Mark Rothko - From Jewish Schoolboy to Jaded Art Star

The enigmatic artist has not made it easy for biographers to appraise his life; Annie Cohen-Solal is the latest to try in 'Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel.'

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Mark and Mell Rothko sitting in his Fifty-Third Street studio, c. 1953. Photograph by Henry Elkan. Copyright © 2013 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
Mark and Mell Rothko sitting in his Fifty-Third Street studio, c. 1953. Photograph by Henry Elkan. Copyright © 2013 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

“Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel,” by Annie Cohen-Solal, Yale University Press, 282 pages, $25

Mark Rothko’s life was a pilgrimage of withdrawal in which he scattered his visionary artworks like bread crumbs along a path that twisted into a downward spiral of isolation and despair just as his public reputation soared to majestic heights.

Along this tortuous route, Rothko distanced himself from his immigrant family in Portland, Oregon, and dispensed with the Jewish tradition he’d grown up with in Czarist Russia. He dropped out of Yale, walked away from two marriages, broke with a long string of renowned artist peers and gallery patrons, extracted himself from a prestigious commission and, finally, left life itself, by committing suicide at the age of 67.

The only refuge that offered him solace seemed to be the empty canvases whose beckoning light drew him within their vast spaces, to create some of the great art experiences of the 20th century.

The enigmatic Rothko has not made it easy for biographers to appraise his life. By systematically rejecting the paradigms of art history, he virtually dared all comers to put him in a box.

In a dazzling feat of artistic scorched earth, Rothko eschewed the strictures of design, color, flatness and all the “ism’s” of his era. Rothko is the Houdini of 20th-century art movements, nimbly wriggling out of every attempt to place him on some kind of identifiable shelf — even if it was a pedestal.

But this has not stopped writers from trying, most notably James E.B. Breslin in his comprehensive 1998 biography, and the critic Dore Ashton, in her intimate 1993 account. Now entering the list is the Sartre biographer Annie Cohen-Solal with “Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel,” part of the Jewish Lives series under the auspices of Yale University Press.

Although Cohen-Solal is covering well-trod ground, she does a diligent job of taking us through the stations of Rothko’s trajectory, making a game effort at extracting the Jewish influences on what was a decidedly deracinated career.

The general theme is alienation, starting with a boyhood in Dvinsk, a bustling railroad hub in the Russian Baltic region of Latvia where the artist was born Marcus Rotkovitch into an aspiring, assimilated Jewish family in 1903. His father, Jacob, a product of the Haskalah, was a respected pharmacist who returned to Orthodoxy after the Kishinev pogroms in the year of Marcus’s birth. Consequently, young Marcus had a traditional Jewish education through his early years.

Marcus’s Jewish studies ended when he was 10. By then, his father and two older brothers had emigrated to America, followed in 1913 by Marcus, his mother, Anna, and sister, Sonia. Within months of the boy’s arrival in Portland, his father died, leaving Rothko and his mother dependent on the good will of grudging relatives and the hardscrabble efforts of his older siblings.

Nevertheless, Marcus, a brilliant youth, rapidly mastered English, sparkled as a debater and excelled in high school well enough to win a scholarship to Yale. But his academic ambitions were short-lived. Yale, increasingly anxious about the influx of Jewish students, would shortly impose a 10 percent quota on them under the façade of emphasizing “character” as a counterweight to scholastic achievement. Meanwhile, its clubs, fraternities and social life excluded Jews. The rebellious Rothkowitz took umbrage and, after his sophomore year in 1923, left, never to return to formal academic schooling.

Perfect calling for a natural dissident

He lit out for New York City, where he finally discovered his true métier at the legendary Art Students League in 1925, coming under the tutelage of Max Weber. With no formal background in art, either by training or tradition, Rothko had chosen the perfect calling for a natural dissident: romantic, rebellious, liberating from the bourgeois strictures of academy, family, society.

The aspiring artist was fortunate in an early mentor, Milton Avery, who nurtured him professionally and emotionally through the late 1920s. During this period and through the Depression and the early 1940s, Rothko lived an ascetic life: He rejected the imperatives of materialism in pursuit of an artistic vision that evolved from watercolors to brooding scenes of street and subway to creatures of Greek mythology to biomorphic swirls of the surreal, in an emotional purging that would eventually banish the figure from his canvases, sweeping viewers into their vortex of darkness and light.

This was by no means a life of self-denial. In 1932 he married Edith Sachar, who would help support him through her successful silver-jewelry business. But the real family that Rothko joined was the fraternity of artistic outliers, such rebels against the art establishment as The Ten, the Irascibles and The Club, the bohemian redoubt of the late 1940s.

Along the way, he made early friendships with later stars of the Abstract pantheon such as Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman and Stuart Davis. They were driven by an impassioned belief in a vital, authentic American art beholden neither to the modern masters of Europe nor the provincial art of the hinterlands.

The enemy was the Museum of Modern Art, which espoused the paintings of the Europeans, and the Whitney Museum, which celebrated the work of native regionalists.

Then, a funny thing happened. The outsiders became insiders. It took time, but in the postwar era Rothko and his fellow voices crying in the artistic wilderness were being paid attention to, and starting to be paid.

