Friday, August 13, 2010

Rothko's Biography On My Mind in New York

Still in my photo collection and not yet posted - lots of shots from my trip to New York last month. Less than a month has passed since my visit, but those photos are tugging at my sleeve, just dying to get online. (Now that's a ridiculous image!) So I'm trying to sort all my New York photos into some semblance of meaning, and one of the categories I came up with was work by Mark Rothko.

My photo of Mark Rothko's "Four Darks in Red", 102 x 116 inches, 1958, at The Whitney Museum

The Whitney's photo of the same painting. This painting is included in The Whitney's current exhibition "Collecting Biennials", up until November 16th. As you exit the elevator to the exhibition floor, this painting is facing you. 

In April 2009 I did a 6-part post on Rothko based on the biography by James Breslin. Breslin's book was truly a monumental achievement, and I don't think anyone can ever write such a well-documented history of Rothko's life. As a result of reading that wonderful work so closely and posting so densely about Rothko, I feel a real affinity to his work. When I see a Rothko painting, I'm thinking about the history of its making, who bought it, was it involved in some struggle, etc. So apparently with all this on my mind, I didn't do a very good job of photographing the paintings. I felt that I was so familiar with them, that I was just shooting for reference or something. So I'm giving you my photo version and the official version. The strange thing is that neither one really captures the paintings. I think they are somewhere between the two.

As I was reflecting on all the work I had seen in New York and trying to recall the standouts, one of the most impressive to me was Rothko's Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea.

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

MoMA's official "Slow Swirl"

Here's what I said about it in my April 2009 post:

Rothko showed 15 of his myth-based, automatic drawing-inspired oil paintings [at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of the Century Gallery in New York]. 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's 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.)

Although I knew what the dimensions of this painting were, I had visualized it as being maybe 36" x 40". In person it's much more impressive and the color is not as dingy as the art history books show it. It seems like a very large painting for an average living room and certainly too big to go over a couch.

Currently showing at MoMA on the same wall as Slow Swirl are several early Rothkos that were made in the mid '40s before he found his style. At this time he was in the Surrealism/psychic automatism phase. These three pieces were painted in the early to mid 1940s, around the time of Slow Swirl and are watercolor and ink on paper.

In the first and third of these he seems to be struggling with those bands of color that eventually took over his work. These pieces are not much to look at but a good illustration of how artists develop and grow.

Of course it's the oil paintings that Rothko is known for and MoMA had several on display. The most famous of them (to me at least) is No. 10.

My version of No. 10

The National Gallery's version of No. 10. This work was painted in 1950 and is 7'6" H x 57" W.

MoMA's version of No. 10.

Here's what I wrote about it in my blog post:

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.

The sad fact about this painting is that the color has deteriorated to the point that it's barely there. The National Gallery image is not true to life at all. Rothko had some very inventive formulas and methods of painting.

Here's what I wrote based on Breslin:
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.

Here is my pal Binnie looking at the side of a Rothko at all the construction materials behind it that conservators have evidentally applied.(This may have been the side of No. 10, but I'm not sure.) I remembered reading about Rothko using the cheapest materials possible to stretch his canvases. Here's what I wrote (aren't you getting sick of me quoting myself?):

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."

My version of No. 3/No. 13 (Rothko changed his numbering system)

MoMA's version of No. 3/13, 1949, 7'1:H x 65" W

My version of No. 5/No. 22

MoMA's version of No. 5/22, 1949, 9'9" H x 8'11" W

My version of No. 16

MoMA's version of No. 16, 1958, 8'10" H x 9'9" W (notice how the bottom color band is showing green coming through)

Clifford Still's painting hanging next to Rothko's No. 16

I'm sorry that I did not note the title of this work by Clifford Still and MoMA does not show images online of any of his works so I couldn't find it that way. I got a kick out of seeing these two paintings hanging side by side because Rothko and Still were great friends in the 1940s and networked with each other early on. Still introduced Rothko to the West Coast and arranged for him to teach at the California School of Fine Arts; Rothko introduced Still to New York and even stored Still's paintings in his studio. There are some art historians who even claim that Still was responsible for Rothko's breakthrough into his signature style. Later in the early '50s they had a falling out and stopped speaking.

Here is Still's description of his friend Rothko before the breakup:
"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 grown 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)

A late photo of Rothko

If you want to read my posts about Rothko, you can start here.


Deb Lacativa said...

Thanks for these posts and perspectives...

As ever, seeing his work leaves me inarticulate about art. dumb struck was the way I always felt when standing in front of the paintings in person.

It also gives me a crease between the eyes about having chosen cloth as a medium. It can help but fall short in achieving the things Rothko was seeking but I'm experimenting with sheer silks and dye, closer maybe, to my answering my own questions.

Ian MacLeod said...

Great post Nancy.

Anonymous said...

I gotta read that book. You're adding to my reading list many times over!

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for your comments, Deb, Ian and Lynette. Deb, you are so right about the effect of Rothko's work when you are standing in front of it and enveloped by it. Good luck and persistence with your own work.

Wendy Rodrigue Magnus said...

I love Rothko. I've been insulting my husband for years with the request to 'paint me one,' and wrote about it here:

(please don't feel that you have to post this comment, Nancy, as I'm not here to promote my own blog; I just didn't know how to write to you personally).

Anyway, I'm halfway through your earlier Rothko posts and am thoroughly enjoying and have ordered the book.

I also thought of you today, when I posted the link below, because you basically have an 'art discussion group.' Again, don't feel obligated to read or post publicly. You've become a favorite blogger of mine, and I wanted to share with you:

Thank you for another great post- Wendy

Lainie said...

What a beautiful blog. I'm so glad to discover your art and your writing. Thank you.

Nancy Natale said...

Wendy, thanks for your comment and I hope you get your Rodrigue-Rothko one of these days. You can email me any time at

Lainie, thanks for your very nice comment. I hope you continue to read and enjoy.