By Dan Hofstadter
Mark Rothko insisted that his contemplative art was the stuff of high drama. Why?
Mark Rothko liked to hold forth. As a listener, you may have found his harangues enlightening, infuriating or “banal,” as Clement Greenberg did, but never funny. They weren’t stand-up. Yet the chief virtue of Red, John Logan’s play about Rothko that ran earlier this summer in New York, is that the artist’s patter—the most telling lines of which were lifted from James L. Breslin’s fascinating biography—comes across as hilarious. Alfred Molina, in his scariest role since Spider-Man 2, created a self-engrossed, choleric, bullying Rothko, not quite the figure this writer remembers but one better suited for the stage; together with Eddie Redmayne, who superbly incarnates an increasingly wounded and rebellious assistant, he is seen in late 1958, working on the paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in Manhattan—pieces that he eventually refused to deliver and that ended up in London and Japan instead.
Red is not really about art. In fact, it is slightly unsure at some points about art, as when Molina’s Rothko delivers a tirade about Caravaggio being forced to contribute altarpieces to a totally dark chapel: Rothko had no interest in Caravaggio, who in any case gloried in making his figures bloom out of the surrounding obscurity. Red’s real theme is the abrasion between generations of artists, Rothko versus the older Cubists and Surrealists, his young assistant versus himself, and what it adds to this hoary theme is a terrific feel for the way that formerly crucial ideas and bitter conflicts between aesthetic creeds, perceived in retrospect, begin to seem farcical, even ridiculous. It is quite unsettling how Logan suggests that of all those screaming postwar arguments about Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Camus in the Café Flore and in every smoke-filled café from the Bay Area to Budapest, nothing in the way of good dialogue can be woven today but comedy. At one moment in Red, the Rothko character angrily asks who will remember Andy Warhol’s soup cans in a hundred years, and we all laugh knowingly. Yet the play surely hints that the last laugh is on us, even if we will not be around to see future plays that make sport of our own bad taste, our own pseudo-ideas.
Currently, Mark Rothko’s so-called “black paintings” of 1964 are on display, along with some early Rothkos, in a well-presented exhibition in The Tower, a large space in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. These little-known pieces constitute a prelude to the famous, mostly black or very dark paintings in the Rothko Chapel, at the Menil Foundation in Houston, and they are well worth a look. Because such grandiloquent pronouncements about Rothko’s painting have been at one time or another floated by the artist himself, by his patron Dominique de Menil, a believer (against all reason) in the intrinsically religious nature of art, and by various other commentators, it may be necessary to dispel the fog that they created.
Rothko liked to claim for his painting aesthetic qualities which cannot be seen in the work. He could talk a blue steak about “drama,” for instance. He loved Aeschylus’ tragedies and Nietzsche’s conception of the origin of tragedy, and because the act of painting put high drama in his life, he insisted that people see his paintings, including the black paintings, as dramatic. And some of them can be dramatic, of course, in the colloquial sense of “exciting.” But true drama is a narrative structure involving the reversal of fortune, or at least some sense that this reversal has happened or can happen, and though drama is possible in an abstract painting, it requires specific elements. In a canvas by Picasso or Juan Gris, for instance, a play of forms is set in motion across the picture plane, and as in a jazz improvisation, we perceive the peril of failure, a collapse of integration, in the evolving dynamic and are thrilled when the composition is particularly successful.
It is practically impossible to create a sense of drama in a painting with no such forms and no strong diagonals, or at least no stepwise elements suggesting diagonal motion, and in fact Mark Rothko’s work, like that of his colleagues Ad Reinhart and Barnett Newman, is among the most static ever created. That does not mean that Rothko painted poorly—for a while he painted as beautifully as anyone in New York—but his images are essentially contemplative and unitary, devoid of the narrative undertone he craved. His talk about drama was another example of that familiar phenomenon, the artist’s defensive smokescreen. It supplied the very quality he had been obliged to forfeit. His patter, as Logan suggests, was merely one riff, one litany, in the universal postwar existentialist bull session. That doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of study, but it has to be suitably filtered.
