Mark Rothko images and biography
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Mark Rothko

See also: Abstract Expressionism


The following review of the Mark Rothko retrospective exhibited in 1998-99 was written by Dr. Francis V. O’Connor, Editor, O’CONNOR’S PAGE.

At The National Gallery of Art (May 3-August 16,'98),
The Whitney Museum of American Art (Sept. 17-Nov. 29,'98)
Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris (Jan. 8-April 18,'99)
David Anfam
Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas
New Haven & London / Washington, D.C. :
Yale University Press / National Gallery of Art, 1998
708 pp., 100 b/w + 850 color reproductions, $125.00.

It is seldom that a superb retrospective exhibition of a major artist is accompanied by, and can be seen in the context of, an equally excellent catalogue raisonné of the artist's work. The curatorial selections, here made by Jeffrey Weiss of the National Gallery (and installed at the Whitney with the help of its Adam Weinberg -- who will soon be the new director of The Addison Gallery of American Art), can be judged in respect to what there was from which to choose, and David Anfam's complete inventory of Rothko's works (hereafter MRCR) can stand as a supplement to our reaction to the original works, as well as to the interpretations implicit in the selection. This leads to consequences.

One's first impression of the exhibition, for instance, is that Rothko's work is a seamless whole, developing with a relentless inner logic from his earliest years to his very last works. Rothko's stacked rectangles, that first appear in the 1930s in a bureau's drawers, or a building facade, or a subway station, lead inexorably into the backgrounds of his surrealist-inspired organic work of the early 1940s, reassemble themselves in a series of transitional works before 1950, and then emerge triumphant in his familiar "signature" format, upon which he played more or less successful variations for the rest of his life.

On the other hand, a glance at the MRCR's unbroken lineup of works indicates that things were not that neat, and that the exhibition, at least at the beginning, is something of a curatorial conceit. You get evidence in the catalogue that while the selection of these early works does indicate the initial existence of a certain emergent leitmotif, the artist also had other concerns -- such as the female nude, or the landscape -- that also engaged his attention at the time. This is especially true during the 1940s.

It is not fashionable these days to talk about universal symbols. They imply a determinism that threatens individual freedom on the one hand; on the other they get in the way of those academics who want to determine things for themselves. Fortunately, strong artists do not worry overmuch about these matters. They conjure the most powerful human images, leaving them for us to notice and acknowledge. The alternative is to explain them away with formal, sociological or political irrelevancies, or to dismiss them as a-human aesthetic decisions beyond explanation.

Of all our century's art movements, Abstract Expressionism in general, and the "signature styles" of its artists in particular, deal with such big symbols -- if only because they have rejected any form of "realism" in the sense of depicting objects of quotidian visual experience. That decided, they had no other "subject" than what made them, as individuals, human. Each found their abstract equivalent of a self-portrait, and they painted that reality -- that song of self -- with a passion, bravura, and decisiveness unequaled in modern art. This is the greatest contribution of Abstract Expressionism.

The Rothko retrospective at the Whitney occupies two floors. It is visually stunning. The works are displayed in ambient light reflected from white floor panels according to the artist's own instructions, and this provides an opportunity for their inner light to glow forth in a most dramatic manner. The works are, as already mentioned, displayed as a consistent evolution from the start of his career to the end. Indeed, like Mondrian's systematic development, one is shown in the very earliest works formal seeds of the motif that develops relentlessly through the oeuvre until its final culmination in the last, dark, deadly, tragic paintings before the artist's brutal self-destruction. While Mondrian was driven to reduce nature to a geometric surrogate for -- why not say a defense mechanism against? -- the ramifying life forces he was temperamentally unable to face, Rothko explores nature in its largest, most expansive, and most universal manifestation: What is below the earth and upon it, above it and beyond it.

