Back to Life

Christopher Benfey

  • Mark Rothko: Towards the Light in the Chapel by Annie Cohen-Solal
    Yale, 296 pp, £18.99, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 18204 0

In the old ‘Rothko room’ of the pre-expansion Phillips Collection in Washington DC, it was possible to feel that you had stumbled on a private sanctuary, furnished with a single bench, in which four extraordinary paintings – soft-edged rectangles of pulsing orange and saturated blue, yellows both earthly and otherworldly – slowly worked their enchantment. Total immersion was Rothko’s intention. ‘They are not pictures,’ he said of his murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. ‘I have made a place.’ He aimed to make such places in a dining room at Harvard and in the octagonal Rothko Chapel in Houston; few artists have been more obsessive, more imperious, more obnoxious in their insistence on precisely how their pictures are to be hung, illuminated or viewed – from 18 inches away, Rothko once specified, apparently in all seriousness.

When I first encountered Rothko, on a visit to Washington in 1972, I knew nothing about the artist, and certainly nothing about his suicide two years earlier, when he was 66, a suicide planned with the same elaborate care with which he staged his paintings. ‘We were surprised to learn that his suicide was so ritualistic,’ Robert Motherwell said. For me, and I imagine for many others then as now, Rothko just was his paintings – paintings that seemed, when we stood before them spellbound, to be our shifting moods themselves.

It is with some trepidation that one opens a new biography of Rothko. One risks meeting not only a changed Rothko but also the ghosts of one’s own former selves. We now know how the story ends, with the ghastly suicide in the studio (drugs, drink and depression; the razor and the outstretched arms). We know about the nasty legal wrangling over the estate, criminally mismanaged by Marlborough Fine Art. We know how the ill-fated commissions ended, too, with Rothko angrily backing out of the deal to decorate the walls of the Four Seasons, and the uglier fate that awaited the dining room at Harvard, as Rothko’s paintings, scarred by graffiti and splashed with food – and painted, ironically, with an unstable crimson – faded over the years. What time did to the Harvard paintings Rothko himself deliberately inflicted on his final, nearly colourless paintings of grey and matte black, like window blinds drawn down.

If Rothko’s fortunes, so to speak, are still robust, with sales this spring at Sotheby’s and at Christie’s expected to net from $30 million to $60 million a painting, something has changed in our relation to Abstract Expressionism. Not so long ago, on entering the white-walled room in a major museum housing the Pollocks, the Stills, the Rothkos and the Newmans, you could easily persuade yourself that here was the culmination of many things. Here, on these outsized canvases, the moment was recorded when New York muscled out Paris as the capital of Modern Art, when recognisable subject matter was banished once and for ever from the canvas, when flatness defeated the facile illusionism of perspective, when the agony of modern man (always man) was visible for all to see, along with the masculine ecstasy of paint promiscuously applied with a giant brush or poured out in sweeping swirls directly from the can.

Now, you enter the room and something feels different. The nationalist triumphalism has dulled with the end of the Cold War. The colours are not as vibrant as you remembered them. Amid the letdown, you may feel called on to provide some compensatory emotion of your own, like the young TV producer in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, as she contemplates the Rothko reproductions on her walls: ‘She still felt – or could, if she kept the overhead light off and the posterish flatness of her pictures remained unrevealed, the way an aging woman’s wrinkles are melted in the shadows – that she might lose herself in the verdigris palette, a slightly different hue for each mood.’ In the right light, in the right mood, maybe these pictures could come fully to life again.

Annie Cohen-Solal, the author of biographies of Sartre and the art dealer Leo Castelli, has written a compact book about Rothko’s life and art for Yale’s ‘Jewish Lives’ series, drawing freely on the literary critic James Breslin’s impressive full-length biography of 1993. Unlike Breslin, she has little curiosity about Rothko’s darker side, preferring to see his life as an ongoing quest, as she puts it in her subtitle, ‘towards the light in the chapel’. She has little to say about the drinking and drugs, the heart disease and emphysema, the shrinks and charlatans; she barely mentions the suicide or the Marlborough mess, and is silent about Rothko’s affair, late in life, after he had moved away from his wife and two children, with the artist Rita Reinhardt, the widow of the painter Ad Reinhardt. It is, instead, the ‘Jewish’ Rothko that she tries to engage, the spiritual voyager, even when Rothko, who claimed he was not a religious man, seems most elusive in his supposed Jewishness.

