The life of Mark Rothko was filled with unhappiness and ended in tragedy. Born in 1903 and generally acknowledged to be one of the most important Abstract Expressionist painters, he suffered decades of disappointment and neglect, and endured painful personal losses and crushing poverty before he finally achieved recognition. His work matured slowly, and it was not until 1949, when he was forty-six years old, that he developed the characteristic format and technique of the paintings that would establish his reputation—large, softedged rectangular fields of color applied in thin translucent washes so as to achieve a luminous, incandescent effect. Material success was even slower in coming, and Rothko’s work brought little money until the late 1950s. And then, almost overnight, his situation changed drastically: his biggest problems were no longer poverty and obscurity but dealing with wealth and fame.
Rothko spent his last decade in a nearly constant state of anxiety and depression. His paintings became darker and more melancholy, lyrical yellows and reds giving way to deep maroons, grays, and blacks. Always a self-absorbed and introverted man, Rothko became more and more estranged from the world around him—almost as if he were living within the dense obscurity of one of his own somber paintings. As if to fill some deep emptiness, he ate and drank compulsively. His only physical pleasures, a friend noted, were supplied by food, alcohol, and tobacco.
Then, in 1970, at the height of his success, he committed suicide by taking barbiturates and slashing his arms with a razor blade. After his death, the legal battle over his estate culminated in a sensational trial, in which Rothko’s close friend, accountant, and adviser Bernard Reis was found to have betrayed the trust of the artist and his heirs and to have diverted to the Marlborough gallery paintings that should have gone to a foundation Rothko had established.
The tragedy of the last part of Rothko’s life, moreover, has extended to his paintings, which seem to have inherited some of their creator’s bad luck. It is a bitter irony that although Rothko was obsessive about protecting the physical integrity of his works and trying to control the conditions under which they would be seen, a number of them have been severely compromised by his use of poor materials and by the inadequate care of those who owned them.1 The famous murals he painted for the chapel built by the Menil family in Houston have been dulled by light and otherwise aged badly; those he did for Harvard University have been ruined by fading and neglect; and a number of his other works have suffered similar deterioration and damage.
Rothko’s career, moreover, can be seen as representative of many of the conflicts that affected the avantgarde American artists of the 1940s—perhaps the last generation that was able to consider being an artist a heroic undertaking without feeling self-conscious about it. Not the least of these conflicts had to do with the tension those artists felt between the lofty spirituality of their endeavor and the commercialism that increasingly surrounded the display and sale of what they produced. They were caught in a bind that seemed impossible to escape: while they resented the influence of the market, they also felt that the most reliable standard for judging the validity of their work was how much people were willing to pay for it. Of all his contemporaries, Rothko probably suffered most from this dilemma, which in the last years of his life became a source of despair.
In a prefatory chapter to his otherwise chronological narrative, James E. B. Breslin gives brief accounts of two symptomatic events that occurred at the height of the artist’s career: his commission in 1958 to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building, and his 1961 retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Breslin’s account of the Museum of Modern Art retrospective brings together many of the conflicts that Rothko struggled with throughout his life. Although he usually spoke about the art establishment with the mistrust and disdain of the perpetual outsider, Rothko had campaigned vigorously to have the exhibition, the first one-man show given by the museum to an Abstract Expressionist painter. But when it finally opened, after several delays, Rothko was fearful that it would present him in a bad light. He was already deeply troubled and divided, and the exhibition split him still further. While the show was on, he was alternately elated and disturbed by public response to it, which both affirmed his preeminent position among abstract artists and made him fear that he had sold out to everything he hated about the art world. According to the poet Stanley Kunitz, Rothko considered the exhibition “to a degree an act of self-betrayal because his caring so much about this show negated all that he’d been saying about the museum world.” But despite Rothko’s misgivings, just before the exhibition was about to close he tried to have it extended, for he could not bear to have his public triumph end. The exhibition stirred up deep self-doubts. As Breslin remarks, Rothko’s pictures, which during the twenty years or so before the show had undergone an extreme reduction in form, had in a sense come “dangerously close to nothing.”
This assessment is very much to the point. I remember quite vividly my own reactions to that show and the passion with which it was discussed at the time. There was indeed a sense that Rothko had so reduced painting to its most basic elements that it seemed to be on the verge of disappearing altogether, of becoming something else. His large, blurry rectangles of color demanded a substantial amount of patience and good will from the viewer. For unlike the works of Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, or Jackson Pollock, Rothko’s paintings contained no apparent evidence of drawing or design and were virtually devoid of the kinds of internal incidents that were supposed to make paintings interesting—or, in the jargon of the day, “plastic.” His highly concentrated painting entailed not only a new formal language and a new approach to subject matter, but also a new approach to looking at pictures.
