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Mark Rothko: A Theologian of Painting


Mark Rothko’s lifelong search for perfect clarity and truth through art produced great works on canvas and great anguish in the mind of the artist.

Mark Rothko, No 10 1957

Mark Rothko, No 10 1957

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In 1940, a small band of avant-garde artists in Manhattan formed a group called the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. Their goal was “to promote the welfare of free progressive artists working in America.” As German forces invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, then France, some Federation members advocated a direct response to the military and political crisis in Europe. By 1942, however, the group had united behind the belief that artists have a responsibility to realize their individual destinies. Rather than address external events in the hope of mobilizing public opinion—as American social realists of the 1930s had tried to do—members of the Federation would perform their “social obligation to keep and protect freedom.” Thus, the group statement continued, these painters and sculptors would “stand for the kind of artistic independence the world struggle symbolized.” In a time of darkness, creative individuals would preserve the light of liberty.

In the Federation’s third annual exhibition, which opened early in the summer of 1943, a painter named Marcus Rothko, then 40 years old, exhibited a painting entitled The Syrian Bull (1943). Quasi-figurative, it shows a yellow, eight-legged form against a cloudy, bluish-gray sky. Looming above this shape are angular patches of red, brown and blue. Feathery white textures mediate between these colors and the extravagantly organic form in yellow. Rothko let it be known that The Syrian Bull invokes the legend of Mithra, the Zoroastrian god who created the world by slaying a bull. In ancient Persian bas-reliefs this transformative event is depicted in stylized detail. In Rothko’s painting, bull and god emerge only partially from an image generated by means of automatic drawing—a method Rothko, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and other New York artists learned from the Surrealists, many of whom were in exile in America during the war years. With the help of Rothko’s clue, it is possible to glimpse the subject of his painting. But Edward Alden Jewell, an art critic for The New York Times, insisted on being baffled, informing his readers that “you will have to make of Marcus Rothko’s ‘The Syrian Bull’ what you can.” The critic wasn’t hazarding any guesses.

Jewell had given Adolph Gottlieb’s The Rape of Persephone (1943) the same dismissive treatment. Within days, Gottlieb and Rothko had written Jewell a letter declaring that their images were not puzzles to be deciphered. For “the point at issue, it seems to us, is not an ‘explanation’ of the paintings but whether the intrinsic ideas carried within the frames of these pictures have significance.” In concert with Newman, who contributed to this letter but claimed no credit for it, Rothko and Gottlieb were saying that their works have their ideas not by way of reference or evocation but rather intrinsically. What does this mean? Neither these artists nor their admirers have ever been able to say. In 1972, two years after Rothko committed suicide, Harold Rosenberg described him as a member of “the theological sector of Abstract Expressionism,” along with Gottlieb, Newman, Clyfford Still, and Ad Reinhardt.

For them, progress was achieved by deletion, as each sought to pare the image down to what Rosenberg called “an ultimate sign” that conveys “an ultimate meaning.” The 1943 letter to Jewell describes that meaning as “tragic and timeless.” As Rosenberg later noted, viewers resistant to meaning of that sort will judge the art of Rothko and the others according to taste—a standard they all rejected throughout their careers as superficial and corrupted by the demands of a marketplace that defines art as a pleasing amenity. What Rosenberg leaves unsaid is that, for a “reductive theologian of painting,” an audience worthy of the name had to be capable of faith. To experience Rothko’s art in a manner consonant with his aspirations, we must believe wholeheartedly in its power to reveal meanings that transcend the power of language. Before the ineffable, we can only stand mute.


An encounter with the full range of Rothko’s art can now be had at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which is mounting “Mark Rothko: A Retrospective” from September 20 through January 24. The exhibition comprises more than 60 paintings, including a group, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., that Rothko kept for himself and that were in his collection at the time of his death.

Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia, in 1903. His father, Jacob, a pharmacist, emigrated to the United States in 1910, settling in Portland, Ore., where his brother lived. Three years later, Marcus, his sister Sonia and his mother, Anna, joined Jacob in Portland. A good student, Marcus entered Yale in 1921 on a scholarship. A year later, his scholarship was canceled, though he managed to stay at Yale by working at a variety of odd jobs. In 1923 he left New Haven for New York, having earned no degree or taken any art courses. Working as a bookkeeper in an uncle’s garment business, he enrolled in the Art Students League, on 57th Street in Manhattan. Rothko had made pictures as boy. Now he was studying figure drawing with a conservative instructor named George Bridgman. By 1925, he had begun to paint in the manner of Paul Cézanne, at the recommendation of the American Cubist Max Weber, another of Rothko’s instructors at the Art Students League.

The following year, a friend from Portland introduced Rothko to the painter Milton Avery. This meeting was crucial to the younger painter’s art. At Avery’s funeral in 1965, Rothko delivered a tribute “to the greatness of Milton Avery.” Despite his devotion to the “timeless” and the “tragic,” he was able to see in Avery’s paintings of domestic interiors and peaceful landscapes “great canvases, that far from the casual and transitory implications of the subjects, have always a gripping lyricism, and often achieve the permanence and monumentality of Egypt.”

In an interview from the 1980s, Avery’s widow, Sally, recalled that her husband and Rothko felt an immediate rapport. “At that time,” she recalled, “Rothko was a student of Max Weber at the Art Students League and meeting Milton really changed his idea of what art was all about. After that, he stopped going to the League and began painting on his own more.” For Rothko and Avery alike, modernism’s towering figure was not Pablo Picasso but Henri Matisse, with his patterned surfaces and luminous palette. The difficulty for Rothko was to find a way to integrate these Matissean attributes with his exalted ideas about painting’s proper subject matter.

He exhibited his work for the first time in 1928, at the Opportunity Gallery, in midtown Manhattan. Among the other exhibitors was his friend and mentor Avery. Rothko’s first solo show in New York, presented by the Contemporary Arts Gallery in 1933, was followed by a series of appearances in group shows—including the one at the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors that prompted Edward Alden Jewell’s condescending remarks about The Syrian Bull. By then, Rothko’s variations on Avery’s figure painting had given way to the myth-tinged forms that were quickly evolving, with the help of Surrealism automatism, into distant relatives of jellyfish and other denizens of the deep. Like Avery before him, Rothko had learned from Matisse how to dispense with painting’s traditional representations of space. By the mid-1940s he had begun to treat space as a “substance rather than an emptiness,” which he compared to “a plate of jelly or, perhaps, soft putty.” Yet the lush luminosity of his drifting, pulsating forms lends an airiness to the paintings of this period that runs counter to Rothko’s talk of jelly and putty. Already one can see the atmospheric subtleties that, in his mature work, turns a canvas into a broodingly gorgeous wall of light.

In 1943 the painter Buffie Johnson introduced Rothko to Howard Putzel, an adviser to Peggy Guggenheim, a collector and founder of a Manhattan gallery called Art of This Century. Though Guggenheim tended to favor European artists, especially the Surrealists, she gave one-man exhibitions to several Americans, among them William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt. Rothko had his turn in 1945. Two years later, Guggenheim closed her gallery, bequeathing her roster to Betty Parsons. By now, Rothko’s delicately linear suggestions of biological form had vanished, replaced by patches and streaks of high-keyed orange, yellow, and green. Simplifying these flat, chromatic patterns, Rothko arrived, late in 1949, at the stacked blocks of color that typify what it seems fair to call his signature style—for, of all the artists of his generation, only Newman settled more firmly into a characteristic image. During the last two decades of his career, the only significant development in his art was a further reduction of a format severely reduced as early as 1950.