It is known that Rothko once declared that there was no "landscape" in his art (MRCR, p. 14). But what to think of the works between 1940 and 1946 (specifically MRCR 177-316) that most often display very definite divisions of what is below, upon, and above the earth, with clear lines that define the horizons between them. These are more than just landscapes; they are cross-sections of our world, and our feet, often either depicted or else abstracted as root-like forms, stand below the earth's surface. Indeed, Rothko's horizontals in these 1940s works seem to define a nearer and a farther horizon, the former between what is below, the latter our usual domain from what is above.

Now, Dr. Anfam has decreed that "Rothko's utter disregard for nature in itself has become so obvious that it is hard to imagine any serious commentator again raising the landscape comparison" (MRCR, note 36. p. 23). Yet, two pages further on, Rothko is quoted as hating and distrusting "all art historians, experts and critics" and prone to revising his artistic evolution the better, presumably, to foil such worthies. So is it not sensible, with such an artist, for the art historian, expert or critic, to take everything said artist uttered with a large pinch of salt, and proceed to season their interpretations as they might? For instance, in one of the arresting epigraphs Dr. Anfam places before his commentaries on Rothko's art, one finds the artist, himself, saying: "Every shape becomes an organic entity, inviting the multiplicity of associations inherent in all living things" (MRCR, p. 46) This makes a lot of sense, despite the artist's bluster and inconsistencies, when interpreting the most dominant shapes in Rothko's art: those stacks of colored, soft-edged rectangles that float before us, their colors suggesting an infinite number of associations to the natural world in which we are constituent creatures.

It is certainly true, aside from a few attempts at landscape in his youth, that Rothko is not at all given to bosky bowers. But that does not mean that all those earth mothers he painted at the same time, and all those inescapable horizons encountered in his work from the 1940s on -- not to mention that extraordinary interior light that radiates from the best of his later work -- do not portend a deeply rooted sense of his natural surroundings that, however much he may have discounted (or feared) them, he could not escape -- being human -- either depicting or abstracting.

There is, of course, more to "landscape" than the literal depiction of Nature -- as I have pointed out in the Dove / Frankenthaler review. It very much depends on standpoint and viewpoint, and with modern abstraction, those also include a sense of the world that can transcend its literal lateral aspect for knowledge of its whole. Modern science -- especially its discoveries in geology and cosmology -- have expanded our planetary awareness to much that is open more to conceptual than visual inspection. (Therein is the glory of modern abstraction.) Just as we have learned about benign and malignant microbes, or the determining action of genes, or the permutations of unconscious awareness, all of which are not readily observable and/or measurable, we accept them nonetheless as agents of consequence. So also with Earth. It has its interior and its exterior, a sustaining, blue, cloud-swirled atmosphere, and a route in the blackness of outer space around the sun. All this is now part of our awareness, and can be seen as implicit in Rothko's horizons.

While it is the glowing, ovoid areas of color that the eye first embraces in a typical Rothko, it is useful to become aware of how they are contextualized with often dramatically emphasized horizons -- and borders. These divisions are mostly two, often three (occasionally more). They define a horizon gestalt between the areas of color; the borders the peripheral limitation of our normal view of any horizon. We thus float at the center of a prospect that falls out as below us, before us and above us -- the artist leaving us to our own associations, but determining within his formal structures, the extent of the world he wants those associations to inhabit. (Here the structure of the works of the early 1940s is crucial -- for they remain latent after 1950.) Thus, Rothko's tripartite and quadripartite compositions present a radical abstraction of the planet in cross-section from below the viewer's feet up, the internal light of that world provides it welcoming warmth or abject negation, as befits the artist's moods. At the end of his life, the last, sad, bipartite images (MRCR 814-831), leave us with a single horizon between the black of space and the earth's lithic interior -- all place of human grace on the surface under the sun having slipped away from his despairing reach.