Rothko’s paintings were meant to slow down the process of viewing and create a charged physical ambiance around themselves that could actually vibrate within the beholder, like music. When you looked at them, you were also virtually forced to look beyond them. You were urged to give yourself over to some sort of mystical experience, to be enveloped in a contemplative trance in which the paint surface seemed to throb with a kind of metaphysical energy. Rothko, who expressed great admiration for Fra Angelico’s frescoes at the Monastery of San Marco in Florence, considered his own paintings as emanations of the sacred. “The struggle is beyond painting, not with painting,” he told a painter friend, speaking of the iconic force that he felt to be the most important quality in his works.
Some remained unaffected by this claim but even those who were enthusiastic about abstract art were aware that Rothko’s paintings presented a very particular kind of challenge. This had to do not only with how their meaning might be approached, but also with whether such amorphous and apparently simple imagery could actually be spoken of as having any meaning at all.
On the evidence of Breslin’s book, Rothko appears to have been keenly aware of the doubts about his work. At five o’clock in the morning after the opening reception for his show at the Museum of Modern Art, he is reported to have shown up at a friend’s apartment in despair and declared that his entire enterprise as an artist amounted to “nothing.” While the show was on view, he haunted the museum’s galleries, sometimes striking up conversations with strangers, trying to persuade and convince the skeptical, as if seeking his own affirmation about his work. And after the exhibition closed, he never again allowed a one-man show of his work to take place in New York, partly for fear of ridicule.
Rothko’s desire to create abstract, self-contained imagery that repudiated the description of the visible world was shared by many other American artists of his generation, who saw painting as a philosophical expression rather than as a way of representing what things looked like, and who were interested in what Rothko characterized as “tragic and timeless” subjects. As early as 1948 Rothko had said that “the most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees. Philosophic or esoteric thought, for example.”
In this undertaking Rothko and his colleagues were following a pattern that had been established earlier in the century by artists like Mondrian and Brancusi, for whom the evolution from representation to abstraction was conceived as a kind of paring down process. The artist started with his experience of the physical world and than gradually developed a way of translating that experience into a language of highly condensed, abstract forms. The gradual evolution of Mondrian’s painting, from his early naturalistic landscapes to his stark rectilinear compositions of the 1930s, was seen as a model of that process.
Rothko himself had started as a representational painter and throughout most of the 1930s he depicted landscapes and other scenes from everyday life, though in an increasingly stylized way, drawing on the example of painters such as Milton Avery. During the early 1940s, like many of his colleagues, he was deeply affected by Surrealism and developed a semi-abstract pictographic style that was meant to evoke universal, mythic themes. He then gradually simplified the forms in his paintings and by 1947 had renounced the last vestiges of representation in favor of floating, irregularly shaped abstract forms that soon coalesced into the austere rectangles of his mature works.
An artist working in this way sought not only a means of “abstract expression,” but also imagery that was unequivocally and immediately recognizable as his own. He searched not so much for an individual style as for a distinctively personal “image” or format. When in 1949 Rothko found such a signature image in his large, superposed rectangular fields of color, he had the basic format that he would use for the rest of his life. The notion of “a Rothko” as a recognizable category of visual experience had come into existence.
As Rothko worked subtle variations on his strictly delimited range of imagery, he felt that his pictures must be seen as parts of a series. During the last two decades of his life he became increasingly insistent on having clusters of his works shown together (he was reluctant to participate in large group shows or in exhibitions where he had no say about placement). He believed that pictures like his create their own world, which is best seen on its own terms. In order to sustain the validity of that world to maximum effect, more than one painting was needed. But at the same time, seeing too many works together, or having them poorly positioned, could harm the total effect he wanted to create. As Rothko’s paintings became more and more rarefied, the decisions that went into the interrelated processes of making them, showing them, and selling them became more and more complicated.
The set of mural panels planned for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building is an excellent example of this complexity. As Breslin points out, Rothko was offered this lucrative and prestigious commission on the advice of Philip Johnson, who had been told by no less an authority than Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, that Rothko was “the greatest living painter for this kind of project.” The Four Seasons commission not only affirmed Rothko’s position as one of the major artists of his generation; it also gave him an opportunity to create an ensemble of paintings for a controlled environment, which he felt was so important for the proper appreciation of his art, and he worked on the paintings with feverish intensity.
But at the same time, he was uneasy about painting murals for what he called “a place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off.” According to one account, he said that he had accepted the commission “with strictly malicious intentions,” declaring that “I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.” Nor did he stop there. He also wanted the paintings to make the diners “feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.”
