The publication of an ambitious, hitherto unknown manuscript by one of the greatest painters of his age can only be a cause for celebration, although in the case of Mark Rothko’s The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art the celebration can only be muted, and qualified. As early as 1936 Milton Avery, who was close to Rothko at the time, wrote to a mutual friend, “to Marcus’ last night his book is coming along fine, sounds pretty good to me.”1 This was known as the “scribble book,” a rough treatise for a manual on teaching children’s art; it is not the book under review, although the two works may be distantly connected. In his otherwise admirable introduction to The Artist’s Reality Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son, makes no mention of the teaching manual. He dates the newly published text, convincingly, and partly on documentary evidence, to 1940–1941. Rothko’s eventual heirs, his two children, were aware of the existence of his writing, but after his suicide in 1970 and the unpleasant legal wrangles over the estate which followed it, involving the contents of his studio, the manuscript was put aside with other papers and only rediscovered relatively recently by a research assistant, Marion Kahan.
Before his death, Rothko had set up a foundation for his work, to be administered by a group of his friends, working with the Marlborough Gallery. The terms of the will were contested, and the court found in favor of his children. They received a large share of the paintings. Through the foundation many more were eventually passed on to the National Gallery in Washington which, as a result, became a major center for Rothko studies.
The Artist’s Reality presents various problems. It was unfinished and fragmentary: there were chapter headings but these were not put in any order. The text was edited by Christopher Rothko, who has done an excellent job of it. What we are presented with is Rothko’s attempt to formulate for himself an aesthetic, a philosophy of art, and thus to try to see a way forward for his own work.
The years 1940–1941 were in many ways a time of crisis for Rothko. His first marriage was deteriorating rapidly. He had recently been dismissed by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and he was depressed by the world situation. He had as yet received very little recognition as an artist and his outlets for exhibiting were drying up. During 1940–1941 his production declined, as one can see by consulting the rightly much-lauded catalogue raisonné by David Anfam published in 1988. For Rothko it was a period of transition. The unresolved painting Untitled (1941–1942) illustrated in the book, for example, shows a large head or mask (possibly a classic tragic mask) surrounded by an untidy tangle of hands and limbs encased by fragments of classical architecture and a swirl of drapery.
Rothko’s later pronouncements and occasional statements are considered and incisive. The most historically important of these is undoubtedly the letter that he…
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