Thursday, April 30, 2009

Encaustic Returns

Tonight I'm happy to be posting an image of a piece actually created in my studio. Yes, it's Art in the Studio again, not Book Review Central. So, here's the piece:
This is "Metamorphosis", encaustic and mixed media diptych, 16"H x 32"W.

Here is a detail showing how much the figure is built up:

I reworked this piece because I thought it hadn't been brought up to its full potential.

This is the original version before I reworked it.

I made Metamorphosis as a companion piece to the following:

"Glow Worm," encaustic and mixed media diptych, 16"H x 32"W, 2008.

I'm delivering both of these pieces tomorrow to the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, Mass. for inclusion in a New England Wax show - Ancient Medium N.E.W. Terrain - that will run all summer. There are 23 artists and 77 pieces juried by Craig Bloodgood, the museum's curator. The opening of the show with opening reception is Sunday, May 17th. More later.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rothko - Part Six

Rothko is such a mysterious figure in art history. A filigree of rumors and half-truths floated about him during his life, and even more stories sprang up after his death. My series of posts about Rothko was inspired by my desire to share some of the information I learned about him from the remarkable book, Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E. B. Breslin. Breslin was Rothko's first biographer and spent seven years researching and writing this book. (To start reading my Rothko posts at the beginning, see the links at right for each of the six parts under "Favorite Posts.")

Rothko in his 69th Street studio with the Rothko chapel murals, 1964, photo by Hans Namuth from the National Gallery site.

Hope and Fear
These emotions are so intimately connected and reflected in the trajectory of Rothko's career. You know the cliche about being careful what you wish for. After struggling in poverty and disregard for so many years, Rothko finally made it. He was at the top of the Abstract Expressionist echelon, collected and shown world wide, rich and sought after. But when you reach the top, there's just one direction remaining.

Pop Arrives
In 1962 the Sidney Janis Gallery exhibited "the New Realists", a large number of international works that included Americans Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, George Segal and Andy Warhol. In protest against this show, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko all withdrew from the Janis Gallery. Pop art had arrived and they wanted nothing to do with it.

Big collectors started selling the Ab-Ex works they owned and buying Pop. Rothko told a friend that he felt like he was dead; he was no longer hot, no magazines mentioned him and no young artists even tried to visit him. In America, Rothko said,"one can never become a patriarch, one simply becomes an old man." Breslin notes that the new element in the art market was the media. Rauschenberg, Johns, Stella, Oldenburg and Warhol were able to hit the top quickly and knock out the Ab-Exers without the decades of poverty and struggle that their predecessors had invested. Commercial success rather than philosophy drove many new artists, and the line between popular culture and art was erased.

Frank Lloyd and the Marlborough Gallery
Just as commerce drove the new artist, it also drove the new dealer. Frank Lloyd (who named himself after Lloyd's Bank) was the first to bring "a 20th century-multinational style" to art sales in New York with his Marlborough Gallery. He had successfully developed and used this business philosophy with the Marlborough Gallery in London. Lloyd's aim was not to promote art or artists because he believed in it or them, he was out to make money: "Many dealers are hypocrites - they say we're here to educate the public," Lloyd said, "I don't believe it. For a business, the only success is money."

Lloyd brought new advertising and marketing techniques to the art market. He offered his artists (who were already well-known, not emerging) long-term contracts, international exposure, color catalogs, higher prices, and services such as secretarial help, legal and tax advice, accounting, real estate and travel assistance, estate planning, etc. In return, he upped the traditional one-third commission to fifty percent. (Today, the commission percentage remains but the services have disappeared.)

Bernard Reis
Lloyd's entry into the world of successful New York artists was via a man named Bernard Reis. Reis was an accountant who befriended a lot of the big name Abstract Expressionists including Rothko. He also worked for theatre people such as Edward Albee and Joshua Logan, writers such as Lillian Helman and Gore Vidal and for collectors such as Peggy Guggenheim. Reis particularly liked artists, according to Breslin. He did artists' taxes, referred them to doctors and lawyers, set up estate plans and financial investments and offered any other kind of help they needed, generally making himself invaluable. From time to time artists gave him paintings in appreciation, but he never charged for his services.