During the ’50s Rothko began to be recognized—along with Pollock, Newman, and Still—as an important member of the most impressively original generation of painters in the history of American art. This recognition was critical, however, not commercial. Parsons was able to find only a few buyers for his paintings, and in 1954 he moved to the Sidney Janis Gallery. Later, Parsons recalled, she and Rothko “cried on each other’s shoulders when we parted company, because as he said, ‘I’m doing you no good. You’re doing me no good.’” During his first two years with Janis, Rothko later told Parsons, “He never sold a thing.” Within a few seasons, though, he was doing well enough commercially for Newman and Still to write to Janis condemning their former friend for capitulating to the demands of the marketplace. Rothko was, of course, troubled by this accusation. Had he turned his vision of the “tragic and timeless” into a high-end commodity? The answer to that question depended in part on how one read the signs offered by his increasingly successful career.

Early in 1958, 10 of Rothko’s recent canvases were shown in the United States Pavilion at that year’s Venice Biennale—an indication that he had been accepted by the international art world as a painter of the highest aesthetic seriousness. During that period, he accepted a commission to provide a series of paintings to be hung on the walls of the Four Seasons restaurant, in the Seagram Building, a skyscraper on Manhattan’s East 52nd Street. If Rothko had completed the project, it would have reinforced the doubts of those who wondered if his elegantly abstract canvases were simply luxurious décor. The artist, too, felt these doubts. In 1959 he returned the money advanced to him for the Four Seasons project. Several of the completed canvases appeared in his 1961 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A year before his death, he concluded negotiations that led to the permanent installation of nine of these works in the Tate Gallery in London.

In the Art News Annual of 1958, the painter and critic Elaine de Kooning had published an article titled, “Two Americans in Action: Franz Kline and Mark Rothko.” When de Kooning showed Rothko a draft of her piece, he said he liked her comments on Kline but objected to everything she said about him and his work. Out of respect for the older artist—a friend to her and her husband, Willem de Kooning—she rewrote the Rothko section of her essay with his active participation. Then, when it was published, he rejected it for a second time. Even the most sympathetic critic could not praise highly enough or describe clearly enough the transcendent Truth that Rothko believed his art revealed—or, rather, wanted to believe that it revealed. Robert Motherwell later recalled that, after his 1961 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Rothko feared “the new generation” would consider his painting “ridiculous.” This was, after all, the time of Pop Art’s ascendency. Moreover, Minimalist art was making it clear that there was an audience for work without a trace of spiritual transcendence. Yet indications of Rothko’s cultural and historical significance continued to appear.

In 1963, New York’s Guggenheim Museum exhibited “Five Mural Panels Executed for Harvard University by Mark Rothko.” The next year, Dominique and John de Menil commissioned him to paint a series of panels for the chapel at the University of St. Thomas, in Houston. And the year after that, he received the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award. Yet, even though he had recently joined Marlborough Gallery, a major new presence at the heart of the Manhattan art world, Rothko was increasingly uneasy about showing his work. Moreover, his health was declining. Hypertension led to an aortic aneurysm in the spring of 1968. Long a heavy drinker, he was discovered while in the hospital to be suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. His relationship with Mell, his second wife, was growing more and more difficult. After he was diagnosed with emphysema, his perennial tendency toward depression deepened. Having left Mell and moved into his West 69th Street studio, he launched a series of dark gray, black, and brown paintings. By the end of 1969, his range of forms and colors had shrunk even further—blocks of black over scumbled fields of gray. Early the following year, rather than keep an appointment to select works for an upcoming show at Marlborough, Rothko killed himself.

Decades earlier, in 1949, he had written, “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea.” Among those obstacles are “memory, history or geometry”—anything that mires one in “swamps of generalization.” Purity and thus Truth are in the specific, the particular image entirely unencumbered and thus clear. “To achieve that clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.” Or so Rothko desperately needed to believe—and in the end could not believe, or at least not with the fullness of conviction that would have kept him alive.

By Carter Ratcliff

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: September 2015

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