Friday, April 17, 2009

Rothko - Part Four

(Note: In case you're beginning here with Part Four (Parts One, Two and Three are below), this series of posts on Rothko is based on Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E. B. Breslin. You can also start reading my Rothko posts using the links at right for each of the six parts under "Favorite Posts.")

The Signature Style
Breslin talks about painters developing a "signature style" - "an image so identifiable that [the painter doesn't] need to sign the painting." By the last few years of the 1940s, Rothko, Pollock, deKooning, Kline, Motherwell, Newman and Gottlieb had all developed their work to that point, the point where their work was so individually recognizable that it had become what Rothko called a "territory" or what we would call a "brand." (See how commercial we are?)

No. 1, 1949, oil on canvas, about 5 1/2' x 4 1/2' according to Breslin although it looks like a different ratio to me. This work was included in the 1949 Parsons show and marked a milestone for Rothko - see below.

In March 1949 Rothko had his third annual solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery and showed eleven oil paintings - all new and all numbered rather than named - and apparently somewhere between the multiforms and the signature style. This work explicitly broke away from the Surrealist, myth-based work that he had been showing and demonstrated his arrival on the abstract avant-garde scene. "The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity," Rothko stated in 1949, "toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer." (Published in Tiger's Eye and quoted by Breslin.)

A Decorator or a Mystic?
Reviews of this show set up the divisions in critical opinion of Rothko's work for the rest of his career: it was seen as either decorative (beautiful) or mystical (spiritual). Breslin says that for the next 20 years, as he continued to paint and become an internationally-celebrated artist, Rothko insisted that his work was misunderstood, that it was neither one nor the other, and that by resisting classification, Rothko was denying the power of the "shopkeeping mentalities" that wanted to label it so that it could be marketed. The anger that Rothko felt at being misunderstood (and staying that way) gave him what Breslin terms "a necessary lever toward creativity."

Rothko moving a canvas in his 53rd Street studio in the early '50s.

Rothko the "Shopkeeper"
On the other hand, Rothko needed to earn money from his work. By the 1949 show he had raised his prices somewhat, but still was not selling much. That show sold only two oil paintings, one for $100 and one for $600 to Tony Smith, the sculptor, who was a friend. Later that year, the architect Philip Johnson brought Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III along with Dorothy Miller and Alfred Barr of MoMA to Rothko's studio/apartment on Sixth Avenue between 51st and 52nd streets. Johnson had designed a guest house for the Rockefellers and was advising Mrs. R. on buying artwork for it. Mrs. Rockefeller selected No. 1, 1949 (pictured above) for the record-breaking price of $1000! (And as we remember, Rothko had to give Betty Parsons 15% of this as her commission.) This was a big deal for Rothko and let him raise his prices from then on. However, was he just making decorations for the walls of the rich? This is a question that bothered Rothko for the rest of his career.

The Final Step
Rothko's mother Kate died at age 78 in October 1948 after a long illness. Breslin says that her death "drew Rothko back to even earlier losses" such as the death of his father, the discrimination he had faced as a Jew and an immigrant in Russia and the U.S., the failure of his first marriage, the pressures of poverty and deprivation, his outsider status in his family, and so on. This sense of loss and alienation expressed itself in Rothko's physical restlessness, continual seeking of approval and ravenous appetites for cigarettes, food and drink. Breslin says that Rothko found consolation in his paintings where "by abstracting from physical and social surfaces and looking deeply inside, [Rothko] created an image of himself that he could recognize." The death of his mother allowed Rothko's work to evolve into his mature style, according to Breslin's beautiful description:

"Rothko's new paintings grieve; they portend; they exalt; they release. They transform hollowness and despair into transcendence and nurturing beauty. These empty canvases are full. The death of Kate Rothkowitz, thrusting her son backward psychologically, helped push his work one last step toward a 'new life'."

The Famous Photo of the Irascible Eighteen
I wrote more extensively about the protest by 18 "advanced" painters against the Metropolitan Museum in 1950 in my post about Hedda Sterne. But I wanted to include this photo here because Rothko is shown at the right front of this group with an expression that is fearful, angry and anxious. Breslin says it is a "killing look" that expresses, "What are they going to do to me now?"