Breslin says that by allowing Reis to take care of all the business details, the artists "could sustain their belief in a strict boundary between nasty business and high art." This arrangement made the artists dependent on Reis, and he became the middleman between them and their dealers, looking after the details of contracts. Reis encouraged dependency as it gave him more power and influence. Reis played an important part in the Rothko story - both before and after Rothko's death.

Marlborough Takes Over
Reis made the introduction to Frank Lloyd for Rothko, as well as for Guston, Kline, deKooning and Motherwell. Just prior to the Marlborough Gallery's New York opening in 1963, Rothko agreed to sell them 15 paintings for a little under $148,000 (a little less than $10,000 a piece). The paintings were to be marked up 40 percent and sold in the European market. Rothko would be paid four annual payments of $37,000 from 1965 through 1968. Rothko would continue to sell paintings in New York himself, from his studio.

This agreement was totally contrary to the way Rothko had previously sold his work. He was very careful to whom the work was sold, and he rationed sales so that his prices would be sustained. Breslin says that Lloyd flattered Rothko, who needed flattering at that point, and Reis advised him that the Marlborough sale would benefit him financially by allowing him to save on taxes and secure his income for four years.

Untitled 1964 (from the National Gallery site).

The Rothko Chapel

Rothko's last one-man show in New York during his lifetime was at MoMA in 1961. He continued to paint but wanted to place his paintings in groups, rather than making single sales. He told a friend that all that really mattered to him were public commissions.

Rothko signed a $250,000 contract with the de Menil family in 1965 to produce a set of murals for a chapel in Houston. Rothko's friend, Dore Ashton, thought it was strange that Rothko would paint murals for what was at first to be a Catholic chapel, but after talking about it with him, she had a better understanding of his motives. "What is wonderful about Mark," she wrote in her journal in 1964, "is that he aspires, and is still capable of believing that his work can have some purpose - spiritual if you like - that is not sullied by the world."

The de Menils were French, rich from oil money, and art collectors who loved art for itself and not for investment value. They had bought their first Rothko painting in 1957. They gave Rothko a free hand in creating the murals for the chapel, which was to be designed by Philip Johnson. Johnson and Rothko disputed contrary visions of the building and the murals' prominence in it until, finally, in 1967 the de Menils got Johnson to resign. The architectural team that took over followed Rothko's intentions in making the building facade "blank, mute and rectilinear." Inside, he wanted the building to resemble his studio.

Interior of the Rothko Chapel showing three of fourteen panels. (panels are about 5' high x 15' wide)

Rothko worked for more than two years on the project with studio assistants who prepared the canvases and hoisted the heavy paintings for him. Some of the canvases were built up with fifteen or twenty layers of paint, according to one assistant. After a monochromatic base color was finally achieved to Rothko's satisfaction, Rothko decided on the sizes of rectangles to be painted on the colored fields. A rectangle was marked off with masking tape on a painted canvas and then colored in with charcoal. After studying the proportions and gradually enlarging the black rectangle, Rothko would call for another prepared canvas and paint in a black rectangles himself after having the precisely-taped size he had worked out duplicated on the new canvas. These were his first works with hard edge elements. Some of the panels did not have rectangles painted into them and were presented as Rothko's first monochromatic works.

Rothko notified the de Menils that the murals were completed in April 1967. The de Menils approved of the work - to Rothko's intense relief - and the panels were placed in storage at the end of 1967 while the building was completed. Rothko planned to oversee the installation of the work, but by the time the building was ready in 1971, Rothko was dead. The installation was created according to notes and plans that Rothko had supplied but was not subject to the adjustments that Rothko would certainly have made. He had actually made eighteen panels with four spares that could be interchanged when the installation was being completed.

