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.”)

When Rothko achieved his classic abstract manner in the late 1940s he might be said to have combined these two approaches, depicting forms, shapes, and imagery with a flatness that yet palpitates and shimmers. One of the most telling facts to arise from The Artist’s Reality is that the influence on Rothko’s work of both Egyptian art and Giotto, however indirect, has hitherto been underestimated. But it is revealing that in his comparison he was juxtaposing an art of supreme sophistication with that of an artist who in Rothko’s youth would still have been described as an “Italian Primitive.” About color, which was to become of prime importance to him in producing vast, flat, confrontational paintings which nevertheless inform and are informed by space, he says hardly a word.

The pivotal chapter of the book as it is presented to us is quite understandably the one entitled “Subject and Subject Matter.” But it is also the most baffling. In it Rothko has much to say about abstraction. Although he was well aware of what he calls “geometric abstraction” in America in previous decades it does not seem to have interested him much; he names no names but is presumably referring to such artists as Arshile Gorky (with whom he had studied), although Gorky had only briefly been “geometric” in some of his mural projects for the WPA, as well as Patrick Henry Bruce, Arthur G. Dove, Burgoyne Diller, and Ilya Bolotowsky, among others. And it soon emerges that Rothko is using the term “abstraction” in a very loose and general way, basically referring to any art not striving to emulate visual experience of external reality literally or naturalistically. In a later chapter he refers to Braque’s Cubism as “abstract,” which it was not. The Cubists were out only to recreate perceived reality in a wholly new way.

But the discussion of subject matter leads Rothko into what is the true subject of this book—the search for a modern mythology that will validate a totally new form of painting, which was not yet within Rothko’s grasp or indeed within his vision. He once claimed that in 1940 he had stopped painting altogether to study myth (not altogether true as we have already observed—Rothko was given to hyperbole in conversation). He read Freud and Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as well as Nietzsche. He must certainly have been aware of Jung. It would be nice to think he encountered Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul (first published in 1933 and subsequently reissued twelve times), for this book, with its insistence on self-exploration and the discovery of new ethical values, would have been the Jung for him. Jung was obsessed by myth and Rothko himself mentions the myths of many civilizations, without going into them in any great depth—one senses that intellectually he is most at home in the climate of preclassical and early classical Greece. He doesn’t feel at ease dealing with the Renaissance because it is stylistically so varied, with so many towering artists working in different manners.

He is particularly ambiguous in his feelings about Michelangelo, preferring Leonardo and his soft, smoky light, or chiaroscuro. He clearly dislikes Michelangelo’s muscularity and overt drama, although when he eventually traveled to Europe in 1950 and visited Florence he was overcome by the relatively small vestibule Michelangelo had created for the Medicis’ Laurenziana library. He referred to it as “the sombre vault” and the space was influential in framing his concept of the Houston chapel.5 (Rothko was possibly the only Abstract Expressionist to take a deep interest in ar-chitecture.) Many Renaissance artists painted mythical subjects but few created new ones. With this section the structure of the book begins to falter. The final chapters (which may not have been intended by Rothko as such) dealing with “Primitivism” and “Indigenous Art” are inconclusive; he never tells us what the new modern myth necessary to vitalize modern art might be. “Everyone wants an American art. Just what would constitute an indigenous art is not so clear.”

There is a sense in which Rothko had already created a modern myth. It was an urban myth. Although he painted the odd early landscape he was never really interested in nature. Despite his often quoted pronouncement that what he found most moving in art were depictions of single figures, his early single figure pieces of the 1930s are almost invariably less interesting and successful than those peopled by groups of individuals. These have about them an indefinable air of mystery: we are aware that something is happening, is being said. Innumerable artists since the mid-nineteenth century had painted images of the emergent modern city, but Rothko’s pictures of urban life have about them a quality all their own. They are lonely pictures and in a sense he remained a lonely man throughout his life. One thinks of the isolated characters that furnish Hopper’s canvases, but these are existing in their own private universes, they are self-contained. The loneliness generated by Rothko’s works is a collective loneliness. The prophetic picture Interior of 1939 shows a group of isolated figures coming through a large portal—surely that of a museum gallery. They are flanked by statues that are works of art a great deal larger than themselves; the upper half of the composition shows geometric architectural elements and one of them encloses a picture, a painting within a painting. Art looms larger than life.