It is of some interest that in the last gallery of the exhibition, across from the lowering black and gray paintings of 1969-70, there are five works on paper mounted on canvas of the same period. Utterly out of keeping with Rothko's normal manner, they could easily be dismissed as studio-sweepings -- yet they assume a strange poignancy. Painted in acrylic in pale blues, pinks, dark rose and grays, they assume a certain pallor of extinction, as if they are a last, feeble expression of the artist's rage against the dying of the light. But the color of depression is darkness, and Rothko was a depressive. His human achievement was to have made so much light visible in his ever-shifting sectioning of the planet. But, in the end, darkness won out. Yet it does Rothko no service to deny the process of his survival. In the last analysis, art is simply one of many human survival strategies -- and the Abstract Expressionists, more than most other artists, show us how they strategize their human coping with awesome explicitness.

It is plain that Dr. Anfam does not much appreciate such interpretations of Rothko's paintings, and his introductory essays are, on one level, attempts to counter certain critical enterprises. Whatever, this does not take away from his achievement in providing us with ample evidence for such attempts at plumbing Rothko's deeper meanings. It does raise, of course, the issue of whether a scholar engaged in compiling a catalogue raisonné, as distinct from a critic, ought to indulge in any form of critical or interpretative commentary in the same work. As I demonstrated in my own work, and note in the essay on the subject elsewhere on this PAGE (see Archive, Commentary No. 2), it is probably best to keep things toward the objective pole -- and leave one's own views for a separate book, where they can be developed more fully, and perhaps legitimately. In this case, it would have been better if Dr. Anfam had put more effort into summarizing the physical circumstances of some of the works (the murals, for instance), to describing the artist's technical methods passim, and to dealing with the problems of conservation (such as relining) specific to the work, instead of simply skimping these matters or referring the reader to the literature. But this issue is still open among scholars.

Dr. Anfam's catalogue raisonné quite eclipses his opinions, and let us turn to its features. The front matter clearly introduces the reader to the criteria employed in describing and presenting the works. Here is the formula for scaling the works so their relative size is represented on each spread, and consistently throughout the book. This is followed by an explanation of the various elements of the catalogue entries (which is a good way to deduce the complexities the scholar must face in this business of cataloguing). Next come informative essays on the main periods of Rothko's development. At the back is a concordance of estate and catalogue numbers, a list of works in public collections, a fine bibliography and an index. There is also clear notice, due to the artist's heirs' desire to display the works of art as a continuum in the catalogue, that the editor's commentaries have been kept separate, that only notes specific to the individual works are included in the entries, and that simple headings discriminate the paintings contributory to, or intended as, murals, from the easel work. While this is not the ideal way to structure a catalogue raisonné, it makes some sense here, given the nature of Rothko's development, and does provide the reader with an unbroken procession of the works that is impressive and at times instructive.

Having mentioned Rothko's murals, perhaps a word or two about them is in order here, since this art form is of immediate interest to me. The examples of these wall paintings included in the show, and the illustration of the clusters of these works in the MRCR, lead one to conclude that these, of all Rothko's works (excluding the juvenilia), are his weakest. Getting off on the fourth floor of the Whitney to face a large panel from the Seagram series is a depressing experience after the splendors of the work on the floor below. The problem, of course, is that a mural, of its very nature, is meant to define the function of the space it decorates. In short, unlike easel work, where the artist is free to follow personal motivations, murals require a sense of decorum -- of appropriateness to their site. An abstract mural is especially difficult to bring off in this sense because it must be exquisitely sensitive to the formal and functional requirements of an architectural space. This is why abstract murals work best in large commercial spaces such as banks or lobbies, where the gold and red mosaic of Hildreth Meière's banking room at One Wall Street, or Hans Hofmann's splendid elevator core at 711 3rd Avenue, or Al Held's gold on white marble entrance wall at Merrill-Lynch's financial center at 717 Fifth Avenue (all here in Manhattan), provide a sense of opulence or visual excitement appropriate to the function of their spaces, without having to allegorize matters -- as in a church. It is clear that Rothko was aware of these formal and functional requirements of a mural; it is also clear that he was constitutionally incapable of meeting them. This is true of all the Abstract Expressionists, primarily because their art is, of its nature, solipsistic, and incapable of that social empathy the mural demands.