Another view of the chapel showing the rear wall with two doors lit from the foyer.

Breslin spent five days at the chapel looking at the work. He sums up his study as follows: "Intended for a Catholic chapel, hung in an ecumenical one, these murals are spiritual only in the sense that they renounce the world - the world of material objects, of historical time and social pressures. Decorating a public, sacred space, they express a private and very human desire: a despairing wish to withdraw from the human."

Dervishes at the Rothko Chapel, 1978. (from the Rothko Chapel site)

Approaching the End
In April 1968 Rothko suffered a "dissecting aortic aneurysm" caused by hypertension. He was also found to have arteriosclerosis, an abnormal electrocardiogram and early cirrhosis of the liver along with the high blood pressure and what were actually three inoperable aneurisms. He was hospitalized and then confined to bed at home for several weeks. He was not allowed to paint, drink, smoke or eat the food he was used to. He experienced severe depression at his deprivation and the reality of impending death which could strike at any time.

After a hiatus from painting of two or three months, Rothko began working again. His doctor had told him not to work on anything bigger than 40 inches, but he gradually worked up to 72" x 60". After working so hard on the Chapel murals, he was at a loss for how to continue. He had begun working in acrylic on paper when planning the Chapel murals, and he now took that medium up again, working in acrylic until the end of his life. He worked "very fast" on these pieces, sometimes working on 15 of them at a time, and considered them disposable. His assistant described the process as "either it's there or he tears it up." He created two series in the last year of his life - Brown on Grey, acrylic on paper, and Black on Grey, acrylic on canvas.

An acrylic on paper work from 1969 - one of the Brown on Grey series. Rothko considered the white margins where masking tape had held the paper to the wall to be an important element. "The dark is always at the top," is the way Rothko described them.

Rothko was unable to stay away from alcohol and began drinking heavily again. Continuous "fierce, bitter fights" with his wife, who also drank heavily, escalated to the point that he moved out of their home and set up a living space in his studio. He lived alone for the last fourteen months of his life in a "sparsely and shabbily furnished" room at the front of his studio with a couple of couches from the Salvation Army, a bed and a table. His only amenity was a stereo and some records.

Marlborough Digs Deeper
Over the years Rothko had had several close friends but had split with them over various disputes. In his last months, his two closest friends were Bernard Reis and Theodoros Stamos, an artist who, along with Reis, was made an executor of Rothko's estate.

In February 1969 Rothko signed a second contract with the Marlborough Gallery making it his exclusive agent for the next eight years and selling 87 of his works to them (26 on canvas, 61 on paper) for $1,050,000 to be paid over ten years (later extended to 14). That he had signed a contract for more than a million dollars gave Rothko a boost. But, Breslin points out that although Rothko thought he was saving money on taxes by having the payments stretched out, the Marlborough Gallery paid him no interest and that brought the income down to around $680,000. This arrangement also did not take into account the rising prices for Rothko's work, which benefitted the gallery, not Rothko.

Breslin points out that Rothko did not value the accumulation of things or a life of luxury. He was a child of poverty and the Depression and lived very frugally. He had no investment plan but deposited excess income in several savings banks ($132,000+ was found in nine banks after his death).

Although Rothko had signed a second contract with Marlborough, he and Frank Lloyd did not get along. In addition, the gallery was not promoting and selling his work as they had claimed they would and, in fact, as Rothko discovered, they were violating the contract by secretly selling work in New York (not solely in Europe) and at prices other than agreed for particular paintings. Rothko had talked with Arnold Glimcher of Pace Gallery about switching to them, but apparently Reis's hold over Rothko was such that he did not dare to leave Marlborough against Reis's advice.

A late photo of Rothko in his studio.

Rothko's body was found on the morning of February 25, 1970 by his studio assistant. Rothko had taken two bottles of antidepressants and sliced the inside of his elbows with a razor blade. He did not leave a note.

