Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rothko - Part Three

OK, I admit that I've been procrastinating with this post. There's so much to it and I want to do right by it, but it's a lot of work. Sigh...

(Note: In case you're beginning here with Park Three (Parts One and Two 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.")

Making Connections
So to return to the story, when Rothko and his first wife, Edith, separated, Rothko told Hedda Sterne that it was like "pulling the skin from his cheek: it was so painful." He checked into a hospital and suffered through a period of depression and hypochondria, then made a visit back to his family in Portland. This was a significant trip because during this trip Rothko met people who changed the course of his life and work.

After Portland, Rothko detoured to the Bay Area, where he met Clyfford Still, who later became a good friend and a major influence on his artistic development. He then went on to Los Angeles where he made a connection that led to an introduction to Peggy Guggenheim's art advisor, Howard Putzel. Howard was apparently the motivating force behind Peggy's promotion of young New York artists at her Art of This Century Gallery in New York. Rothko first showed there with an important group of American and European artists and then had a solo show in January 1945, his first solo show in more than a dozen years. Breslin says that the show was "widely and quite favorably" reviewed but didn't have the critical impact that Pollock's 1943 exhibit had had. It did "establish Rothko's place as an important figure in his generation of painters."

"Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea", 1944, oil on canvas, approximately 6' H x 7' W.

Rothko showed 15 of his myth-based, automatic drawing-inspired oil paintings. One of these works was "Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea." Breslin calls it his "largest, most ambitious, and in Rothko's view the 'most important' work he had so far attempted." Before reading Breslin's book, this is the only painting of Rothko's that I had ever seen from the body of work that he painted prior to his mature style. It usually looks a lot more dingy and brown, but is the one painting that all the art histories show. This painting was purchased by Peggy Guggenheim as the token piece that she bought from each one-man show in her gallery, and it is now owned by the Museum of Modern Art. Breslin says that Rothko sold only three paintings from the show, one being Slow Swirl, and that the total he received for all three was $265! Isn't that incredible?

(Slow Swirl did not go from Peggy to MoMA. She loaned it to the San Francisco MoMA and then gave it to them in 1946. In 1962 Rothko exchanged another painting for Slow Swirl, which he then gave to his second wife, Mell, and hung it in their living room. Mell had watched him paint it and felt that it was dedicated to her. This painting meant a lot to both of them, and it was donated to MoMA, NY after Mell's death.)

Rothko Remarries
Rothko's second wife was very different from his first. Mary Alice (called "Mell") Beistle was from Ohio, a Christian, a graduate of Skidmore with a major in fine and applied art and 19 years younger than her husband. (His first wife, Edith, had been nine years younger than him.) Rothko said of Mell: "I was a foreigner and she made an American out of me." The couple married in March 1945 after knowing each other for just a few months and only six months after Rothko's divorce.

Mell had a much warmer and friendly personality than Edith, idolized Rothko as an artistic genius (she called him "Rothko") and was willing to support him in ways that Edith had not. Rothko was able to leave his teaching job and paint full time, and he had a wife who was "young, marvelous to look at, supported the family, managed the household, and adulated [her] husband, the Artist."

The Breakthrough

Beginning in 1945, Rothko agonizingly worked to abandon the drawing in his paintings that represented myth, symbol, landscape and the figure. "I have assumed for myself the problem of further concretizing my process," he wrote to Barnett Newman in the summer of 1945. He said that developing this new work was frustrating but exhilarating because he had to endure "a series of stumblings toward a clearer issue." Rothko struggled to develop the new work and didn't exhibit it for a couple of years because he was so unsure of it. This work came to be called "the multiforms", although this was not Rothko's term for it.

"Number 9", 1948 (from National Gallery site)

You can see that line has just about disappeared and that soft areas of color seem to move about freely in space. Also, the palette is limited and the color saturated. No brown or black here.

Another closely-related piece from 1948 - this one has no number and is just untitled (from National Gallery site)

Rothko said that he thought of the fuzzy rectangles as "performers" in "an unknown adventure in an unknown space." They were not meant to represent anything in particular but in them one could recognize "the principle and passion of organisms." Breslin says that Rothko was "seeking to induce a state of consciousness prior to, and more fluid than, the comforts of recognition." But were they stand-ins for the artist himself? Rothko wrote in 1947-48: "I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame."

Influence of Clyfford Still

Many histories of Abstract Expressionism claim that Still inspired Rothko to leave Surrealism and break through to the multiforms. Still was living in New York during the summer of 1945, and Rothko visited Still's studio to see his work that had moved away from Surrealism to encompass large-scale, non-figurative works with flat areas of color. While Still may have encouraged Rothko to use color differently, Rothko's works are soft, seductive, translucent and atmospheric, while Still's are sharp-edged, opaque and thickly painted. Elmer Bischoff said "Rothko voiced the hope of breaking through solitude, whereas Still emphasized the valiant and solitary stand the artist must take for the sake of his own integrity."