Rothko struggled with the mural panels for over two years, creating three sets of large, darkly colored canvases (some forty works in all) before the restaurant opened. Then, still uncertain about whether he wanted to deliver any of the paintings he had done, he decided to go to the Four Seasons with his wife and see what it was like to have a meal there. This experience threw him into a rage. “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine,” he said. He gave back the cash advance.2
But at the same time that Rothko was anxious about having his works treated as mere decorations, or as commodities, rather than appreciated for their spiritual qualities, he could not resist being impressed by his increased stature in the world of commerce. Although he had a horror of people saying that they wanted to own “a Rothko,” as if part of his own soul had been made into a negotiable commodity, he was proud of the rapidly rising prices paid for his pictures, and he used his growing prestige to impose his demands about how his pictures would be displayed. When in February 1969 he signed a million dollar contract negotiated by Bernard Reis with the Marlborough gallery (or rather for the gallery, since Reis was also in Marlborough’s employ), Rothko was elated. With an uncharacteristic display of bravura, he described the agreement as “the greatest contract ever signed by a living artist.”
Only a year later, on the eve of a scheduled visit during which a dealer from Marlborough would choose another large group of Rothko’s paintings from the warehouse where he kept them, he killed himself.3
In his very long, extensively researched and detailed book, James Breslin, a professor of English at Berkeley, sets out to show how the deep conflicts of Rothko’s later life “had their origins in the life of Marcus Rothkowitz, born in Dvinsk, Russia, a despised Jew in the infamous Settlement of Pale [sic], in the first years of the twentieth century.” Breslin (who, as can be seen, sometimes gets carried away by his own rhetoric) tells us that his work on this book began with his love for Rothko’s paintings; but he also displays considerable sympathy for the man and is acutely aware of how Rothko’s troubled and divided self both affected his art and undermined his life.
Rothko did not come to America until he was ten years old, and Breslin pays particular attention to Rothko’s sense of being a displaced person throughout his life. Unlike his older brothers, who had been so anxious to leave behind everything that smacked of the old country that they threw overboard the provisions that their mother had packed for their transatlantic voyage, Rothko remained firmly tied to Russia, at least in his imagination. He was never, as he later told a friend, “able to forgive this transplantation to a land where he never felt entirely at home.”4 While his brothers quickly adopted American values and had conventional careers, Breslin remarks that “Rothko resisted such assimilation, as if he wished to preserve what he had left, keeping it silently alive inside him.”
Rothko’s father died only six months after young Marcus arrived in Portland, Oregon, leaving a deep sense of loss and betrayal that Rothko was never able to shake. The family was always short of money, and during Rothko’s adolescence in Portland, and later during the two unhappy years he spent as a scholarship student at Yale, he found himself treated as the poor relation of his more prosperous uncles and cousins. This experience, Breslin argues, had lasting effects. Throughout his life, Rothko struggled with his rage at the superficiality and philistinism of the well-to-do bourgeoisie and with his equally strong need to be accepted, and even praised by, the very people whose values he despised.
For most of the next thirty years Rothko was barely able to earn enough to live on. He refused to compromise his principles, even at great personal cost. He saw himself as the victim of other peoples’ greed and egotism, and he constantly quarreled with those around him: friends, colleagues, critics, loved ones. And as Breslin repeatedly reminds us, Rothko’s attitudes about money were always contradictory: he tried to act as if he didn’t care about it, but in fact he was very susceptible to it. According to Breslin, Rothko’s first marriage fell apart not only because of his inability to tolerate what he saw as his wife’s materialism, but also because he felt humiliated by the financial success of the business she had started in order to help support him.
Breslin, the author of a biography of William Carlos Williams, stresses the relations between Rothko’s life and work, analyzing several key paintings at length. Perhaps because of his understanding of modern poetry, he is rather more open than some art historians to the ambiguities of modern painting, and considers different interpretations of Rothko’s work. While he might give too much credence to theories about “buried” traditional subjects, such as Pietàs, that have been discerned by some in the amorphous forms of Rothko’s pictures, he also understands that such deliberately ambiguous paintings cannot be defined by single-minded theories. At the same time he is aware that Rothko’s paintings are not without “subject matter” in the broadest sense, and he insists on how important the deep spiritual feelings his paintings evoked were to Rothko, who declared that “the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”
Sometimes, however, Breslin displays a lack of familiarity with other works of art. In his discussion of an early watercolor landscape, for example, he becomes involved in a rather more complicated analysis than this essentially derivative picture warrants, relating it to Cézanne’s watercolors, apparently without seeming to realize that the subject, composition, and rendering of Rothko’s painting are clearly similar to the watercolors of John Marin. Moreover, Breslin sometimes gives verbose and repetitive descriptions of Rothko’s paintings (as well as of many of the people Rothko knew), and he supplies biographical interpretations that can strain one’s credulity as well as patience. For example, Breslin unconvincingly relates Number 10, 1950 to Rothko’s memory of being constricted by swaddling clothes as an infant. Rothko himself, like the painting, is said to be “also soft-edged and sensitive,” and the structure of the picture is said to be an attempt to recover “a lost relationship” after the death of his mother. These seem more like free associations based on Breslin’s biographical research than comments about painting.