Breslin believes that at the time of his suicide, Rothko had lost confidence in Bernard Reis. He felt that Reis was steering him in the wrong direction by getting him to sign yet another contract with Marlborough for more paintings to be sold to them. These paintings were to be selected from Rothko's warehouse on the morning that Rothko's body was found. Breslin surmises that Rothko was so dependent on Reis that he didn't know how he would live without him. At the same time, he felt that Reis was manipulating him into doing things he didn't want to do such as leaving his wife and continuing to contract with Marlborough.

The Foundation and the Lawsuit
At the time of Rothko's death, his daughter Kate was 19 and living on her own in Brooklyn while attending Brooklyn College. His son was just six years old. Six months after Rothko's death, his wife Mell dropped dead from a heart attack, leaving the two children to manage on their own. Although they had inherited the family home and its contents, Rothko's inventory of nearly 800 paintings in storage was left to the foundation he had established in June 1969. The directors of the foundation included Bernard Reis, also an executor of Rothko's estate along with Theodoros Stamos and Morton Levine.

It turned out that the executors had close connections with the Marlborough Gallery and had made a secret deal to sell all 798 paintings in Rothko's estate to that gallery.

Rothko's daughter Kate Rothko Prizel and son Christopher Rothko sued the executors of the estate in 1971 in a case that dragged on for four years but was finally decided in their favor. They were awarded the return of the paintings and $9 million in damages. All contracts with the Marlborough Gallery were void. Paintings that Marlborough had already sold, however, were not returned.

Rothko's Children
From 2008 to February 2009 the Tate Modern in London had a show of Rothko's late work including nine of the Seagram murals that they own and that were gifted to them by Rothko himself. These works were reunited with other works from the Seagram murals series that are owned by the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Japan. Both Rothko's children attended the show that honored their father's work. (Both are doctors - Kate a pathologist and Christopher a psychologist.)
The Rothkos have recently published a book from a manuscript of their father's that they believe he wrote during 1940-41 when he claimed to have stopped painting. The book is titled The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art. They have also released a DVD entitled, Rothko's Rooms.

Christopher Rothko at the Tate Modern show - wearing colors that his father would have appreciated. (Photo by Shaun Curry of AFP/Getty)

And in Conclusion
This was a very long project that I would probably not have begun if I knew how time consuming it would be. I'm on a real kick of reading artists' bios and have read a couple of other contemporary books that I'll post on soon. Thanks for sticking with this. I hope you enjoyed it and/or learned some things you hadn't known before.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rothko - Part Five

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

Rothko's Tragic View of Life and Art
Probably in response to the critical assessment of his 1955 show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, Rothko began making "dark" paintings in 1957 that differed markedly from the lighter yellow, orange and pink colors he had been using. Critics called the earlier work serene and romantic, but "I would like to say to those who think of my pictures as serene...that I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface," Rothko asserted. The dark reds, browns and blacks that Rothko began using were associated with "the numinous, the royal and the religious" according to one critic. Dore Ashton praised Rothko's "deeply developed sense of the tragic" and claimed that he stood alone as "the most constructively disturbing" among his generation of painters.

A comparison between Rothko's self portrait of 1936 and a photo portrait of 1960.

Rothko subscribed to the Nietzschean view expressed in The Birth of Tragedy that human existence could be explained by the polar forces of Apollo and Dionysus. He saw his dark paintings in terms of their Dionysian content. His work contained, he said, "the boundless aspirations and terrors, the welter of restlessness, the senselessness, the desires, the alterations of hope and despair, out of context and out of reason, on which is constructed the shaky security of our ordered life." Rothko's insistence on his work's deeper, tragic content meant that its serene appearance was a facade; the real truth of the work lay in its dark underpinnings.

