Inside the Mark Rothko room at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, the atmosphere is hushed, even reverential. People tiptoe in, slide onto seats and begin to stare. The room is dominated by a few large canvases in blocks of powerful colour. The longer one stays, the more the works start to pulse and hum, as if taking on a life of their own.
As Gail Levin recently observed, Rothko has become one of the most celebrated members of the abstract expressionist group. Somehow he fought his way up from unpromising beginnings to an almost mythic status. Levin wrote that, along with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, he attained his status at the pivotal moment when New York replaced Paris as the centre of the contemporary art world.
That such art could have been made by Mark Rothko seemed unlikely. The youngest of four children, he was born Marcus Rotkovitch in Dvinsk, Latvia, in 1903. For complicated reasons, his family decided in 1913 to move to Portland, Oregon, of all places. Even more surprising, this Latvian kid with his funny clothes and no English had, by 1923, made enough of an adjustment to his new world to win a scholarship to Yale University.
He was, of course, brilliant, but the effort to adjust took a psychic toll. As a boy, he’d been “buttoned down in black from head to toe”, as Annie Cohen-Solal writes in her new biography. He was bespectacled, studious and small, studying the Talmud from age four while other family members were assimilating. Not surprisingly, he was miserably unprepared for Yale and left without graduating.
He had, however, discovered art. The story goes that one day he visited a friend who was taking a life class at the Art Students League of New York and immediately decided to become an artist. Although Rothko was to move through realism, surrealism and much else on his way towards abstraction, the truth is he had no natural talent for drawing.
He was a natural in plenty of other ways, however. For instance, he taught at the Brooklyn Jewish Centre’s School Academy for 33 years, and his theories were sound. He believed everyone was born with a talent for art as natural as breathing, and that the teacher’s job was to provide encouragement and “not impose laws which might induce imaginative stagnation”.
He was active, energetic and resourceful. He joined artists’ collectives. He, along with other activists, pressured the newly established Museum of Modern Art to show American modernists, not just European ones. He took part in the ground-breaking program launched by the Works Progress Administration to support artists at the height of the Depression, receiving a salary for three crucial years.
He was, Cohen-Solal emphasises, socially progressive. He married, had children, got unmarried, had “painter’s block”, kept teaching, painting and agitating. He wrote manifestos. He railed against the philistine reactions of the American public, the miserable social status of artists, the dearth of American patrons. He was continually experimenting with style and, by the end of World War II, had begun to develop the floating panels of colour by which he became best known.
Duncan and Marjorie Phillips visited Rothko’s loft studio in the Bowery to choose canvases that would end up in a room of their own at The Phillips Collection. They were entranced. Duncan wrote, “These canvases which … certainly depict nothing at all are nevertheless a vibrant life-enhancing experience to those who make themselves ready for them.”
The works invited contemplation but not always tranquility. In his gentlemanly way, Phillips was alluding to undertones of menace that became increasingly evident in Rothko’s work. He broke up with his second wife. He smoked too much and drank too much. He painted all-black canvases. In February 1970, he was found dead on his kitchen floor, his arms covered in blood. He had sliced both of them with a razor.
This short biography in the series Jewish Lives is an admirable attempt to construct a coherent framework around what is undeniably a complicated, not to say messy, life. But in the process, a great many dramatic events that might have given the story verve and drive, including Rothko’s suicide, are strangely passed over in silence.
Another omission is even harder to explain. One would expect a writer in this series to have looked for a connection between the artist’s origins and the kind of painting – glowing, powerful, otherworldly – by which he is best known. Surely, there has to be a profound connection between them and the Talmudic studies that occupied Rothko’s childhood, yet the author fails to make it.
In fact, Rothko himself gave us a hint. He told a critic in 1956: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you … are moved only by their colour relationships, you miss the point.”
Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel, by Annie Cohen-Solal, published by Yale University Press, Merlye Secrest is a biographer who writes frequently about art and artists.
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