Marcus Rotkovitch was born in 1903 in Dvinsk, a trading hub of 75,000 inhabitants within the Pale of Settlement, now renamed Daugavpils and Latvia’s second largest city. His father was a university-educated pharmacist, ‘profoundly Marxist and violently anti-religious’, according to Rothko. His German-speaking mother was also ‘very secular’. His sister and two older brothers attended non-religious schools. In some strange and still puzzling sense, Marcus himself, sent to a Jewish school between the ages of four and ten, was the designated observant Jew in the family.

Cohen-Solal speculates that Rothko’s father may have been trying to protect him from the Russian military draft, since Talmudic students were exempt from service. But weren’t such Jewish boys, with their traditional clothing and hairstyles, in equal danger from anti-Semitic rampages like the pogrom in Kishniev in the year of Marcus’s birth? Whatever the reason, Marcus, at ten, appears in a family photograph like an alien Photoshopped among his worldly relatives. ‘Bundled in his dark, austere clothing … and holding a book (most likely a Torah),’ Cohen-Solal notes, ‘he looks closer to fifty.’

Any alienation young Marcus may have experienced in Dvinsk was amplified when his father, renamed Rothkowitz, left Russia for America in 1910; Marcus and his mother joined him three years later. ‘I was never able to forgive this transplantation to a land where I never felt entirely at home,’ he said later. The cross-country trek to Portland, Oregon, where his father had found work, was excruciating. ‘You don’t know what it is to be a Jewish kid dressed in a suit that is a Dvinsk not an American idea of a suit, travelling across America and not able to speak English,’ he told Motherwell. In Portland, as in many other American cities, prosperous German Jews, who had mainly emigrated during the 19th century, had their own established neighbourhood while the ‘Eastern Jews’ fleeing the pogroms were confined to more slum-like conditions. The Rothkowitzes identified with the German Jews but lived in ‘Little Odessa’.

Marcus starred on the debate team and wrote short stories for the school magazine. He got good grades, was accepted at Yale, and seemed on the path to assimilation. But Yale was going through one of its periodic anti-Semitic paroxysms. ‘If we do not educate them, they will overrun us,’ warned the dean of the college. ‘We must put a ban on the Jews.’ Marcus found himself friendless; his grades plummeted; he took out his bitterness in a student paper called the Saturday Evening Pest. ‘The whole institution is a lie,’ he wrote of Yale, ‘and serves as a cloak of respectability for a social and athletic club.’ After two years, he dropped out, moved to Harlem, and embarked on a series of odd jobs before stumbling into a class at the Art Students League and experiencing what Cohen-Solal called an ‘epiphany’. ‘It is the life for me,’ he decided.

It is at this point that the story of Marcus Rothkowitz intersects with the history of American art, though one may feel that Cohen-Solal is a bit too eager to align the two timelines. She notes that Marcus arrived in America in the year of the epochal Armory Show, which introduced many Americans to modern art. But what possible significance could this show have had for the ten-year-old immigrant boy? She notes that Rothko, along with his friends Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, was part of a circle of young artists encouraged by Milton Avery, ‘a pure-blooded American who singlehandedly led the way for Modernism in 1930s New York’. One balks at both the offensive adjective and the adverb, during a time when Alfred Stieglitz, among others, was actively promoting modernist art.

A late starter, Rothko assimilated styles and influences quickly and shed them just as abruptly, though the pace of his development was not, as Cohen-Solal claims, ‘unprecedented in art history’ – one thinks of Picasso. In 1938, he was a lyrical realist, as in the gentle geometry of his Entrance to Subway (Subway Scene). In 1940, feeling blocked in his painting, he spent a year writing a dutiful book manuscript – characterised by Cohen-Solal, with her habitual hyperbole, as a ‘Promethean intellectual journey’ – about aesthetic theory and practice, published after his death as The Artist’s Reality (2004). When he took up painting again, he signalled his determination by adopting a new name, Rothko, which Cohen-Solal finds ‘a more opaque and less ethnically identifiable patronymic than “Roth”, the one picked by his brothers’. The name also seems a clever piece of personal branding, like Texaco.