I first went to see Mark Rothko in, I believe, the late spring of 1966, in his last studio, a former gymnasium, on East 69th Street in Manhattan. I was not his friend; I was a brat admirer, one of many youngsters (I assume) who now and then visited him, and I did not converse with him but listened, and asked the occasional question. There were always others present —I recall a particularly lively conversation with Ray Parker, who I believe had recently had a one-man show. He was dignified and a little somber, with—it seems to me now—a barely perceptible tendency to dentalize his T’s, in the classic immigrant fashion. A number of huge canvases stood about, precisely as they do onstage in Red (in which, however, they are subject to all sorts of marvelous lighting effects). Rothko was a little diffident. On several occasions he expressed to me his contempt for somebody called Emily Genauer —“that idiot Emily Genauer”—and on seeing that I did not recognize the name he brightened perceptibly when addressing me. I did not read art reviews; but even if I had, I was still too young to know that the lady in question had called his paintings vapid some years earlier in the New York Herald Tribune.
Rothko could get angry with his friends, one felt, precisely because he took them seriously—the cynical preemptive discounting of the value of friendship so common in urban social life was wholly alien to him—and he exuded a reticent warmth. In Red, the fictionalized Rothko dismisses the young Frank Stella as a trashy upstart, but when I visited the real Rothko sometime later at a villa he had rented in Berkeley, Calif.—on this occasion he was conferring with his restorer, Dan Goldreyer, about the grievous damage sustained by the canvases he had painted for Harvard’s Holyoke Center—he spoke to me appreciatively of Stella’s color, of its deadpan accuracy. That Rothko’s attention to others, his kindliness, is mysteriously present even in Molina’s raging Rothko is a warrant of the actor’s talent.
Rothko’s black paintings are sometimes seen as a premonition of his suicide in 1970. Unhappily for this theory, they were executed long before the aneurysm that by depriving him of the ability to paint occasioned his final depression, and, in any case, the black painting as a sub-genre already had a well-established history in art, in no way associated with death. Rooms decorated in nearly solid black were common in the so-called Third Style of Pompeiian wall painting, as exemplified in the evocative panels from Boscotrecase on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum since the 1920s, and black rooms had been sporadically favored by classicizing architects since the Renaissance, especially by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Robert Rauschenberg, Reinhart and Stella had executed many black paintings before Rothko took up the idea, which, in that sense, was far from his own invention; and perhaps entrammeled his creativity.
The problem with Rothko’s black paintings is not any putative morbidity but their stolidly presentational nature, and in order to understand this misfortune we have to retrace our steps to his best period. There is a common view, probably correct, that Rothko’s finest year was 1949, that he painted brilliantly until the mid-1950’s, and that his work declined fitfully thereafter. Some people diagnose this decline by deploying long-distance psychoanalysis, others by invoking the pressures of the “capitalist system,” but in reality there were purely aesthetic, non-social reasons that made it hard for Rothko to develop beyond a certain point.
During the hinge period of the late ’40s, when Rothko was devising his mature style in a series of very intelligent paintings called the “multiforms,” and later, during the early ’50s, when he had already created his trademark image of stacked, usually scumbled veils or scrims, he maintained what his friend Robert Motherwell called a “living collaboration” with the canvas. By refusing a “predetermined end,” Motherwell explained, the artist allowed the unfinished painting, like a friend, to “come to one’s aid” with amazing solutions. At this period both the color choices and the “color volumes”—the densities of hue, value and saturation relative to rectangle size—are often surprising, unpredictable and joyful and conform to no logic, as in the work of Milton Avery, Rothko’s early mentor. But though Rothko painted big canvases—his colors had this natural reach—his idea was essentially small. And in attempting to repeat what was clearly a success, in the strictly aesthetic sense, he began to repeat not the experience that had generated that success but rather the hard-won trademark image. His painting tended to curdle, and he overproduced. Formulaic solutions cropped up: harmonies of adjacent hues on the color wheel, dulcet wooings of scarlet and maroon, pseudo-daring blacks.
And of course there were social pressures, such as being thought of as vapid, and financial temptations. Rothko, embattled, came to conceive of the big painting as a kind of grand tragic statement vis-à-vis the audience and the surrounding space: the mere format of the canvas (itself over-scaled by now, a victim of gigantism) virtually dictated where to change a color value in the interest of graphic impact. In this new, presentational painting, a kind of rhetoric—getting things across to the multitudes—took the place of spontaneity and surprise. At the black paintings show at the National Gallery, the presentation of seven pieces from 1964, all of a similar, vertical format and all featuring minimal surface incident, creates an atmosphere at once public and contemplative. Yet one feels that these are the works, no longer of a master exactly, but of an expert. Several of the artist’s Surrealist paintings from 1946, displayed in an adjoining gallery, reacquaint us with a more ebullient, childlike Rothko, a Rothko who still let his paintings “come to his aid.”