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The Artist in Search of Himself

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 wrote to The New York Times, published on June 13, 1943, which was cosigned by his then close friend Leon Gottlieb, and which Barnett Newman had a hand in editing. Like the Italian Manifesto of Futurist Painting (1910), this statement in favor of “large shapes” and “flat forms” was a blueprint for the future rather than a justification for works already in existence.2 One of Rothko’s most trenchant pronouncements, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” appeared in Possibilities i (Winter 1947/1948), a maga- zine that had only one issue but that nevertheless remains a cardinal document. Edited by Robert Motherwell, Pierre Chareau, Harold Rosenberg, and John Cage, the publication aimed to disengage the new, emergent American art form from its Surrealist tendencies. Surrealism has been viewed by many thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, as the last great outburst of Romanticism. In his short essay Rothko casts his net much further back in time. He writes,

Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our drama. When they were abandoned as untenable superstitions, art sank into melancholy.

The Surrealists were certainly not keen on gods, although they were quite good at monsters; but melancholy implies lethargy, and the movement had been constantly on the move.

Later in life Rothko regretted that he had ever written or spoken about his art at all. In The Artist’s Reality he says not a word about his own work or that of his American contemporaries, and speaks only very indirectly about the position of American artists at the time; and therein lies the book’s greatest disappointment. Christopher Rothko has edited the book intelligently so that it has basically two parts. The first investigates the painter’s means or vocabulary: composition, form, space, and, to a lesser extent, color. The second is an account of Rothko’s search for what might be described as a “modern myth” that would indicate to him a direction he must follow and that would validate events to come.

Rothko was extremely well read. He had won a scholarship to Yale and had subsequently lost it; his performance as a student had faltered because he felt the quality of the teaching was not sufficiently demanding. The newly published book in fact challenges the view that, of all the abstract expressionists, Barnett Newman was the true intellectual, even though Rothko’s turn of mind could not have been more different from that of his then colleague. Their relations ultimately deteriorated. Newman enjoyed controversy and his writing is confrontational, self-confident, and at times even somewhat jaunty. By contrast Rothko’s prose is measured, occasionally somewhat ponderous, and even slightly academic. But his learning was great. In The Artist’s Reality Aristotle, Socrates, and above all Plato find a place, as does Nietzsche, although when we consider that he was the writer who was to most influence Rothko’s thought, he doesn’t appear as dominant as one might expect despite Rothko’s imminent deep involvement with Greek tragedy.

Rothko probably first encountered Nietzsche while still an undergraduate at Yale. The Birth of Tragedy was to haunt him throughout his life. In writing about it while he was at work on the Houston (or de Menil) Chapel in 1965–1967, he discusses form as being a matter “of measure, of how much can be revealed before reality becomes unendurable.” But Rothko was also cognizant of a great deal of writing about art history from Vasari onward, and he refers to many artists. In two sentences he manages to get in Andrea del Sarto (courtesy of Robert Browning’s poem on the artist, one of the most beautiful and accessible of all Browning’s Italian-based pieces), as well as Leonardo, Giotto, Goya, Correggio, and even Sargent (whom he pans for excessive facility):

We all know how little skill avails, how ineffective are its artifices in filling the lack of true artistic motivation. His “less is more,” is Robert Browning’s famous evaluation of this problem in comparing the imperfections of Raphael’s art to the impeccability of Del Sarto’s. “I should rather say that it will be more difficult to improve the mind of the master who makes such mistakes than to repair the work he has spoilt,” Leonardo wrote. Neither Giotto nor Goya exhibited half the skill of Correggio or Sargent, either in the complexity of their undertakings or the apparent virtuosity of execution.

Rothko’s method of exposition is always to see the two sides of any argument or subject under discussion. This leads to a certain monotony of tone, although with a picture in our own minds of his development as a painter, both before and after writing this book, we can for the most part see on which side of the fence his sympathies lie. He was most deeply drawn to art that combines quiet tranquillity with profundity. Although Rothko had renounced his Jewish faith while still virtually a child, his Russian Jewish background is essential to understanding his art; and of his predecessors in abstract art, a comparison with Kazimir Malevich is the most telling. Rothko was certainly not a saintly figure but there was more than a streak of mysticism to his makeup. It is in a sense ironic that in secular-minded Europe at least he has become the archetypal American artist of his age, even more so than Pollock or de Kooning.3 But because of his evenhandedness he flattens the tone of his arguments. This is true, for example of his treatment of Plato: he appreciates Plato’s historical position, but because he is concerned to make him relevant to modern art—“Our notions of beauty today are essentially Platonic”—which he sees as individualistic rather than collective, he clouds up the clarity of Plato’s thought.

Of the earlier, more technical sections of the book, the most salient chapter in its comments on painting is the one entitled simply “Space.” This might at first seem strange in view of the emphasis that the Abstract Expressionists came to place on the flatness of the picture surface. A section of the famous letter to The New York Times, written only a year or two after the composition of this essay, reads, “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because there it has the impact of the unequivocal. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” Rothko’s perception of space is basically inspired by Bernard Berenson’s concept of tactile space, formulated in his Italian Painters of the Renaissance (originally published as four long, virtually book-length essays between 1894 and 1907). Berenson argued that the painter’s “first business” was to “rouse the tactile sense, for I must have the illusion of being able to touch a figure.” He writes:

Giotto’s paintings…have not only as much power of appealing to the tactile imagination as is possessed by the objects represented—human figures in particular—but actually more; with the necessary result that to his contemporaries they conveyed a keener sense of reality, of life-likeness than the objects themselves!

Berenson thus sees Giotto as a prophet of the Renaissance and a precursor of the rediscovery of the linear perspective of classical antiquity. Rothko characteristically plays off Berenson’s views against those of a now-forgotten figure he names simply Mr. Blashfield,4 who believes Giotto’s figures are not sufficiently lifelike and finds it difficult to fit them into their still medievalizing backgrounds. “Mr. Berenson seeks the reality of tactility, while Mr. Blashfield seeks the reality of appearance.” Rothko here is clearly backing Berenson.

More revealing still for an understanding of Rothko’s future ambitions are the passages in which he contrasts the flatness of Egyptian painting with the frescoes of Giotto. He sees Egyptian painting as being completely on the horizontal, although he acknowledges there are implications of volume in the way in which figures overlap and their heads are placed at an angle to their bodies. The flat backgrounds against which they stand define the figures’ outlines and thus, by implication at least, the subject matter and the emptiness behind them are confounded. In Giotto, by contrast, figures whether depicted out of doors or indoors are given just enough space in which to exist, to breathe. (Somewhat oddly Rothko calls this space “mucous.”)

  1. 1

    Marcus Rothkowitz did not legally change his name to Mark Rothko until 1959, but he was already signing his name as we now know it in 1945.

  2. 2

    Although the letter takes the form of a manifesto, it was written in reply to the bafflement expressed over the artists’ work by the critic Edward Allen Jewell. Nevertheless the letter looks forward and casts little light on Rothko’s current production.

  3. 3

    David Rosand in his The Invention of Painting in America (Columbia University Press, 2004) uses an image of Rothko’s Number 10 of 1950 as his frontispiece. To my knowledge there have been few mystics among American artists and writers. Albert Pinkham Ryder may be an exception, and, closer to us in time, the name Agnes Martin comes to mind.

  4. 4

    I am grateful to Christopher Rothko and David Anfam for helping me track down the Blashfields. Italian Cities by Edwin Nowland Blashfield and Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield was published in 1903 (Charles Scribner & Sons).

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