Alcoholism and other ills
By 1956 Rothko apparently was a maintenance drinker, who began drinking in the morning and continued throughout the day (as reported by Elaine de Kooning). He ate voraciously and with no table manners, according to several friends, and he was rarely without a cigarette in his waking moments. His health began to deteriorate and he suffered from gout, overweight and hypochondria. By the late '50s he complained of exhaustion from working so hard but continued to spend long hours in the studio. Rothko's daughter remembers him as being absent during her childhood, at the studio all week and in museums on weekend afternoons. His time with her was limited to Sunday mornings. By 1956, Rothko was 53, his daughter Kate was 6 and his wife Mell 34. His wife was also drinking heavily and had serious falls that her doctor attributed to her drinking.

Rothko was now making a modest living from his work (soon to triple), but he felt uneasy or even corrupt about it. Did taking money for his work mean that he was compromising his beliefs by providing decorations for the homes of rich people? This is a question that troubled him continually once he became successful.

The Seagram or Four Seasons Murals
In 1958 Rothko accepted a commission from Samuel Bronfman, former bootlegger and current owner of Joseph Seagram & Sons. Bronfman had employed Mies van der Rohe to design and construct his first building in New York, what was to be called the Seagram Building, on Park Avenue. Approached initially about the commission by Philip Johnson, Rothko agreed to furnish 500 to 600 square feet of paintings for $35,000 to be installed in two executive dining rooms at the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. Although he was pleased with the amount he was to be paid and with the cachet of the commission, Rothko was worse than ambivalent about installing his paintings in the Four Seasons. "I accepted this assignment with strictly malicious intentions," Rothko said. "I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room." He wanted his paintings to make them feel that they were trapped in the room "where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."

What caused Rothko to accept this commission given his strong feelings against those who would be dining there? Breslin says that besides the high price and prominence it would bring him, another motivation was that Rothko wanted to create a space where his paintings would be the only focus, so that the room would be all his. What he had in mind was suggested by the work of his two painting heroes, Matisse and Miro: Matisse created a chapel (in Vence, France) and Miro created a huge restaurant mural (in Cincinnati). Also, Gottlieb, Ferber and Motherwell, three of Rothko's close friends, had created work for a synagogue. While he cynically mocked the three of them because of his antagonism to Judaism, he apparently was jealous of the public display of their work.

Details of the Murals
The Four Seasons dining room was 55 feet x 26 feet x 15 feet with one wall of glass covered by a metallic chain curtain. Rothko had always insisted that his paintings be hung close to the floor, but in this room they would have to be hung much higher - 4 1/2 feet above the floor in fact - so that they could be seen above the dining room. This commission provided Rothko with a challenge to seek a different solution to the tension between architectural space and human presence that had concerned him since he began creating larger work.

During the summer of 1958, Rothko was forced to get a new studio because the West 61st Street building in which he had been worked was being demolished. This was actually fortuitous because the Four Seasons murals were to be so large that he needed a huge space in which to work. He found a former YMCA building at 222 Bowery and took over the gymnasium as his studio. It measured 46 feet x 32 feet by 23 feet and was so big that he had to construct walls on which to hang the paintings. The room was "very very dark" since the walls blocked the nearly all the windows.

Rothko hired a studio assistant to help him and worked intensely for several months, complaining to his doctor that he was exhausted from working so hard. He produced three sets of panels - about 40 mural-size canvases plus several individual works. Breslin says that Rothko began painting with his usual vertical orientation of the canvas with horizontal bands of color but decided that he should turn the canvases horizontally on their sides, making the bands vertical. This imagery suggested architectural elements such as pillars and doors. To work out the relation of one painting to another, Rothko resorted to making prepatory drawings for the first time in many years.

Red on Maroon, 1959, 8.75' x 8', one of the Seagram panels (from Tate Modern site)

Rothko, his wife Mell and daughter Kate sailed to Europe on vacation in June 1959 so that Rothko could take a break from the work. After their return and the Four Seasons' opening in July that year, Mell and Rothko ate dinner at the restaurant. That meal and his first view of the completed dining room made Rothko furious. His studio assistant said that he came into work the next day in a rage, saying, "Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine." Stanley Kunitz said he was furious and could talk of nothing else for weeks. Rothko was so angry at the reality of the room where his paintings were to be hung that he returned the payments he had received and declined the commission.