Rothko moved, during the early 1940s, from realism to recognisable mythical subjects drawn from Greek and Christian iconography. By 1944, he had embraced the various more private modes, biomorphic figures and schematic ideographs of Surrealist primitivism. In 1946 came the fascinating but short-lived ‘multiforms’, which look as though Rothko had deliberately painted over his Miró-like motifs with rough-edged rectangles of heavily applied colour. ‘I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers,’ he wrote at the time. ‘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.’

The gap between the mood in which Rothko painted his pictures and the mood in which gallery-goers received them only increased when at the end of the decade he discovered his classic compositional format of stacked abstract rectangles of intense colour. In these paintings, too, there is much layering and the appearance of painting out. The rectangles seem stacked vertically, top to bottom, on the picture plane but also superimposed on other all but invisible rectangles peeking out from the edges. Obsessively reading Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Rothko claimed that he had ‘imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface’. But if there is existential angst lurking in these seemingly serene paintings, the impression, as T.J. Clark put it, is of ‘The Birth of Tragedy redone by Renoir.’

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By the late 1950s, Rothko found himself a successful artist. Peggy Guggenheim had shown his work and he found a reliable dealer in Sidney Janis. In a division reminiscent of the Jewish neighbourhoods in Portland, Rothko was now one of the respectable ‘uptown boys’, with Newman and Gottlieb and Motherwell, rather than the bohemian riffraff downtown. They wore suits and ties instead of the working-class overalls of the Cedar Tavern crowd and boycotted the Ninth Street Show of 1951. Ten years later, outraged when Janis showed Pop artists, Rothko found himself a new gallery, the ill-fated Marlborough. Inspired by the Rothko room at the Phillips, he increasingly insisted that the only proper company for his paintings were other Rothkos, and that they had to be hung and illuminated according to his exacting specifications.

Rothko’s insistence on controlling the conditions under which his work was encountered has struck some, including Cohen-Solal, as evidence of artistic integrity. Others have been less charitable. ‘Rothko requires that his paintings be read as an exercise in Authoritarian imagery,’ Clyfford Still noted in a letter to Janis in 1955. ‘When they are hung in tight phalanx, as he would have them hung, and flooded with the light he demands that they receive, the tyranny of his ambition to suffocate or crush all who stand in his way becomes fully manifest.’ Cohen-Solal is dismissive: ‘How to interpret his old friends’ venomous criticism as anything but resentment towards Rothko’s quick rise in the art world?’ Her question is meant to be rhetorical, but Still was right.

This artist who insisted that the only valid subject matter for art was ‘tragic and timeless’ was hired to decorate the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. Surely, Rothko knew that what was wanted was something like the alluring paintings in the Duncan Phillips mansion in Georgetown, or the colourful mural that Josef Albers had designed to be placed above a stairway descending to Grand Central Station. Instead, Rothko set out to design austere murals in maroon and black that would resist a merely decorative purpose; he referred to them as a ‘sombre vault’. It never occurred to him, his friend Katharine Kuh claimed, ‘that the works would be forced to compete with a noisy crowd of conspicuous consumers’.

Cohen-Solal treats the whole farcical episode of the Four Seasons as tragedy. In her account, Rothko flees to England where, in the artists’ colony at St Ives, he finds an escape from the merely monetary values dominant in the United States. He visits a ruined chapel nearby and considers buying it to house his own work. ‘In August 1959, as he contemplated transforming Lelant Chapel into his own museum, it was probably here, in this niche sheltered from the misdeeds of American consumerist society, that Mark Rothko decided to call off the Seagram project.’ The irony of buying a chapel to escape the tyranny of money is lost on Cohen-Solal. Eight of the Seagram paintings did end up in England, at the Tate, on the condition that they would be exhibited in a room of their own in perpetuity.

