Rothko in the '30s
Making a living in the 1930s was hard going - especially for artists (remind you of any other time?). Between 1929 and 1946, Rothko taught art to children at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, where he was known as "Rothkie" and earned a reputation as a good art teacher, genially good humored, intelligent and kind to the children. For an exhibition of his students' work, he wrote that "Painting is just as natural a language as singing or speaking...a method of making a visible record of our experience, visual or imaginative, colored by our own feelings and reactions and indicated with the same simplicity and directness as singing or speaking." Later in his life, he repudiated the view of painting as a natural, expressive act, but by that time Rothko himself had also changed.
Sketchbook page, mid-1930s (sketch of subway scene) (from National Gallery site)
Like many other artists, Rothko worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program set up as part of Roosevelt's New Deal. Rothko had to prove that he qualified for relief and testify that he was unemployed. This was not the case, as both he and his wife worked, but he passed the investigation, which sometimes included unannounced visits by investigators who examined the contents of a family's refrigerator. Among other artists employed by the WPA were Milton Avery, William Baziotes, James Brooks, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt and David Smith. Easel painters had to punch in at their local office by 8 a.m. and punch out at 4 p.m. They worked unsupervised in their studios but had to submit a painting to the WPA every four to six weeks for allocation to public buildings.
"Underground Fantasy (Subway)", ca. 1940 (from National Gallery site)
Rothko becomes Rothko
After 1937 WPA workers had to be citizens, and apparently this requirement combined with Nazi racism and American anti-Semitism, caused many Jewish immigrants to become citizens during this period. Rothko took the oath of citizenship in 1938 as Marcus Rothkowitz. Sometime later, probably in 1940, he changed his name to "Mark Rothko", perhaps at the urging of his wife or his art dealer. His two older brothers had changed their names twenty years previously to "Roth", and Mark was the only one in his birth family to use the name "Rothko."
War, Divorce and Change of Style
Rothko was declared "4F" because of his eyesight and ruled exempt from the wartime draft. He remained in New York, described in the early 1940s by Robert Motherwell as "a strange mixture of Cole Porter and Stalinism, immigrants and emigres, establishment and dispossessed, vital and chaotic, innocent and street-wise - in short, a metropolis clouded by war." Although the war brought rationing, it also lifted the Depression and brought prosperity. Rothko's wife, Edith, was building a successful jewelry business that afforded the couple a move to a big, uptown apartment. Their marriage was troubled by continual fighting about money and the change in their respective positions as Edith became the predominant breadwinner. She insisted that Rothko paint less and help her with jewelry sales, making him feel "like an errand boy." The couple separated permanently in 1942 and were divorced in 1944.
"The Omen of the Eagle", 1942, (from National Gallery site)
During an earlier separation from Edith in 1940, Rothko had begun his "myth paintings" that were based on Greek mythology and also influenced by the writings of Nietsche. At the time Rothko was very close to Adolph Gottlieb, and the two of them, along with Barney Newman and others, held lengthy and continuing discussions on what they saw as a crisis of subject matter. Newman later recalled, "We felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world devastated by a great depression and a fierce World War. It was impossible at that time to paint the kind of painting that we were doing - flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello."
Rothko, according to James Breslin, goes beyond conventional mythology to "combatively confront" viewers with "something real and repressed in themselves. Rothko's tragic image aims not at communal catharsis but at disturbing the individual psyche."
"Hierarchical Birds", 1944 (from National Gallery site)
n the painting above, note the horizontal bands of color against which the figures are displayed. Are these precursors of Rothko's later work?
Surrealism, Psychic Automatism and Abstraction
European Surrealists had arrived nearly en masse in New York in the late 1930s as they escaped Nazi persecution. The Art of This Century gallery opened by Peggy Guggenheim in 1942 initially featured Surrealist work exclusively. (See also my earlier post Who Was That Woman?) Rothko attended the opening of Peggy's gallery and returned to study the Surrealist works there and at the Museum of Modern Art. He particularly admired the work of Joan Miro and experimented with creating work by using the automatic drawing method developed by Andre Breton. That was "a creative principle that was not a style" according to Motherwell. (Rothko later told Motherwell that "there was always automatic drawing under those larger forms" in his mature works.)
Untitled, 1944-45, (from National Gallery site). This one looks particularly indebted to Miro to me.
Before experimenting with this method, Rothko had always been very deliberate in preparing works by making preliminary drawings and sketches - sometimes involving as many as 20 preliminary sketches, according to Breslin.
Untitled, 1945-46, Watercolor (from National Gallery site). There are the horizontal bands again.
In the watercolors, Rothko was able to paint with thin, luminous washes to create fields on which his figures were placed.
Untitled, 1945, painted in thin oil glazes (from National Gallery site).
He successfully recreated that luminous look with oil as well. I will address Rothko's painting methods and materials later in this series of posts. Notice the colors Rothko is using.
Still to Come
Rothko 's next series of works were the so-called "Multiforms", immediate predecessors to the mature works that we know as Rothko's. So stay tuned, we're nearly there.