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Writing on Rothko

In response to:

The Agonies of Success from the December 2, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

Jack Flam’s review of my Mark Rothko, A Biography provides a classic example of how not to review a biography [NYR, December 2, 1993]. Begin by providing your reader with what appear to be your own reflections about the biographical subject. Make some acknowledged use of the book; make some unacknowledged use of the book. Draw on its quotations as if they were your own, as if you had something to say about them that hadn’t already been said. Occasionally use its language. Then, having used the book under review to establish your. Authority, turn around and condescend to or dismiss the book (or, ideally, do both).

In short, very little, if anything, of what Flam writes about Rothko in his essay—no quotation from or about Rothko, no fact about his life, no idea about Rothko or his work—does not appear in my book.

Of course, as conducted by Flam, the process of transmission from my text to his involves some slippage—a fact that undermines his authority. My point that Rothko was the first living Abstract Expressionist to have a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art slides into Flam’s wrong assertion that Rothko was the first Abstract Expressionist to have such a show. (Prior to Rothko, Jackson Pollock had received such an exhibit, but after his death.) I write that Rothko gave one of his Seagram murals to the Tate Gallery in 1967 and eight more in 1969; Flam has Rothko giving all nine in 1969.

Sometimes Flam simply mis-states the facts. He writes that Rothko’s February 1969 contract had been “negotiated by Bernard Reis with the Marlborough gallery (or rather for the gallery, since Reis was also in Marlborough’s employ).” I never thought I’d find myself defending Bernard Reis, but Flam has got it wrong: Reis did not work for Marlborough until 1970, after Rothko’s death. My book on William Carlos Williams, described by Flam as “a biography,” is actually a book of literary criticism.

These are matters of detail, but one expects more from a contributor to the Review identified as Distinguished Professor of Art History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

When, at the end of his review, Flam turns to deliver judgment on my book, he first condescends to me: I’m the naive English Professor who gives “too much credence” to theories of Rothko with which Flam happens to disagree. He praises my openness to the “deliberately ambiguous paintings” of Rothko, then becomes the art historical cop who alleges a series of crimes he himself has fabricated.

Flam complains, for instance, that my “lack of familiarity with other works of art” leads to “a rather more complicated analysis” than is merited by an early Rothko watercolor which Flam declares to be simply derivative of John Marin. When I wrote my book, the resemblance between the Rothko work and Marin (among others) had already been noted by Anna Chave in her Mark Rothko, Subjects in Abstraction. As a biographer, I was interested in the watercolor because I was able to identify its site in the Portland hills, where Rothko spent a lot of time as a boy and young man—and I wanted to see if the work could tell us something about Rothko’s feeling for a landscape with which he was long familiar and which he later described as possessing a “monumental emptiness” suggestive of his later paintings. Flam simply wishes to place the work on the art historical map and close discussion. That there might be room for both kinds of talk about the work is not an option available to him.

Flam proceeds to deride some of my interpretations as “free associations.” “Breslin unconvincingly relates Number 10, 1950 to Rothko’s memory of being constricted by swaddling clothes as an infant,” he writes. In discussing Number 10, 1950, I mention Rothko’s swaddling clothes story not in order to relate it to the painting, but in order to distinguish between the sense of freedom and movement in the painting and the feeling of constriction that can be found in Rothko’s domestic interiors of the 1930s—or in the swaddling clothes story. Rothko was a claustrophobic, and my argument about his signature paintings as attempts to create a space of freedom is developed throughout the book. One can, of course, disagree with it; instead, Flam distorts my point—in order to dismiss the distortion, by fiat.

Flam also cites two examples of repetition he finds in the book. Both of them, too, are bogus. He objects that two virtually identical statements about Rothko’s darkening palette of the late 1950s appear on consecutive pages. I begin a paragraph with the sentence, “But beginning in 1957 his paintings grew darker, a trend that would continue, though with many exceptions, until his death.” I then devote two paragraphs to discussion of one of these dark paintings; the last sentence of the second paragraph reads, “In 1957, his pictures grew darker—more somber, more inward and self-absorbed, more difficult, and more demanding.” I repeated the language from the first sentence not because I’m an idiot who can’t remember from one page to the next what I’ve written, but as a lead into an elaboration of what the darker palette means, based on the painting I’ve just examined.

Rothko’s 1959 voyage to Europe, during which he discussed the Four Seasons murals, is first summarized and then repeated at length some twenty-two pages later,” Flam scolds. In my chapter on the Four Seasons murals, while discussing the debated issue of what kind of room Rothko thought he was creating the murals for, I quote several remarks Rothko made on the subject during a shipboard conversation with John Fischer. Twenty-two pages later, at the beginning of a section describing Rothko’s 1959 travels in Europe, I quote several remarks Fischer made characterizing Rothko on the basis of that conversation. There is no repetition between the two passages.

Was I free associating in front of Rothko’s paintings—or was Flam day-dreaming when he read my book?

In a footnote aside, Flam denounces my afterword as “a self-dramatizing account of the potential dangers involved in research travel.” My afterword begins with a series of humorous anecdotes, some of which do relate some of the actual dangers involved in my research travel; the tone becomes more serious as I begin to talk about the autobiographical impulse that is commonly said to be part of biography, and I go on to narrate the beginnings of my involvement with Rothko; a brief concluding section (that Flam does allude to) responds to an essay that questions the possibility of biography in general and of Rothko biography in particular. One could debate the inclusion of the afterword; one could even debate it without falling into the language of the country club (“rather tasteless”); but to call it an account of “the potential dangers in research travel” is a ridiculous reduction of its contents.

Of course, Flam’s review does demonstrate one of the real dangers of biographical research: someone with power will treat the results without care or openness.

James E.B. Breslin
Department of English
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, California

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