In his final year of life, Steve Jobs was inspired by the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, famous for his “multiform” paintings that featured broad fields of complementary colors and a spiritual energy.
It is perhaps not surprising that Jobs, the consummate creator, would turn to the work of Rothko, for the two have much in common despite their different areas of expertise.
Mona Simpson, Jobs’s sister, noted his affinity for Rothko in his eulogy, published in the New York Times: “In the last year of his life, he studied a book of paintings by Mark Rothko, an artist he hadn’t known about before, thinking of what could inspire people on the walls of a future Apple campus.”
Obituaries have noted Jobs’s spirituality, one reason he would be drawn to Rothko. The artist considered his work to be spiritual, and created the Rothko Chapel in Houston as a place for silent, non-denominational contemplation. The chapel was also a way for Rothko to fulfill his perpetual desire to control the space where his art was exhibited.
Rothko, like Jobs, could be a bit of a micromanager. The book ”Mark Rothko” reports that the artist recommended a viewing distance of 18 inches for his paintings, which put the edges of the painting beyond one’s peripheral vision. Standing close also increased the luminosity of the paintings, and in his memos to galleries, Rothko was fastidious about his work being presented in exactly the right light.
But the primary reason that Jobs and Rothko might have seen eye-to-eye can be explained by his 1943 manifesto on art: “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought... We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” The simple expression of the complex though can be seen throughout Jobs’s products. With flat touch-screens, rounded corners and ever-decreasing size, Jobs’s devices belie their complicated interiors.
Though Rothko’s paintings are fields of color, they’re about his spiritual exploration. Rothko‘s manifesto could be summed up by the two words of Apple’s famous advertising campaign: “Think different.”
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