Heavenly Rectangles

Mark Rothko’s floating abstractions of despair.

“Mark Rothko”
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.: May 3-Aug. 16
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City: Sept. 10-Nov. 29
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris: Jan. 8-April 18

Negotiating the serpentine corridors of the big Rothko show at the National Gallery is like going through a tunnel that keeps getting darker only to find that the light at the end is an oncoming train. The show opens amid New York subway platforms, a favorite subject of Rothko’s during the 1930s. Isolated figures descend the stairs in this twilit realm, hemmed in by a geometric cage of bars and pillars (Entrance to Subway, 1938). In an interesting catalog essay, the curator of the show, Jeffrey Weiss, points out that subways had a special meaning for Jewish-American artists like Rothko. In Alfred Kazin’s memoir, A Walker in the City, the subway ride from Brownsville to Manhattan “quantified the vast physical and social distance that existed between the Jews of Brooklyn and the ‘real’ New York.” For Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia, in 1903, the distance was even greater, and once he’d made it to the “real” Manhattan–his Museum of Modern Art show of 1961 marked his arrival–he found that he was still in the dark.

Rothko immigrated to America–to Portland, Ore.–in 1913. His father, a pharmacist, died a year later. His mother, whose smotheringly protective presence critics have discerned in some of his early paintings, watched over Marcus and his three siblings. A precocious student, Rothko went to Yale on scholarship and dropped out after two years, moving to New York in 1923, where, except for a brief stint studying acting back in Portland, he lived for the rest of his life. For the next 25 years, Rothko was a struggling artist in every way, groping for an appropriate medium to convey his intense inner life. He studied at the Art Students League, taught sporadically, and exhibited with various networks of artists, including one group who called themselves–when one of their number left–“The Ten Who Are Nine.” In 1932 he married Edith Sachar, who was far more successful in her business of designing jewelry than he was in selling his paintings.

T he war years brought a radical shift in Rothko’s style. He went from painting realistic New York scenes to concocting mythological motifs with titles like Archaic Idol and Tentacles of Memory. In a way, the shift was less abrupt than it seemed, for Rothko traded in one set of underground subjects, the subway, for another, the “depth psychology” strata of the unconscious, with dreamscape bric-a-brac lifted from Surrealist painters Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy. In paintings such as Hierarchical Birds (1944), the messy profusion of feathers and tails and eyes is meant to convey the tangle of the psyche, while the three layers of color in the background might correspond to Freud’s tripartite division of superego, ego, and id.

Then Rothko made a decisive discovery, one of the turning points in the history of American art. He realized that the weird birds and body parts and eyes added nothing to his paintings. The boldly simplified work of friends such as Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still (the California abstractionist he’d met on a trip west in 1944) may have encouraged him to banish imagery from his work. Rothko made the background of paintings such as Hierarchical Birds–the richly painted stacked rectangles of contrasting colors–the foreground, and he never looked back. By 1949, he had established the “classic” format he would explore for the next 20 years. He also had a new name (having shortened Marcus Rothkowitz to Mark Rothko in 1940), a new wife, and a new gallery. His mother died in 1948, however, and Rothko went into a prolonged depression, an early episode of the periodic despondency he would continue to suffer.

D uring the 1950s, the paintings just kept getting better. The National Gallery owns a beautiful canvas of 1953 in which a rectangle of magenta hovers atop a larger rectangle of black. Once you’ve registered that relationship, you realize that a layer of orange smolders underneath and flickers at the seam of the two colors. No paintings in the show are more ravishing than the brace of monumental canvases Rothko painted in 1957 in a garage in New Orleans, while teaching at Tulane University. These “breakthrough” paintings, as Rothko himself called them, with their thick layers of paint laid on with big brushes purchased at a hardware store, give the lie to the critic Clement Greenberg’s influential claim that Rothko “seems to soak his paint into the canvas to get a dyer’s effect and avoid the connotations of a discrete layer of paint on top of the surface.” Greenberg wanted to enlist Rothko in his own narrative of American painting moving irrevocably toward “flatness” and so-called “color-field” painting.

Some of Rothko’s ‘50s work does look stained rather than painted, but it’s not the most powerful work. As painter Brice Marden notes in a lively interview in the exhibition catalog, Rothko’s brushwork is the most compelling thing about him. “He was one of the last painterly painters,” maintains Marden, adding that Rothko’s great composition of purple, white, and red (Untitled, 1953) is “like an impressionist work, because of the kind of touch involved.” These paintings have an almost calligraphic energy.

By the late ‘50s Rothko was a very successful painter, and he hated it. At least, he distrusted the grounds of his success. Ever since the mythological paintings, he had aimed somehow to go beyond painting, to plug into the inner recesses of the soul. He refused to talk about technique, angrily denied that he was a colorist, and challenged his viewers to find the tragedy lurking in the canvases (Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy was his favorite book). “I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface,” he claimed. But the more violence Rothko pumped into the pictures, the more plush and collectible they turned out to be. Greenberg, writing in 1958, took pains to deny that Rothko’s paintings were “luxury-objects,” arguing, rather mysteriously, that they managed to “escape geometry through geometry itself.”

The tension between luxury object and tragic icon came to a head in 1958, when Rothko accepted a commission to supply a series of murals for Philip Johnson’s Four Seasons restaurant in Mies van der Rohe’s new Seagram Building in New York City. In a deliberate attempt to defy the locale, where, as Rothko said, “the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off,” Rothko darkened his palette. Several of the resulting paintings are on view in the National Gallery show, scumbled swaths of deep red, maroon, and black. Eventually Rothko backed out of the project, returning the cash advance.

R othko’s last decade is like some strange twist on the Midas myth. As he tries to instill more and more tragedy into his work, it turns automatically to gold. He is invited to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, has a “Rothko room” installed in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.–the first of several such rooms in museums around the world–and accepts a commission to decorate a chapel for the de Menil family in Houston (known as the Rothko Chapel). From 1965 to 1967, he works exclusively on the chapel project, and the paintings become so dark that some of them are virtually black on black. Meanwhile, he is chain-smoking, drinking heavily, and abusing barbiturates. His doctor later tells Rothko’s biographer that Rothko’s “greatest sources of consolation were calories and alcohol.” He has a heart attack in 1968, leaves his wife in 1969, and on Feb. 25, 1970, slits his wrists and dies on the studio floor.

Rothko’s triumphantly tragic career resembles what Robert Lowell called the “generic life” of his own generation of poets. For Rothko, too, there were the years of apprenticeship, the hard-won discovery of a classic but ultimately restrictive format (Rothko’s stacked rectangles are not unlike Lowell’s sonnets and John Berryman’s “dream songs”), the succession of wives, the acclaim, and the descent into alcohol, paranoia, depression, and suicide. Rothko’s journey into literal and figurative darkness left behind a shimmering trail of canvases that mark for many people the high-water mark of spiritual beauty and emotion in modern art. He suffered the strange fate of many artists who aim for the sublime, then find their work enlisted in other all-too-human narratives. At a special reception for the opening of the National Gallery exhibition, Hillary Rodham Clinton revealed that her first date with the future president was to go see a Rothko show at Yale.