Mural for End Wall, 1959, about 8'7" x 9', (from the Tate Modern site)

Where are they now?
Nine of the murals are at the Tate Modern in London in a special room, the National Gallery in Washington has thirteen and seven are at the Kawamura Museum of Modern Art in Japan. Breslin says that the rest are in the collections of Rothko's children or owned by the Rothko Foundation, but that was in 1993 and much has happened since. I recall that Bernie Madoff associate and brother of Daphne, J. Ezra Merkin, owns at least two 9' x 15' Seagram murals plus a couple of other Rothkos, said to be worth between $100 and $200 million. Since J. Ezra is now being sued by the Attorney General of New York and by Mort Zuckerman for fraud and/or bilking the public, he may be forced to put his Rothkos on the block - to the delight of many who are salivating over the prospect.

The Harvard Murals
You would think that Rothko would have sworn off making murals for dining rooms after his bad experience with the Four Seasons, but in 1962 he agreed to produce a set of murals for a penthouse dining room in Harvard University's new Holyoke Center. The paintings were valued at $100,000 but would be gifted to Harvard and in return Harvard would pay Rothko $10,000 to cover expenses. (Remember that this was in the days when artists could deduct the full cost of their donated works from their income tax returns.) The room was to be used by Harvard's upper echelon - the Board of Overseers, the Corporation, distinguished visitors, etc.

Rothko completed six murals for Harvard in about nine months. He chose to hang five of them. Rothko oversaw the installation, choosing a dark olive green fabric for the walls, fiberglass curtains over the large windows and lights hung from the ceiling. He was "very unsatisfied" with the room because it was "crowded" with furniture and he thought the ceiling was too low. The paintings had to be hung so low in the room that the backs of chairs could come in contact with them when someone pushed back his chair (and I do mean his).

Just three and a half years after their installation, a Harvard museum official observed that the murals were in "apalling shape" with faded and badly changed color. Rothko was contacted about them, but said there was nothing he could do about it, and he refused to let Harvard apply varnish to the paintings or alter their surfaces.

Breslin says that although the story of the murals over time has blamed Rothko for using cheap paint, the real truth is that he had used Lithol Red, a color which proved later to be highly fugitive (sensitive to light). Also, the paintings were not only damaged by fading; they were also subjected to scratches, abrasions, tears, dents and even graffiti once the dining room was downgraded into a "Party Function Room." Because they were owned by the Harvard Corporation instead of the Fogg Museum, the murals fell into a limbo where they were not cared for, and finally in 1979 they had to be removed to "Dark Storage", where they remain still.

A son is born
Mell Rothko gave birth to a son, Christopher - called Topher - on August 31, 1963. At the time, Mell was 41, Rothko was a month short of 60 and their daughter Kate was 13. Rothko told a friend, "I'm too old."

Rothko in 1964, photo by Hans Namuth (from the National Gallery site)

Nearly the end, really

Well, it's happened again, I still haven't finished the Rothko story. I think I should change the name of this blog to ROTHKO IN THE STUDIO because it's going on so long. Really, I promise, just one more post and then we'll be done.

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.

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.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Rothko - Part Two

(Note: In case you're beginning here, 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.")

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.

Rothko - Part One

James Breslin, the author
I would like to share what I learned about the life and work of Mark Rothko from reading Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E. B. Breslin, published in 1993 by the University of Chicago Press. Breslin (no relation to Jimmy Breslin) was an English professor and authority on modern American poetry. An unplanned visit to a Rothko retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1979 inspired Breslin to begin writing his definitive biography of Rothko some seven years later. Not only was Breslin motivated by his love of Rothko's mature paintings, but he also identified with Rothko's reinvention of his life and work in his late 40s since Breslin was undergoing some of the same life changes himself. Rothko's paintings, Breslin said, "create an empathetic space in which to confront emptiness and loss; they create environments for mourning." (from Breslin's obituary)

Breslin spent more than seven years researching and writing Rothko's bio, and it was critically aclaimed, termed by Hilton Kramer, NY Times art critic, "the best life of an American painter that has yet been written." Sadly, Breslin died of a heart attack at age 60 while writing a biography of John Coltrane. He had immersed himself in the 1950s jazz scene and even learned to play the sax in search of his subject. The world is poorer for his loss.