With Rothko, therefore, it hardly matters that he turned his colored rectangles on their side the better to achieve architectonic images; they do not work because he is, for all practical purposes, turning Nature and his own nature on their side. Further, his attitude toward the Seagram murals -- intended for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant -- was hardly conducive to success at defining a space, when his stated aim was to destroy the digestion of its clients! In this he would have succeeded all too well, since he destroys one's taste for his artistic ability when looking at these pathetically designed and crudely executed daubs. Despite the tale of his withdrawing from the commission after eating in the Four Seasons and being offended by its elitist atmosphere and prices, I rather suspect this was a cover for his private realization that his "murals" were failures, and that after three attempts, he had better give up.

The second set of murals, five canvas panels created in 1962 for Harvard University's Holyoke Center, were certainly no better -- the photograph of their installation (MRCR, p. 93) shows another sidelong attempt at aping architecture. Further, their facture was so faulty that, having faded to blue due to photo-sensitive red pigments, they have had to be removed from view, and are now specimens in the conservation lab, examples of how not to paint a mural!

The third set, those now installed in the "Rothko Chapel" of the de Menil collection in Houston, are somewhat more in keeping with the purpose of their environment. They are arranged around the essentially circular space, are fourteen in number in emulation of the Christian devotion of the Stations of the Cross (a theme also taken up by Barnett Newman), and clearly emphasize the sanctuary axis. Here the traditional elements of the church helped articulate the paintings -- as did Rothko's already established reputation for art with some sort of a "spiritual" dimension. Let us recall that behind these murals was the small gallery at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, where, for many years, a set of three, colorful Rothkos were arranged in a small room that became famous as a place of meditation -- as a "chapel" of sorts. The perception of Rothko's art as somehow conducive to religious emotion began there, and was taken up in the de Menil's commission. It would be useful to ponder all this in terms of traditional and modern ecclesiastical art, but this is not the place for such a tangent. I will simply wonder aloud at the piety that would find the Rothko Chapel;s bleakness compelling to devotion.

Unfortunately, as with the Harvard panels, the Houston series were similarly damaged by light. Here, let me say that I saw these murals in March 1971, a month after their dedication, and saw paintings executed in two tones of very dark red -- "blood red on red" as my notes from the time recorded. It was a dull day, and the notorious glare of the Texas sun was not present. In April 1988, after a new dropped ceiling had been installed to protect the murals that were becoming visibly darkened by that glare, I saw them again in daylight and at night, and they had turned almost black. The old red was visible only on the sides of the stretcher bars, where the blazing light from the skylight had not reached. On the testimony of my own eyes, I must say that what is visible in Houston today is not what Rothko first painted. The Houston murals, while a noble effort, and far more visually intelligent as murals than the Seagram or Harvard attempts, failed of their own weight of depressive etiology and intrinsic vice. As Milton via Styron put it: they are now "darkness visible."

Whatever, this extended aside does not take anything away from either the exhibition or the catalogue raisonné. Curator's have their craft, which is to show the work from a point of view, and scholars have their craft, which is to show the work as it is, good, bad and indifferent, objectively and chronologically. Both Jeffrey Weiss and David Anfam have practiced their crafts well, and are to be congratulated.

About the objectivity of scholarship, however, a general comment is needed, for even here a point of view cannot be excluded. One of the epigraphs Dr. Anfam has included is Friedrich Nietzsche's statement that "The will to a system is a lack of integrity" (MRCR, p. 16) It is well known that Rothko knew Nietzsche, and I can surmise what this quote may have meant to him, given his hatred for scholars and critics for the most part dedicated to systematic and/or axiomatic thinking. Indeed, I can even agree up to a point. Having done a catalogue raisonné myself, I am aware that rationalizing an artist in many ways violates the integrity of the way the art happened. When you have three hundred undated drawings to put in some sort of order, as I did, or an artist's inventory that confounds rather than clarifies Rothko's chronology, as Dr. Anfam faced, a certain amount of interpretive judgment is required, using such solid dates as one might garner, and a great deal of experienced smarts concerning provenance, exhibition history and style. Yet, when imposing order, you cannot help violate the personal unity that was the artist's experience of the work -- that inner dialectic that transcends the record, but that informed the work in ways now irretrievable to scholarship. A catalogue raisonné is, in effect, a portrait of the artist by a scholar -- a singular view that catches the surface appearance only, and maybe a hint of personality, but not the whole of the creative individual -- or of the oeuvre as it actually came about. It is well to remember this when flipping through the impressive continuum of Dr. Anfam's magnificent MRCR -- that is, if you can!