Clyfford Still, "1949 No. 1", oil on canvas, 105" x 81" (from Clyfford Still Museum)

Rothko had a show in the summer of 1946 at the San Francisco Museum of Art - whether Still had anything to do with this, Breslin doesn't say. However, he does say that Rothko arranged for Still to show at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery in 1946 and wrote the catalog essay for Still's show. Rothko acted as Still's New York representative, installing his shows, storing his work and keeping Still posted on the New York artworld. Still got Rothko a teaching job at the California School of Fine Arts in the summers of 1947 and 1949 and let Rothko use his studio. (This according to The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism by Susan Landauer, which I had in my studio weighing down some wood and happened to pick up yesterday.) Rothko was popular at the school and seemed to embody the sophisticated, witty, New York intellectual painter. His 1947 discussion class drew "capacity crowds" and his 1949 slide lectures on the New York art scene were a hit. Rothko's own work apparently influenced students at the school, who began making work in the pinks and blues that Rothko favored at the time.

Under Still's influence, Rothko abandoned titles for his work so that "all recognizable associations [could] be eliminated." He first began a numbering system, but later stopped doing that and just left his paintings untitled. (I have to say that while I understand that some artists don't want to give viewers any hint of their paintings' meanings, etc., I dislike this practice because it's too confusing to refer to the work. Come on, if you make more than one painting, couldn't you at least give it a number!)

Still and Rothko had a major falling out in the early 1950s, but while it lasted, their friendship was deep and influential. Still described it this way:

"We were complete opposites. He was a big man. He would sit like a Buddha, chain-smoking. We came from different sides of the world. He was thoroughly immersed in Jewish culture. But we had gown up only a few hundred miles apart. We had read many of the same things. And we could walk through the park together and talk about anything." (quoted in Breslin)

"Arriving at His Big Style"

Rothko's work in the summer of 1949 in San Francisco moved away from the multiforms and closer to his mature or signature style. Rothko said he was "arriving at his big style" and that Still had been "instrumental" in helping him to get there. During the winter of 1949-50, Rothko arrived at the "billowy rectangles of luminous color stacked one on top of the other."

Untitled, 1949 (from the National Gallery site)

Notice how the edges of the forms have been liberated from the edges of the canvas so that the rectanges are floating free.

No. 10, 1950, 90 1/4" x 57 5/8", owned by MoMA, NY, gift of Philip Johnson (from the National Gallery site)

Betty Parsons Gallery
Rothko had been showing with Peggy Guggenheim, but when her advisor, Howard Putzel, left her to establish his own 67 Gallery, Rothko hoped to move with him. However, Putzel died suddenly and Peggy announced that she was returning to Europe. Rothko, Newman and Still joined Pollock at the Betty Parsons Gallery in the fall of 1946. Betty referred to them as her "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." This move gave Rothko, at the age of 44 and after 20 years of painting, his first real dealer. He signed a contract with Parsons to give her 33 percent of all gallery sales and 15 percent of studio sales (standard at the time!). Between 1947 and 1951, Parsons gave him five annual one-man shows. He also showed in seven shows at the Whitney between 1945 and 1950.

"White Center", 1950, private collection (from the National Gallery site)

I love the color in this one and the way the ground changes from red at the top to a terra-cotta-ish ochre at the bottom.

I'll leave you with an image of Rothko in his studio on West 53rd Street in 1952 taken by photographer Kay Bell Reynal.

Still to Come

Rothko's painting methods; a history of his sales figures; when art became a commodity; what is the meaning of art and why artists paint; how much influence viewers have on a painting; the story of the Four Seasons or Seagrams murals; the Rothko Chapel; Rothko's bad habits, illness and suicide; the Rothko foundation and Rothko's children; Bernard Reis and the lawsuit; Rothko's book.


Anna Maria said...

Thanks so much for sharing these wonderful posts on Rothko with us, Nancy. I've always been fascinated by his work, but never found much literature about him. I just requested Breslin's book from my local library and am looking forward to many hours of enjoyment.
If you hadn't shared this adventure with us, I never would have known the book existed.

Nancy Natale said...

I'm glad you're enjoying the Rothko posts, Anna Maria. I hope you like Breslin's book. Just keep plugging away at it. It seemed pretty boring to me until a couple hundred pages in.

Barry Millman, Ph.D. said...

This is a wonderful history of Mark Rothko. I have just begun doing abstract art (at the age of 67) and feel influenced by Rothko's work. Thank you for the great job!