L to R: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Rotert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlied, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne. Photo by Nina Leen in Life Magazine, January 15, 1951.

It's nearly the same anxious look that Rothko wore for his self portrait in 1936.

Sales and Galleries
Perhaps it was not only his natural anxiety that gave Rothko that look in the photo but also the fact that his wife Mell was eight months pregnant at the time and about to quit the job that supported the Rothko family. Rothko was 47 and had received a statement from Betty Parsons for the year ended 1950 showing that he had sold six pictures, earning him $3,279.69 for the year. (And this was the most he made from painting during one year until 1955!)

Just before the baby (named Kathy Lynn but called Kate after Rothko's mother) was born, Rothko was offered a three-year contract for an assistant professorship at Brooklyn College. The salary from this job was about $5,000 a year and it was enough to support the three of them and a separate studio(!). Rothko appreciated the income but failed to get along with the faculty at Brooklyn College and his contract was not renewed. So in 1954, about to be unemployed and desperately searching for somewhere to move after their apartment building had been condemned, Rothko left Betty Parsons Gallery because his work was not selling and joined Pollock, Still and Newman at the Sidney Janis Gallery across the hall from Parsons. Although Breslin points out that economic times were bad during the late '40s/early '50s, Rothko and the others knew that Betty Parsons was not actively pursuing sales and creating demand for their work to the extent that should have been possible and that Sidney Janis proved he could accomplish.

The fact that Rothko was not selling work is pretty incredible when you read the list of exhibitions that he participated in during the late '40s/early '50s: annual solo shows at Betty Parsons, two Whitney annuals, inclusion in "Seventeen Modern American Painters" organized by Motherwell at the Frank Perls Gallery in Beverly Hills, the Los Angeles County Museum's 1951 Annual, an annual at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, two group shows at the Sidney Janis Gallery, group exhibits at Yale, Harvard, Wesleyan, and the Universities of Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska. And he showed internationally in Tokyo, Berlin, Amsterdam and Sao Paulo. He was also included in two exhibits at MoMA during 1951 and then given his own gallery with eight paintings at MoMA as part of "Fifteen Americans" in spring 1952.

Number 10, 1950 - sold to Philip Johnson for the Museum of Modern Art. This image is from the National Gallery site. (Notice the difference between this image of Number 10 and the one found somewhere on line that I included in Rothko Post #3.)

A review of Rothko's prices shows that they were continuing to increase as his reputation grew. In the 1951 show at Parsons, his prices ranged between $500 and $3,000, with most in the middle of that range. But in 1951 Rothko sold only one painting, his Number 10, 1950. Alfred Barr, Director of MoMA, wanted to acquire this painting but knew his board would not approve the purchase, so he got Philip Johnson to buy it and donate it to the museum. (Feelings against Rothko were so strong that one board member resigned in protest even of the donation!) The price at Betty Parsons Gallery for the painting was $1500, but Johnson was given a 25 percent discount, reducing the price to $1200. Rothko's share was only $830, but this changed within a few years.
In 1957 Rothko wrote to Motherwell that he had been able to live by his work for the past 18 months for the first time in his 53 years of life. By 1959 Rothko's income jumped from $20,000 to $60,000 a year as art started to become an investment. Fortune magazine wrote about "The Great International Art Market" in 1955-56 and suggested that for the wealthy, "ownership of art offers a unique combination of financial attractions...a hedge against inflation, a route to legitimate income-tax reduction, a way to lighten the burden of inheritance taxes." Art was now a commodity.

Reluctance to Sell
Rothko referred to his paintings as "spiritual emanations, portraits of the soul, facades" and did not like to be called a formalist, a colorist or a decorative painter. Selling paintings and sending them out into the world meant that his work - an intrinsic part of himself - would be "permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend their affliction universally." He once told a friend that his paintings were "skins that are shed and hung on a wall," and as such, they could not just be abandoned or forgotten.

The physical context in which his paintings were seen was very important to Rothko and he wanted to control it as much as possible. He said that his paintings should be hung very close together and low on the wall so that viewers were immersed in and enfolded by them. "By saturating the room with the feeling of the work, the walls are defeated and the poignancy of each single work becomes more visible." He was also very conscious of lighting and wanted his work seen in very low light so that the color seemed to emmanate from the work.

