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.