Mark Rothko (Magill Book Reviews)
Mark Rothko, who was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Russia and transplanted to the very foreign environment of Portland, Oregon just short of his tenth birthday, suffered all his life from a sense of displacement. What is more, he used his alienation as fuel for his creativity.
Rothko did not find what we now think of as his characteristic style and technique until he was forty-six years old. By 1945, however, his style had begun to change from a surrealistic, representational one to the mature one we associate with him: two or three stacked rectangles painted in luminescent colors and finished with soft edges.
Rothko was tragically divided throughout his career in his attitude towards success. On one hand, he relished the steady rise of his stock in the art market, manifested in the ever greater prices he and his dealers could charge for his productions. On the other hand, he despised the commercialism surrounding their display and sale. Above all things, he feared that increased public exposure would reveal his deficiencies.
At the height of his renown, Rothko achieved a kind of apotheosis when the wealthy de Menil family commissioned him to paint a set of murals for a chapel in Houston that was built, more or less, to his specifications. Rothko never lived to see them installed; in 1970, suffering from clinical depression and the aftereffects of an aneurysm, separated from his family and living alone in his New York studio, he swallowed a massive dose of barbiturates and slashed the insides of his arms with a razor blade.
Breslin does an excellent job of showing us how even Rothko’s suicide was the inevitable end product of the artist’s explorations. Masterfully weaving together the art and the life, he clearly illustrates how the complex canvases and the conflicted individual interrelate.
Sources for Further Study
Boston Globe. November 28, 1993, p.29.
Chicago Tribune. November 21, 1993, XIV, p.3.
The Christian Science Monitor. February 11, 1994, p.14.
Library Journal. CXVIII, August, 1993, p.100.
The New York Review of Books. XL, December 2, 1993, p.36.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, December 26, 1993, p.1.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, September 27, 1993, p.51.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, December 26, 1993, p.8.
Mark Rothko (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Mark Rothko, who was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Russia and transplanted to the very foreign environment of Portland, Oregon, just before his tenth birthday, suffered all his life from a sense of displacement. What is more, he used his alienation as fuel for his creativity. As James E. B. Breslin notes, even after Rothko was successful, he sought out self- denial as a spur to art and was comfortable only when he could adopt the pose of an individual festering with indignation toward the world.
Rothko did not find what is now thought of as his characteristic style and technique until he was forty-six years old. He was generally slow finding his way in life, a tendency that Breslin (and sometimes Rothko himself) attributes to Rothko’s more natural inclination toward music and verbal communication. Leaving Portland for Yale University as a promising scholarship student, Rothko lasted only two years; he was put off by the elitism and anti-Semitism he found in New Haven, Connecticut. Emigrating in the early 1920’s to New York, where he struggled to become a painter, he first labored as a commercial artist, illustrating The Graphic Bible (1928) for Lewis Browne, a rabbi turned popular writer. When Browne failed to pay Rothko all the money and credit the artist believed he was due, Rothko sued Browne, with disastrous results: Rothko not only lost his suit for damages but had to pay all the court costs, thus putting himself heavily into debt. Rothko’s experience with Browne prefigured that later with Bernard Reis, the accountant and adviser on whom he grew increasingly dependent in his later years. Upon Rothko’s death, Reis cheated his heirs by selling all of Rothko’s unplaced paintings to the Marlborough Galleries, for which Reis worked while also acting as Rothko’s executor. As Breslin remarks of both episodes, “Rothko, it seems, had some propensity for putting himself in the way of wolves, the better to assure himself that he was a lamb. Wolves were not hard to find.”
After his ordeal with Browne, Rothko abandoned commercial art and met Edith Sacher, who was to become his first wife. Although the marriage lasted for eleven years, it was rocky from the start (Breslin sees variations on Rothko’s discontent with Sacher in much of the art the latter produced in the 1930’s). Sacher, Rothko claimed, was too materialistic. Having given up commercial art, Rothko was reduced to the status of a starving artist, and Sacher was forced to support them both. When Edith’s jewelry-making business became successful, she added insult to injury by forcing her husband to become one of her sales representatives. Rothko’s ego was too fragile to withstand such assaults, and the two separated; it is worth noting that Sacher asked him to leave, with the result that he took to his bed for three months.
Rothko suffered a similar breakdown after the death of his mother, another strong woman, in 1948. Fortunately, three years earlier he had met and quickly married his second wife, Mary Alice “Mell” Beistle. Mell was something completely different:
Nineteen years younger than Rothko, she was attractive, dependent, supportive, and-most important-adoring. Throughout their marriage she called her husband “Rothko,” as if he were a superior being, already endowed with the mythic qualities he would later acquire.
By the time Rotbko married Mell, his style had already begun to change from a surrealistic, representational one to the mature one now associated with him: two or three stacked rectangles painted in luminescent colors and finished with soft edges. Breslin, and others, have observed the artist’s customary rectilinear structure in such works as The Omen of the Eagle (1942), a “myth” painting that formed part of his early explorations of mythological subjects as a medium of elemental expression in painting. Nevertheless, Breslin argues convincingly that the sense of mastery-however temporary-that he gained in his marriage to Mell afforded Rothko the confidence to explore new avenues in his art.
(The entire section is 1674 words.)