Long Spells of Looking

Peter Campbell

  • Mark Rothko edited by Jeffrey Weiss
    Yale/National Gallery of Art, Washington, 352 pp, £40.00, April 1998, ISBN 0 300 07505 7
  • Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas by David Anfam
    Yale/National Gallery of Art, Washington, 708 pp, £75.00, August 1998, ISBN 0 300 07489 1

There is a picture of Mark Rothko taken at his East Hampton studio in 1964. He is sitting on one of those solid wooden beach chairs that stand around on the porches of Long Island summer cottages, looking at one of his own paintings as one might look at the sea, patiently pursuing all that his picture has in it. He was famous for this: for attending on the effect of each change in the angle or intensity of light, for looking close up and far off. In the catalogue for the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (it goes on to Paris in January) Barbara Novak and Brian O’Doherty write:

In the last year of Rothko’s life we spent many hours in the crepuscular half-darkness of the studio on East 69th Street looking at black on grey pictures with Rothko ... through those long spells of looking, accompanied by long silences, our opinions were solicited with a deceptive humility. Newly evicted from the paintings, Rothko shared the spectator’s puzzlement: what are these about? How did they come to be? Why did I make them? What, if anything, do they mean?

By then, at the end of a ‘voyage inwards, perilously sustained with increasingly reduced means’, he was in a cruel situation – one quite distinct from, although perhaps contributing to, his poor mental and physical state. He had believed art to be serious. His paradigms of seriousness were literary and musical. He had made his play and won tremendous praise. But American painting in the late Sixties no longer had a place for his view of the tragic, or indeed any kind of high seriousness; he was a Masaccio among fan painters. If Rothko had been on the right track why was he so isolated? The size of his ambition made the usual ups and downs of style and reputation seem like a denial of its essence, not just a passing misfortune. The claims abstract painting made in the Fifties – and Rothko bid as high as anyone – were such that one expected it to remain in the ascendant for more than the decade or so that it lasted. He said that he wanted to raise painting to ‘the level of poignancy of music and poetry’. His ‘tragic sense,’ Novak and O’Doherty write, ‘which manifested itself as a degree of pathos in his everyday life, had little traffic with the distancing ironies of Modernism.’ He seems to have found justification for his high ambition – for himself and for the art of painting – in Nietzsche: ‘The language Nietzsche uses to characterise the discourse of the Apollonian and Dionysian may have had a seductive power for Rothko: “illusion”, “hallucinations”, “dream”, “veils”, “mirror”, “reflections”, “essence and appearance”, “the sublime, which subjugates terror by means of art”’. This is literary talk, not painter’s talk, and Rothko’s beginnings would suggest a future in writing, not painting.

He was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia, in 1903. In 1913 he and his mother went to Portland to join his father, who had emigrated to America three years earlier. In 1914 his father died. Rothko graduated from high school in 1921 and was awarded a Yale scholarship. In 1923 he helped found the Yale Saturday Post – and made at least one contribution, on ‘False Gods’. In the fall of that year he left without a degree and worked in New York as a book-keeper for his uncle. In 1924 he enrolled in art classes, then returned to Portland, where he studied acting. By 1929 he was back in New York and teaching art two days a week. He became a friend of Adolph Gottlieb and of Milton Avery: there were poetry readings (the work of Eliot and Wallace Stevens was in favour). And so on through the Thirties – he joined a group (The Ten), exhibited, wrote (about children’s art, for instance). In 1938 he became a naturalised American. In 1939 his work appeared in an exhibition, The Ten: Whitney Dissenters. Later that year the group broke up, perhaps for political reasons. In 1940 Rothkowitz became Rothko. He had married Edith Sachar, a jeweller, in 1932; they divorced in 1944 and in 1945 Rothko married an illustrator, Mell Beistle. He gave her a copy of Kafka’s The Trial; he was reading Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard.

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