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.

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