This grand narrative of spiritual versus material values was to have a second chapter, when Harvard came knocking, in 1961, and for yet another luxury dining room. Rothko, amazingly, accepted and spent nine months working on the murals. The Harvard president Nathan Pusey, who visited Rothko’s studio to look at the finished product, knew precisely the kind of language – the birth of tragedy rather than the charms of decor – Rothko wanted to hear. ‘Their colours,’ Pusey observed, ‘would re-enact Christ’s Passion, the dark tones of the triptych invoking His suffering on Good Friday and the lighter ones on the final panel His resurrection.’

Cohen-Solal slides over the Harvard episode, which fits uneasily into Rothko’s supposed ‘increasing estrangement from American capitalist values’. She hurries instead to the ‘light in the chapel’ in Houston, where even more money was in play, and where we are treated to more high Christian rhetoric in praise of the dark, dark panels. It is understandable that Dominique de Menil, Rothko’s generous patron, should find the resulting work transcendent: ‘As he worked on the chapel, which was to be the greatest adventure of his life, his colours became darker and darker, as if he were bringing us to the threshold of transcendence, the mystery of the cosmos, the tragic mystery of our perishable condition.’

Rothko killed himself before the paintings were installed in the chapel. He never visited Houston, never had a chance to experience the uneven lighting in the chapel or the location of the all-but-black paintings. He knew that he had willed himself to some distant edge at the frontiers of painting, in which he had given up pretty much everything that viewers had admired in his paintings. Under the circumstances, one would welcome from his biographer a bit more of what John Ashbery once called ‘the doubt element’ in our relation to the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists, their all-or-nothing gamble. ‘Most reckless things are beautiful in some way,’ Ashbery writes in words that seem particularly applicable to the Houston commission, ‘and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.’

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For Cohen-Solal, the doubt element is conspicuously missing. For her, nothing has changed since the heady breakthroughs of the 1950s. Rothko, Pollock and the rest are still the triumphant vanguard, the fearless men who vanquished Regionalism and Realism from American painting; never mind that she never mentions Edward Hopper, say, or Marsden Hartley. Never mind that it is Philip Guston’s contemporaneous escape from abstraction, rather than Rothko’s into it, that inspires young painters today: Guston ‘died of a heart attack at the same age as Rothko,’ Robert Storr notes, ‘yet was still at the height of his powers’.

Nor is she content to allow Rothko his moment, that time principally during the 1950s when his paintings achieved a verve and energy that can still move us. For Cohen-Solal, Rothko’s whole life and career as an artist constitute a ‘a long, coherent and obsessive quest,’ a ‘highly sophisticated evolution’, an ‘intellectual tour de force’, all tending, or trending, to the wavering light in the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

But another story of lighting perhaps better captures our current uneasy relations with Rothko. Last November, the faded Harvard murals – dented, torn, defaced, their colours obliterated by time – were removed from storage, where they had languished since 1979, and exhibited in the new Renzo Piano redesign of the Fogg Museum, with a new lighting technology which creates something called – wonderfully for the circumstances – a ‘compensation image’ (they’re on show until 26 July). It is tempting to see in this Harvard installation an allegory for Rothko’s prospects now. Seen in a certain light, under certain technologically enhanced conditions, the drab paintings surge swimmingly to life, as though enchanted. But of course the enchantment dies when the lights are switched off.

The light, allegorically speaking, is the emotion we bring to the paintings, our Rothko mood, or spell. The doubt element was palpable when museum-goers first looked at Rothko’s imposing canvases, circa 1950; and now, paradoxically, it is back, but under different conditions. The pictures don’t look ‘timeless and tragic’. Perhaps they never really did. Instead, they look like ambitious pictures from the middle of the 20th century, painted by a man of turbulent emotions transfixed by certain ideas fashionable at the time. They are part of history. As such, they are also part of us. We can acknowledge them, and our complex and ambivalent response to them, to quote Rothko, without embarrassment and without shame.