By the late 1940s Jackson Pollock was splashing his drips, Barnett Newman was doing his blips and the bold rush away from figurative imagery had begun. Rothko was among the frontrunners but he had company. Aided by a coterie of influential critics, enterprising gallery owners, shrewd collectors and imaginative promoters as well as self-promoters, the Abstract Expressionists came of age.

Not crazy like Van Gogh

To some, nothing impedes like success. And for Rothko, who considered himself a social rebel, new-found recognition presented identity problems. A man who had forged a persona of defying conventional values was now becoming a symbol of the very commercialism he had rejected. As he said: “I’d like to have money; I’m not crazy like Van Gogh.’’

Along the way, Marcus Rothkowitz in 1940 had become Mark Rothko, a name change followed soon after by a transformation in the artist’s style as well. He also changed wives at about this time, leaving Edith Sachar and marrying Mell Beistle in 1944.

In 1952, the oft-reviled Museum of Modern Art made its peace with the insurgents with its “Fifteen Americans” show, in which Rothko, along with his comrade, Clyfford Still, was given pride of place in the section devoted to the Abstractionists.

Rothko, however, wanted more. Cohen-Solal writes: “Rothko grew unhappy that Still’s work could be seen from his gallery and,’’ as recalled by the show’s organizer, Dorothy Miller, “demanded ‘an absolute blaze of light in order to outshine Still’s gallery, which would be normal light.’” In the words of Dore Ashton, “He wished to control the installation of his work even in relation to the others.’’

In 1955, Still and Newman were invited to Rothko’s first one-man show at the Janis Gallery, which would earn him total sales of $5,500, “the highest ever for an artist at that time.’’ Both men declined. In doing so, Still sent a note to the art dealer Sidney Janis, citing Rothko’s “expediency, hypocrisy or worse.”

Still continued: “His need for sycophants and flattery, and his resentment of everyone, of every truth, that might stand in his path to bourgeois success could no longer be ignored.” Newman also wrote in a similar vein.

Cohen-Solal dismisses the “venomous criticisms” of his erstwhile allies as professional envy and consigns them to notes in the back of the book, but Breslin puts them in the text.

Agony through art

Rothko’s conflicted feelings regarding his good fortune were epitomized when he accepted a 1958 commission to paint a series of murals to adorn the walls of the Four Seasons restaurant, the showpiece of the Seagram Building. Designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, the building was a landmark in New York’s architectural history.

But Rothko grew increasingly uneasy about the assignment. After returning from a trip to Europe, he visited the restaurant and, we are told, was so repulsed by the decadence of the affluent diners that he returned the commission.

Rothko’s final major undertaking was the Catholic chapel in Houston, commissioned in 1964 by the wealthy patrons Dominique and John De Menil. They had selected Philip Johnson as the architect and Rothko to decorate the interior with his murals.

There, tension between the two men over Rothko’s withdrawal from the Seagram project devolved into a clash of wills over the chapel’s lighting, and Johnson bowed out.

Cohen-Solal writes: “The final result was minimalist ... scrupulously adhering to Mark Rothko’s wishes.” Dore Ashton offers a different perspective: “Rothko rejected Johnson’s idea of a truncated pyramid that would allow light to diffuse the walls evenly, preferring to reproduce in Houston the skylight of his own studio.’’ Ashton observes that when the paintings were installed after Rothko’s death in 1970, “the effects were disappointing” and that Johnson “was probably right.’’

A homecoming in Latvia

In 2013, the Mark Rothko Art Center was dedicated in Daugavpils, Latvia, formerly Dvinsk, 100 years after Rothko left for America. The festivities were celebrated by “the Rothko community,’’ a global ingathering that included the artist’s children from his second marriage.

One of the speakers exulted that the new Rothko museum would attract tourists, although another lamented that the Jewish culture that nurtured the artist no longer existed. Cohen-Solal attributes its disappearance to a Nazi death squad, “Einsatzgruppe A, led by Brigadefuhrer-SS Walter Stahlecker’’ together with a roving cadre of Latvian nationalists.

In fact, Dvinsk’s Jews were massacred not at the behest of the SS but at the hands of the local Letts, who murdered virtually the entire Jewish population of 11,000 before the Germans became actively involved.

Mark Rothko’s paintings now sell for upward of $80 million and his murals have enveloped devotees in a transcendent experience. By any measure of success he has achieved an artistic, financial and critical repute that places him on a footing with the world’s great painters.

It was a career that would have satisfied anyone except perhaps Rothko himself, who, till the end, brooded on the hollowness of fame while at the same time seeking it.

Cohen-Solal is an unabashed admirer of Rothko and her enthusiasms occasionally overcome a more measured approach to his life.

She concludes the disquieting contretemps with Still and Newman with the admonition, “Let’s instead leave Mark Rothko in his glory.’’ She later elucidates this by celebrating her subject as not only an artist but “a true scientist as well as a medieval craftsman” and “a scholar, an intellectual, an educator and a true pioneer,” which even if it were true might have been presented somewhat less breathlessly.

Nonetheless, her ardor stimulated an exhaustive amount of research attesting to the considerable effort invested in this book. As for Rothko’s Jewishness, like his paintings, it is in the eye of the beholder. If anything about Rothko was Jewish, it was his Job-like determination to peer into the whirlwind of his soul and bear witness to its agony through his art.

Jack Schwartz was an assistant culture editor at The New York Times and formerly edited the Arts pages of its Arts & Leisure Section.

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