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.