Of particular importance are Rothko’s subway paintings. To one of them, a work of 1948, he attached particular significance. It depicts the entrance to a subway sparsely peopled. One figure is descending a staircase, thus depicting the entry to an underworld. In The Artist’s Reality, as in Rothko’s art as a whole, death looms large. It is remarkable that while Rothko’s later classical abstractions give us so much visual stimulus, they are also in a very real sense preparing us to face the ultimate void. He writes, “There must be provision for the adjustment of tension between pleasure and pain for the experience of beauty.”

It could be argued that whereas Rothko in his book was immersing himself in a world in which Greek tragedy meets Hebraic, Assyrian, and a host of other cultures, it was also propelling him into modernism. Writing about modern art, he shows a certain amount of skepticism toward Surrealism; he is made uneasy by its iconoclasm and what he sees as its destructive bias:

Modern art has…produced in Dadaism and surrealism a philosophy of skepticism—chiefly a plastic skepticism. Is not the investigation toward ultimate unity in itself worthless, these modern artists ask? Is it not a delusion commensurate with the thousand other illusory faiths that have futilely entertained mankind throughout its history?

Nor was Rothko himself aiming for total intellectual emancipation, one of Surrealism’s ideals and legacies. But as he often insists, artists are at the mercy of their environment, both physically and intellectually, and New York painting in 1940 was very much touched by the Surrealist ethos. Yet Rothko’s Surrealist-inspired pictures of the early 1940s are not so much an attempt to delve into the unconscious; rather, he was engaged in what amounts to a process of pictorial excavation, of visual archaeologizing.

The pictures he produced between 1941 and 1944, in which he seeks to go backward into myth—here the titles speak for themselves—Antigone, Oedipus, and so forth—are the most uncomfortable and unsatisfactory, as can be seen from the Untitled already referred to (although this, it must be said, is one of the least successful of the series). They are composed in layers or strata and we are inevitably forced to read them downward. At the top are multiple heads, melded into single entities. Below are horizontal areas of legs, feet, tentacles, and claws. These are works about transformation, ritual, sacrifice, and always behind them hover implications of death and entombment. But in 1943 and 1944 a transformation starts to take place. The paintings start to breathe and become clarified. The paint begins to liquefy and shimmer (and here we must remember that much of Rothko’s best work of the early 1930s was in watercolor). The composite images separate into hybrid, only partially humanoid presences—this was his greatest debt to Surrealist practice. These presences are most often placed against tripartite backgrounds evoking land, sea, and sky. The presences have about them an air of petrified fragility.

Although during this period there are in Rothko’s work references to many of the major European artists associated with Surrealism, it is in a sense strange that from a purely pictorial point of view Rothko learned most from Max Ernst: strange because despite his extraordinary technical inventiveness, Ernst was a somewhat cold artist whose exploration of the human psyche was strangely clinical, whereas Rothko’s ultimate achievement lay in giving sublimated expression to the darkness and tragedy of his vision.

The Multiforms of 1948 (the term was posthumous) bring Rothko to the cusp of complete abstraction. The earlier presences now become as watery and evanescent as the backgrounds that have previously contained them and it becomes in- creasingly impossible to detect in them any suggestion of body imagery. But presences they remain. The distinction between image and background becomes increasingly blurred so that the entire picture surface is dissolved into what might be described as a sort of liquid geometry.

The paint surfaces then become matted and more powdery and the rough, brushy contours seem to act as details in the majestic presences of the deceptively simple compositions. (Here it is worth observing that Rothko was extremely myopic.) By the end of 1950 Rothko had evolved his classic abstract style, and with it entered into true greatness as a painter. As he himself says in his book, “The subject of a painting is the painting itself.” His modern myth was that the act of painting justifies itself as an activity.

His subsequent huge success brought him no great happiness. He recognized in this book, even before he even envisaged entering a new abstract phase, that the dangers of achieving pure abstraction lay in a sort of short-circuit, bypassing other possibilities. Having achieved an absolute form of expression he tries to revivify it and keep it alive. In his book, he had already written “For should we know the appearance of the abstraction itself, we would constantly reproduce only its image.” For some twenty years Rothko kept his abstraction alive by ringing subtle changes on the formula he had achieved, hence giving us some of the most numinous images of our time.

The last paintings executed before his suicide show signs of fatigue, and some of them are somewhat arid and generate a sense of desperation. With characteristic intelligence he had forecast his own demise. The ultimate value of Rothko’s book, whatever its shortcomings, is that it shows an artist looking back to the entire past of art, and a few contemporary manifestations of it, in order to project himself forward from being a minor provincial artist into one whose work is sought after throughout the world. The nature of his death by suicide, almost too painful to be described, was worthy of a tragedy by Euripides.

This Issue

March 10, 2005