Thus to my last point: which is a criticism combined with a prophecy (and which is not to be taken as a criticism of Dr. Anfam, who has provided us with the fourth catalogue raisonné of an Abstract Expressionist, and greatly expanded the sum of human knowledge through his ten years of meticulous labor).

Who might have the agile strength to freely flip about in this monstrous book? It is a veritable danger to the human lap, not to mention vision. It weighs 11 lbs, is nearly a foot square and 2.25 inches (5.7 cms.) thick. Its introductory texts, that run 6.25 inches (16 cms) wide, are printed in minuscule type so compressed that the typeface manages to tuck, wherever possible, the letter next to a capital "T" under its right bar in the interest of saving an em or two! The footnotes, printed three columns to the page, are in an even more minute version of this typeface (which is used in the catalogue entries as well), and the footnote numbers in the text can only have been set by a constipated fly! (I will grant the leading is generous, but that does not always help.) Further, the lists of exhibitions and references in the entries -- eternal monuments to Dr. Anfam's capacity of dedicated drudgery -- are run-in and separated only by semi-colons. Finally, the "3" and the "5" in this font are all too similar, and thus easily confused. It is criminal to print technical data in such a manner -- if only because it leads to inevitable errors of transcription later.

I could only read this book by propping it against its box while using a plastic magnifying sheet to see the text. Surely the publishers, given what they had to spend to create this travesty of a reference book -- a book supposedly to be used more than once -- might have divided it into two volumes neatly at 1950? I grant that my catalogue raisonné, plus its supplement, weighs in at twenty-one pounds, but it is divided into five easily handled volumes, printed in an easily legible typeface, and gives a line of its own to each item of technical data. The MRCR is extremely difficult to handle or to read, and its publisher and its sponsors might as well be made aware of the consequences of their parsimony.

That said, let me wax prophetic, and ask why this material is published as a book at all? (Dr. Anfam is now laboring on Rothko's works on paper; is the monster to be cloned?) Paper and boards, especially in this bulk, ought to be obsolete for a reference book. Its essential content could well fill one or two CD-ROMS that would fit into any decent personal computer today, and whose contents could easily be supplemented at very low cost by subscribing to a downloading project that would offer new information and corrections, and high definition reproductions as that new technology is perfected over the next decade.

Let us face it: We as a culture are at a point comparable to that Gutenberg induced with his hand-set bible of c. 1456. Those today who would preserve printed books are comparable to the monks who would have preserved hand copying and illumination then. Printed books will probably never entirely vanish (does not the Vatican and certain social secretaries still practice the medieval ways even unto today?). There will always be archival libraries full of them, and we might even leave a letter press or two around to publish stationery, poems and privately circulated autobiographies. But we ought to start accepting the inevitable transition to the electronic age by at least getting publishers to create reference books that are totally legible, easily augmentable -- and capable of being stuffed into a pocket when necessary.

[This review was first published on October 29, 1998]

- ©1998, Dr. Francis V. O’Connor, Editor, O’CONNOR’S PAGE. Reproduced by permission.

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Mark Rothko Images on the Web

* Links to other Rothko images online can be found at Artcyclopedia.

No, 10 (1950)
No. 14, 1960
1968 (1)
1968 (2)
Orange and Tan
Red on Maroon
Untitled (1949)
White Center
Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red)

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