The Artist's Statement
Rothko wrote publicly about his work until he developed his signature style; then he became reluctant to put his meaning or intention into words. "Silence is so accurate," is one of his famous statements. Breslin says this is because Rothko's work pulls us back into a preverbal state of consciousness. Rothko said that if he were to make a statement about a painting's meaning, the statement would come between the viewer and the painting. "Such a statement would result in "the paralysis of the mind and the imagination." Instead, he wanted a "sensitive observer who is free of these conventions of understanding." He said, "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstacy, doom, and so on - and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions."

When requested to give an artist's talk at his solo show in 1954 at the Art Institute of Chicago, Rothko declined as he thought that in proximity to his paintings, he would become a human figure in the foreground and his paintings would become mere background. Thus he would be creating a figure/ground relationship that he had worked so hard to eliminate in his work. "There is more power in telling little than in telling all," he said.

The Physical Work
One of the things I liked best about Breslin's book is how detailed he gets in describing the way Rothko made his paintings. First of all, the stretchers or canvas supports: Breslin says that Rothko was not much of a carpenter and used the cheapest materials he could find such as packing cases held together with staples. "Gee what a relief to be able to look at the back of a Rothko and not think of a chicken coop," said Franz Kline when he heard that Rothko was hiring a studio assistant. Sidney Janis said he was "guilt ridden" to sell Rothko's badly put together paintings to a collector in a Fifth Avenue duplex who would hang it on the wall "in the company of great antiques."

Structure was not important to Rothko, but the paint was. He imagined himself "breathing paint on the canvas" in light, transparent washes that looked as though a brush had never touched them. His painting technique combined the traditional with the experimental. He sized the unprimed canvas with rabbit skin glue colored with powdered pigment. He then covered the glue size with a layer of oil paint in about the same color, extending this layer over the top and sides of the canvas, which was not to be framed. The sides of the canvas showed tacks holding the canvas to the support. Susequent fields of color were glazes mixed with whole eggs and then thinned with turpentine. Glazes were thinned to the point that "pigment particles were almost dissociated from the paint film, barely clinging to the surface," a conservator points out. Because it was so thin, "light penetrated the attenuated paint film, striking the individual pigment particles and bouncing back to suffuse the surface and engulf the viewer in an aura of color."

I was surprised to read about eggs with oil painting, but looked it up on the trusty internet and found that this technique belonged to the "Old Masters." "In the fifteenth century, with the development of oil painting, egg-oil emulsions came into use. Soon after, egg tempera took second place to oil paints and became just a convenient medium for underpainting before the application of oil paints. Many of the old masters used a green earth tempera color underpainting in their oil paintings to create more realistic flesh tones." (from Art Hardware: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials) This article also says that using eggs allows a wash to be applied over a wash of a different color without the two mixing together and becoming muddy and permitting both colors to be seen together so that a blue wash over a red looks purple. It also makes for greater transparency.

One of Rothko's assistants, Dan Rice, says that Rothko's physical movement, as he worked with five or six inch wide brushes, "was very active and very graphic." Rice also described applying the ground color to huge canvases: "Glue would just cool too fast on a big painting, so often he would work on a ladder and I would work underneath until I was dripping with this stuff." Then they would trade places and Rothko would be covered with glue. All the other layers of paint were applied only by Rothko. Then he "would sit and consider the painting for long long periods of time, sometimes hours, sometimes days."

Still to Come
Well, I've been sitting here for hours, sometimes days, myself and have to continue this in still another post. I haven't touched on the Seagrams or Four Seasons Murals, the Rothko Chapel, Rothko's son Christopher, Rothko's illness and suicide, Bernard Reis, the Rothko Foundation and their lawsuit, etc. So stay tuned for the final chapter.


Karen Jacobs said...

A very comprehensive review of the book, Nancy... I have it but wasn't inclined to reread it so I appreciate your hitting the high spots for me. I seemed to 'get' Rothko before others of the era, yet he still mystifies and challenges.

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks, Karen. I got a little too comprehensive with the amount of time involved, but one thing just led to another. Glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

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