The early, more focused chapters of the book, where Breslin sees connections between Rothko’s later problems and the events of his early life, are the strongest. In 1927 and 1928, for example, Rothko worked with Lewis Browne, an entrepreneurial “rabbi turned popular author,” supplying illustrations for Browne’s book The Graphic Bible. Rothko felt that Browne took advantage of him, not giving him credit for the illustrations he had done for the book, and not paying him enough for them. When Rothko sued Browne for damages, he not only lost the case but had to pay court costs, leaving him deeply in debt. Breslin sees Rothko’s experience with Browne as prefiguring his later disastrous relationship with Bernard Reis, remarking that Rothko “had some propensity for putting himself in the way of wolves, the better to assure himself that he was a lamb. Wolves were not hard to find.”
For his research, Breslin has traveled to Dvinsk, interviewed many of Rothko’s friends, relatives, and enemies, and has even consulted Rothko’s first wife’s high-school transcript to find out what kind of student she was. And we cannot but feel grateful for all the information he provides, and for the facts that he has been able to clarify (the footnotes alone are fascinating). Breslin includes accounts of Rothko’s travels, residences, and financial and legal affairs. He also quotes from unpublished letters by Rothko and other artists, as well as from a number of Rothko’s inaccessible or previously unpublished writings, including the transcript of an important lecture Rothko gave on his work at the Pratt Institute in 1958. But as the book progresses, Breslin’s thoroughness can be exasperating, and his narrative founders under the weight of all the information that he tries to squeeze in as well as his long-winded, sometimes tendentious interpretations of many of Rothko’s personal relationships at one point, even comparing at length photographs of Rothko and of Jackson Pollock.5
The book is frequently repetitious, and the same events and circumstances are sometimes restated in almost the same words. After being told that “beginning in 1957 his paintings grew darker,” we read a page later that “In 1957, his pictures grew darker.” 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. Breslin also relies on stale rhetorical devices. We are told that “the first full year of World War II for the United States, 1942 was also the last year of Rothko’s marriage, a ‘home front’ characterized by frequent ‘very violent arguments.”‘ A dozen pages later, he writes, “In New York, 1942, the first year of the war and the last of Rothko’s marriage, was also the year of the Surrealists.”
But the more serious problem is that for all we are told about him, Rothko himself remains shadowy rather than clarified, buried in detail. By all accounts, Rothko had a powerful personal presence and impressed people with the sheer intensity of his feeling. Those who knew him have spoken of his dignified bearing and a messianism toward his vocation that reminded them of an Old Testament prophet. It is therefore the more regrettable that Rothko’s commanding personality and the drama and contradictions of his life never emerge from this book. Although its copious detail will certainly make it a valuable reference for future studies of Rothko and his art, it lacks the proportion and synthesis that might have given us a more vivid sense of Rothko’s achievement and continuing interest.
December 2, 1993
Rothko was uncommonly troubled by the question of how his paintings would survive in the world, both spiritually and physically. “A picture lives by companionship,” he stated, “expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky act to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend their infliction universally.”As cited in Robert Goldwater, “Reflections on the Rothko Exhibition,” Mark Rothko, A Retrospective Exhibition: Painting 1945–1960 (London, White-chapel Art Gallery, 1961), pp. 23–24. ↩
The year before he died, Rothko gave nine of the mural panels to the Tate Gallery in London; he seems to have kept nearly all the others until the end of his life. ↩
Some people in the art world believe that Bernard Reis was partly responsible for Rothko’s suicide. According to several of Rothko’s friends,the deals that Reis had put together with Marlborough were less advantageous to Rothko than they might have been; they required, for example, that Rothko put unnecessarily large numbers of his paintings under the gallery’s control. The night before he died, Rothko told a close friend that he had come to have serious doubts about Reis, whom he feared had the power to “embarrass” and “disgrace” him—just how he did not say—and that he wondered whose side Reis was really on. ↩
But if Rothko was uncomfortable in America, he was also irrevocably cut off from Europe. When he visited France and Italy for the first time in 1950, he realized just how profoundly American his values were. He wrote to Barnett Newman from Paris: “Never did I conceive that the civilization here would seem so alien and so unapproachable as the actuality appears to me.” ↩
In an afterword, Breslin recounts his many difficulties while he was doing research for this book and discusses the way that biographical narrative has been called into question in the academic world, where what is sometimes called “the pluralized subject” has become fashionable. Though I agree that some current theory about biography is arid and pretentious, I also found it rather tasteless of Breslin to follow a lengthy biography about an important and tragic artist with a self-dramatizing account of the potential dangers involved in research travel. ↩