The Agonies of Success

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…

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