ll be lurking mostly.

    • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 7:23 PM #

      Hi LB-

      LOL! I think if more people used your technique the less likely some art that’s just bull crap would get ignored. Please ask questions!

    • ozzie20 August 2, 2012 at 7:41 PM #

      I think I’ll be joining you in lurking LB. I’m tired and what little I know about art has gone right out of the window, lol!

  11. Open Book August 2, 2012 at 7:19 PM #

    DeLillo mentions the performance art nudes in the street. CR can u elaborate on the reason behind this movement?

    • littlebells August 2, 2012 at 7:22 PM #

      Oh yeah! I remembet when that was really popular. What was that all about anyway?

      • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 7:31 PM #

        CR is the best person to answer this. However, I did find Eric’s eventual acceptance of this contemporary art form interesting. He finally had to loose all his money to allow himself to coexist in his present reality and be vulnerable.

    • Comic Relief August 2, 2012 at 7:29 PM #

      Sorry have to return later; here’s more of Spenser Tunick’s work who surely influenced this part of the story. Don’t click if you are squeamish or don’t like nudity.


      • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 7:37 PM #

        AWESOME! CR this is exactly what I’m talking about. Thank u!

  12. ozzie20 August 2, 2012 at 7:39 PM #

    Hi all!

    Cool article Paris! I’ve just started re-reading the book and have just past this part. I was wondering what Rothko’s paintings looked like and here they are in your article, which is brilliant because I would of forgotten to look online for them, lol!

    • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 7:46 PM #

      Hi Ozzie!

      • ozzie20 August 2, 2012 at 8:05 PM #

        Hi OB! How are you?

        • Open Book August 2, 2012 at 8:13 PM #

          I’m good.

          • ozzie20 August 2, 2012 at 8:44 PM #

            That’s good to hear! 🙂

            I’m loving all the links posted here, so much so that I’m getting caught up in them all, lol!

  13. Open Book August 2, 2012 at 7:46 PM #

    Something to keep in mind when evaluating contemporary art is how well it reflects the current social concerns. Also, just like films visual artist borrow from different genres, which can add another layer to its value, importance and sophistication. Sometimes in an effort to be innovative and stand out artist will use gimmicks to pull more focus on the content. Case in point the pie performance artist in Cosmopolis. The pie is just the gimmick the real content/statement is the person he chooses to assault.

  14. Open Book August 2, 2012 at 8:25 PM #


    U Said: “The problem lies with giving one person to much power. Think Jim Jones, David Koresh. People that follow these types of people either cannot think for themselves or are doing so out of pure fear.”

    Me: Do u think Eric is seeking advice from Benno out of fear or his inability to think for himself?

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