What is so surprising to me about this book is that it seems to be written from an artist's perspective, even though Breslin had no formal training in art or art history. Initially he learned about painting from his second wife, Ramsay Bell Breslin, who at the time was painting Abstract Expressionist-influenced work. (She is now an arts writer, poet and biographer herself.) But more about the artist's perspective later after we get the facts, Maam.

Rothko's Early Life
Rothko was born September 26, 1903 in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils), Latvia, at the time under Russian control. There were two considerably older brothers and a sister in his family, which was headed by their father, Jacob Rothkowitz, and mother, Kate. Although Jacob had separated himself from orthodox Judaism because of his Marxist beliefs and the repressive orthodoxy in Dvinsk, he insisted that his youngest son Mark (born Marcus) be educated in a religious school. Bloody pograms against the Jews in 1905 had driven Jacob back toward orthodox Judaism in time to influence the early education of his youngest son. Marcus/Mark received rigorous schooling in Hebrew texts, Talmudic law and orthodox rules, but later made an angry break with Judaism after his father's death.

Left to right: Rothko's brother Albert, sister Sonia, unnamed cousin, Mark/Marcus, brother Moise. (from National Gallery site)

Jews in Russia had been consigned by Catherine the Great to live in an area called the Pale of Settlement. They were forbidden from engaging in certain trades, kept in poverty and miserable living conditions, and subject to political and physical persecution. These conditions drove thousands to emigrate; among them were the Rothkowitz family who chose to re-establish themselves in Portland, Oregon, where they had a large extended family.

Jacob, unable to make a successful living as a pharmacist, left Russia in 1910. Two years later, his two older sons emigrated, and in 1913, Kate, Sonia and Mark/Marcus joined the rest of the family. About six months after the 10-year-old Rothko with his mother and sister arrived in Portland, Jacob Rothkowitz died suddenly, leaving the family dependent on other relatives for their support.

Influences on Rothko: ostracization of the Jews in Russia, early immersion in Jewish school, shame and embarrassment on arriving in America because of his clothing and inability to speak English, separation from and then early death of his father.

Rothko in America
Rothko quickly learned English and did well in school, although his foreign origin, Jewishness and poverty set him apart and excluded him from membership in certain high school clubs. He played mandolin and piano by ear and loved music, debating, poetry and dramatic arts. He liked to draw but had no formal training in art and no inclination toward becoming an artist.

In 1921 he enrolled at Yale, having been awarded a scholarship along with two Jewish friends from Portland. At Yale, they suffered from overt and institutionalized anti-Semitism, classism and Nativism. Even worse, at the end of their first semester, their tuition scholarships were converted into loans, forcing them to find menial jobs on campus. Rothko became disillusioned with education at Yale, let his grades slip and dropped out of college in 1923.

Rothko had entered Yale with vague ideas of becoming an engineer or lawyer, but moved to New York after leaving Yale to study art at the Art Students League. He claimed that he had visited a friend who was painting from a nude model and decided that "this was the life for me." He studied briefly at the New School of Design with Ashile Gorky and at the Art Students League with Max Weber. His work at the time was of "domestic and urban scenes in a thickly impastoed, murky expressionist style" as influenced by Weber.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (three nudes), c. 1926/1935 (National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.94)

Edith and early life in the arts
In the summer of 1932, Rothko was camping with a friend at Lake George when he met a young woman nine years his junior from Brooklyn, named Edith Sachar. Rothko's mandolin playing attracted her, and that fall they were married. They lived in a two-room basement apartment that had once been a dog kennel, but there Rothko painted and smoked while Edith began sculpting in clay. They bought a piano and Rothko played for hours and hours - especially Mozart. They struggled financially and Rothko found work teaching art to children at the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Edith eventually started a jewelry business that became successful.

