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Writing on Rothko

In response to:

The Agonies of Success from the December 2, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

In his otherwise enlightening and lucid review of E.B. Breslin’s book, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Jack Flam perpetuates a small but significant error regarding Rothko’s 1961 one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art: that show was neither the first retrospective conferred by the museum on an Abstract Expressionist nor the first museum-sponsored show of Rothko’s work. There were two other “mid-career” retrospectives given Abstract Expressionists earlier at the museum: Jackson Pollock, in 1956, and David Smith, in 1958 (both of which I organized, as then staff curator of painting). I also assembled a small show of Rothko’s current work for the 1958 Venice Biennale, which the artist characteristically insisted on selecting, installing and lighting himself; the Museum of Modern Art was at the time in charge of the American pavillion. While none of these shows was as extensive as Rothko’s 1961 MOMA show, they definitely had their impact in breaking down barriers between the New York avant-garde artists and a museum establishment whose bias against new contemporary art can scarcely be imagined today when art novelties have become the style of fashion and dominate the marketplace.

Another oversight, or omission in the book, as I can gather from the review, since I have not yet read the book, is the failure to link Rothko’s ambivalence about showing publicly to the behavior of an acknowledged role model, the West Coast painter, Clyfford Still. Still was recognized as an important leader, artistically, and became the oppositional spokesman for the group of so-called “color field” painters, active in the early fifties; the group included Rothko, Barnett Newman and, for a time, Ad Reinhardt. I think it can be established that all were influenced directly in their public attitudes and indirectly in their art expressions by Still’s uncompromising moral stance, prophetic posturing and cultural extremism. As early as 1946 Rothko wrote an introduction for Still’s first New York one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, clearly in the spirit of a disciple, referring to the West Coast painter as the leader of a new group of abstract/imagist artists and “mythmakers,” and in 1949 and 1950 Still was influential in getting Rothko and Reinhardt teaching assignments at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, where New York color field painting anomalously had its genesis.

Still’s molten verbal rhetoric mixed themes of alienation with a messianic vision that anticipated the aggrieved tone and visionary content of Rothko’s utterance, and he, too, devised an image of the ideal artist as a Nietzschian superman seeking epic self-realization in ponderously romantic metaphors of the sublime as he traversed the American cultural wasteland:

It was a journey that one must make, walking straight and alone…. Until one had crossed the darkened and wasted valleys and come at last into clear air and could stand on a high and limitless plain. Imagination, no longer fettered by the law of fear, became as one with Vision. And the Act, intrinsic and absolute, was its meaning, and the bearer of its passion.1

Sam Hunter
Emeritus Professor
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

Jack Flam replies:

James Breslin clearly has very different ideas from my own about what constitutes good writing, or repetition, or honest discussion. The first of the two passages that he claims are not repetitive appears on page 376: “When, on his first night out sailing from New York to Naples in June 1959, Rothko wandered into the tourist-class bar looking for someone to talk with, he found John Fischer….” On page 398, after some twenty-two pages of discussion about the Seagram commission and various other aspects of Rothko’s life, the film is rewound and we are back on shipboard again: “On June 15, 1958 [sic], Mark, Mell, and Kate Rothko sailed, tourist class, on the USS Independence, arriving in Naples seven days later. ‘After dinner on the first night out of New York,’ Rothko, with no city streets to prowl, ‘wandered into the tourist-class bar, looking for someone to talk to’ and found John Fischer.” To make this even more tedious, on page 397 (twenty-one pages after Rothko first walked into the ship’s bar) there is a kind of intermezzo between these two redundant descriptions of that first night out, in which we are told: “In May of 1959 Mark and Mell Rothko were preparing to leave New York for their second trip to Europe.”

No, I wasn’t daydreaming when I read Breslin’s book; though I will confess that I was occasionally tempted to nod off as I made my way through it. For the passages cited above are fairly typical of the way it is written.

But since Breslin is apparently unable to conceive that his book may be flawed, he concludes that it is the reviewer who must be. He attempts to defend himself by trying to impugn my motives and my integrity before he desperately tries to argue away my criticisms of specific points.

I believe I was quite scrupulous about crediting Breslin for the information that I drew from his book, though I don’t have the impression that I got many “ideas” from it. The term “one-man show” is generally reserved for shows for living artists. Whether the word “living” was needed in this context is a matter of judgment. In any case, my information about whether any other Abstract Expressionist painters had been given one-man shows came from the Museum of Modern Art, whom I called to verify this, and not from Breslin’s book. The more important point here is that Breslin—a master of the beside-the-point in his letter as well as in his book—tries to use this purported “slippage” to undermine my credibility. In fact, he seems unable to believe that I knew anything at all about Rothko before I read his book.

Breslin is correct on two points. As he states in his letter, only eight of the nine paintings were given to the Tate in 1969, and he is of course right when he says that his critical study of William Carlos Williams is not a biography. I can only remark that a man who gives two different years for the same event, as above, ought to be capable of understanding that even well-intentioned people make mistakes.

I did not write that Bernard Reis was an “employee” of the Marlborough Gallery but that he was “in Marlborough’s employ”; that is an accurate statement, in that Reis was the gallery’s accountant and worked on its behalf. I am surprised that Breslin, an English professor, does not understand the distinction. With regard to the early Rothko watercolor, Breslin’s response is irrelevant. Who cares whether other writers have pointed out its similarity to John Marin’s watercolors? The point is that Breslin did not mention the connection and apparently still does not understand that Rothko was working here in a conventional way whose possibilities were largely determined by another artist’s pictorial language; hence Breslin’s ponderous attempt to get at the inner workings of Rothko’s mind through an analysis of the picture is really quite pointless.

Breslin’s own account of what he was trying to accomplish in his analysis of Number 10, 1950 not only confirms that I did not distort his position, but suggests that I may have given him credit for being more subtle than he is.

My footnote made it clear that Breslin’s afterword also discusses current theory about biography. What I objected to was Breslin’s inappropriate and ineffectual attempts at low comedy and self-dramatization. I found them rather tasteless when I first read his book, and I still find them so. I am surprised to learn that Breslin considers this “country club” language, whatever that is supposed to be. Would he have preferred me instead to have characterized this part of his book as embarrassing?

Sam Hunter’s informative letter points up how slippery the notion of “first” can be. In my article, I referred to Rothko’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art as “the first one-man show given by the museum to an Abstract Expressionist painter.” As we have seen, this assumes a narrow interpretation of “one-man show.” Breslin, on the other hand, says (p. 4) that Rothko was “the first living member of his generation to have a one-man show at the museum.” This is clearly wrong, since as Hunter points out, the sculptor David Smith had a one-man show at the museum, while he was still very much alive, almost four years earlier than Rothko (the Smith show actually took place in the autumn of 1957, not 1958). Moreover, the Smith exhibition was a substantial one that included some thirty-four sculptures, ranging in date from 1936 to 1957, along with six works on paper. The more important point raised by Hunter’s letter is that it was not Rothko who first broke down the barrier between the museum and the American avant-garde. In fairness to Breslin, however it should be said that his book treats Rothko’s relationship with Clyfford Still and the other artists in great detail.

  1. 1

    Cited in Irving Sandler’s, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (1970), p. 170.

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