Mark Rothko and Abstract Expressionism by guest blogger Pinky Kase
Time flies and it is important to keep all your memories categorized and maintained while your mind is still in functioning order. So let me first engage you in a short history of our relationship with the artwork of Mark Rothko. There was a magical communication of Rothko’s world of art that was begun for me 50 years ago in a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was instantaneous and without any relationship to any reality that I had known up to that time. Here there were paintings filled with luminous abstract blocks of color and they bestowed upon the viewer feelings of joy and order. We knew what Rothko was about but we could never begin to explain his purposes to friends, family. or doubting foes of abstract art. We were a young couple with three small children and we had not a chance in hell of owning a Rothko. We were the proverbial enthusiasts who were always at that point a day late and a dollar short. But we knew what we loved and we followed the artist’s climb to fame and fortune. And we defended him from angry attacks without a chance of winning over those who hated his work.
A few years later we stepped into an elevator on 57th Street and encountered a runner who was bringing a Rothko to the Andre Emmerick gallery. It was a small work on paper and it filled us with the possibility that we might be able to own it. And so we marched into the sales gallery and inquired the price. The work was $18,000.00; we were again a day late and many dollars short. We changed our minds and decided that our role was not to be one of ownership, but rather to enthuse and entice the Friends of Art to purchase a work by Rothko. Shortly after the Nelson was gifted with the Rothko, the painter committed suicide by calmly slitting his wrists. Today the canvas by Rothko holds a place of honor and distinction in the Nelson Gallery of Art. Rothko was difficult, hard drinking, unhealthy, unhappy. And so it is amazing that large luminous canvases could be produced by a man who suffered so many of the indignities. of life. He is described as being pontifical, obsessive, opinionated, vain, arrogant, and brilliant. Surely a man possessed of all these qualities should not have been capable of painting the often joyous art that he produced.
Today there has been a sudden reawakening of interest in the man Rothko due to a Broadway play about his refusal to allow his paintings to be placed in a restaurant adjoining the lobby of the Seagram Building. He had been mistaken or mistakenly informed that the works were to be the focal point of the renowned building and certainly not exposed to the vagaries of restaurant service and spillage. The play puts Rothko in a blue Adirondack chair studying his paintings with his back to the audience, and there are photographs of the real Rothko sitting in a green Adirondack doing exactly that. In the play Rothko teaches his assistant how to look at his art and gratuitously shows the audience how to look at his work. It is an exciting education when the artist exclaims in words that “Nature doesn’t work for me. The light’s no good.” And then the play demonstrates the point. As the assistant switches on the overhead white fluorescent lights, which flatten the canvas and break the painting’s spell. Then Rothko returns the room to its soft glow and he says, “You see how it is with them? How vulnerable? People think I’m controlling the light…..It’s not controlling—it’s protecting. Alfred Molina assumes the role of Rothko which is confounding to me because Molina is a huge overwhelming presence while Rothko was far less physically imposing and much more of an intellectual vainly trying to keep his interior tortures hidden until they would uncontrollably erupt.
There is one other show and tell episode in the play. As classical music blasts from a record player Rothko slathers paint over the canvas in a balletic two minute explosion of activity that deftly conjures the exhilaration of the act. Rothko became a painter because he said he wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry. A visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston was the penultimate experience for me. The Rothko paintings are half submerged by the light they gather and offer. Rothko’s light is like medieval light; it has no location, no perspective. There is impatience, indeed violence in the confrontation of the late dark
rectangles; they are expressionist and impersonal at the same time. You can sit there and think about anything and everything but ultimately you will feel that you are being impelled to enter the blocks of color.
Perhaps an actual quote from Rothko about his withdrawal of the Seagram murals puts his views most succinctly. “The art will be something that will ruin the appetite of every son–of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals that would be the ultimate complement.” Technically there has been much conversation and study of the works by restoration experts. The canvas is uncoated and untreated and then coated with these thin veils of oil. This may cause many problems of restoration if such needs occur.
But this is not the vital aspect of the work for the viewer. It is the here and it is the now of gaining understanding of the work. Illustrations of the paintings will not do the trick. Nor will words. If you really want to understand a Rothko you have to sit with it. You have to be held by it and experience the experience that pulls you into the work. You are sucked into it sometimes gently, sometimes violently. It is magic that these simple blocks of color can do this. Treat yourself to 15 minutes with a Rothko near you.
Betty–I have left the story of the trial which ultimately returned
possession of some 800 Rothko canvasses to his children after a huge
court battle in which the head of the Marlboro Gallery was judged to
have defrauded Rothko and his estate.