During this time Rothko became friends with Milton Avery, who was 18 years older than him, and a successful painter. According to Breslin, "Avery represented psychological calm, domestic stability, a life devoted to the poetry and light of pure art." Breslin also believed that Rothko's mature work owed a lot to Avery's influence in their "simplified, buoyant forms, their expressive use of color, their thinned paints and even their quiet..."

Milton Avery: Rothko with a pipe, 1936 (National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1974.123.1)

Rothko participated in his first group show in 1928 and his first solo show in New York in 1933 at the Contemporary Arts Gallery, where he showed 15 oils, 4 watercolors and 6 black tempera on paper. Throughout the '30s Rothko struggled with his expressionist subjects - portraits, landscapes, exteriors, interiors. During this period, Rothko painted a self portrait that Breslin refers to again and again in reference to Rothko's sense of himself.

Mark Rothko, Self-Portrait,1936, Collection of Christopher Rothko

"...his Self-Portrait fabricates a theatrical self, the only means by which the self-conscious Rothko could express real feeling. Just as the right side of his suit jacket is pulled too far across his chest and the left side pulled too far back, Rothko's mythic disguise both covers and exposes his private self - a tension between the desire to be seen and the desire to remain hidden that will become central to his art....

"Rothko forcefully asserts himself, but he also shields his apparently damaged right hand with his left, conceals himself behind his Sunday clothing and mythic identify, and withdraws behind his dark glasses, keeping himself shadowed, enigmatic, and private, as if to protect himself from the very kind of invasive looking that produced his paintings. Angry, he remains silent and held in. Hurt, he withdraws. Or so it seems, until we realize that behind his blue glasses we can make out two small flat black discs, Rothko's eyes, gloomy, haunted, and impenetrable, but looking out..." (page 109)

Questions Asked and Answered

What about that bear?
The bear has not come back - as far as we know - and all is well. Our birds have about given up looking for birdseed after we packed it all away and are concentrating on building nests in all the nesting boxes we have around the yard. So far it's mostly sparrows building nests - and our faithful robin, who returns every year.

Have you finally finished reading that Rothko bio?
The good news is that I finally, finally finished the Rothko bio! It was a long haul with those dense, 600+ pages. I was ready to give it up initially because the first 200 pages or so were extremely tedious, but once the author (James Breslin) came to the beginnings of Abstract Expressionism in 1940s New York, I was hooked and actually started underlining as I read.

This book was an incredible labor of love by Breslin, who spent seven years writing it and performed unbelievably devoted, not to say obsessive, feats of research to document minute details. His research included traveling alone to Rothko's hometown in Russia (dangerous and life threatening), investigating variances in Rothko's autopsy versus published reports of his death (not as revealing for me as for Breslin), spending five consecutive full days in the Rothko chapel in Houston studying the paintings there and seeing who visited, interviewing everyone he could find with connections to Rothko (all kinds of relatives, artists Rothko knew or surviving families of those artists, critics - including the enduringly pompous Clement Greenberg, studio assistants, etc., etc.).

When can we expect a post about Rothko?
Breslin gathered an incredible amount of information, and now, with so much detail about Rothko filling my head, it's difficult to know where to start. It will need to be more than one post because so many interesting questions were raised that not only have to do with Rothko, but with art and artists in general. I'm going to work on it this weekend and post soon - hopefully tomorrow.

Isn't asking yourself questions and answering them an intensely annoying practice?
When Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense in the late and unlamented Bush administration, he continually asked himself all those stupid questions and gave his patronizing answers. I hated that! Now here I am doing it. What's the matter with me? It's late and I'm tired. Do you promise not to do this again? I do.