The Paralysing Boredom of Perfect Symmetry

In 1955 Thomas B Hess said this in reference to recent work by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko:

“Rothko approaches the classical, Renaissance problem of achieving the elemental serenity of symmetry in a way that avoids the paralysing boredom that perfect symmetry aspires to.”1

Esinam_ 170
Mark Rothko. Black in Deep Red / 1957.

I enjoy imagining an analogy between this reference to Rothko’s art and the way I read, or understand, architecture.

There is something in the geometric and material arrangement of these paintings which becomes dynamic. The sense I had standing in the Rothko room at the Tate Modern in London was that there was an unexpected bustling vibrancy on the surface of the canvas.

The same thing happens in great buildings – where tension and drama in the relationships of geometry, form, material, light and shadow can create an incredible energy – giving architecture a sense of dynamism which undermines the notion of buildings as inert things.

I suppose a painting, just like a building, is a fundamentally static thing; in that form, shape, materiality, colour etc are all fixed.  But modern (or Modernist) agendas create an opportunity to be liberated from the “perfect symmetry” of Classicism or Neo-Classicism; while creating the calm, elegant beauty which that symmetry implies.

That sense of sophisticated, but subtle drama can enrich paintings, or buildings, with a more active energy; with life.


1. Thomas B Hess, Art News, Summer 1955.

Esinam_ 170
Mark Rothko. Green, Red, and Blue / 1953.
Esinam_ 170
Mark Rothko. Light Red Over Black / 1957.
Esinam_ 170
Mark Rothko. Untitled #17 / 1947.

18 thoughts on “The Paralysing Boredom of Perfect Symmetry”

  1. Interesting thoughts. I’ve always been intrigued by Rothko’s work–it’s so simplistic at first glance, yet there’s *something* interesting there, and perhaps it’s exactly what you’ve mentioned: geometric lines teasing the line of the dynamic, and achieving static and vibrancy all at once. Thanks for this… so much to chew on!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s