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Rothko’s Legacy

August 5, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST
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PAUL SOLMAN: This summer at Washington’s National Gallery: a retrospective of American abstract artist Mark Rothko, the guy who made color fields famous.

From obscure artist to American master.

Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia in 1903, he and his family emigrated to Portland, Oregon, where Marcus starred in school and was one of three immigrant seniors to get into Yale. After two years, Rothko dropped out and by his and the century’s mid-twenties, he was working odd jobs in New York and becoming an artist. For 30 some odd years that’s what he was-an artist-an obscure one.

But in the 1950′s American culture started to make its global mark. In painting, the style that carried the day was abstract expressionism. Mark Rothko, one of its exemplars, was soon considered an American master. Always melancholy, as Rothko became celebrated and rich, he became more somber, in the end, seriously depressed. He committed suicide in 1970 at age 67.

The current exhibit begins with a side of Rothko not often seen, since he destroyed much of his early work. Art historian and Rothko biographer Dore Ashton got to know him when she was a New York Times reporter on the art beat.

DORE ASHTON: Well, this portrait is one side of his, of his temperament, the darkly emotional and expressionist artist. He was a man who expressed feelings in his work. That’s the key.

PAUL SOLMAN: If Rothko-in those days still Rothkowitz-seems to be expressing something dark about himself, his work of the 30′s was, in general, an effort to break with the conservatism of the times, exemplified, for instance, by the oh-so-American Grant Wood and his classic of early social realism, “American Gothic.”

Striving for a modern statement.

Rothko, by contrast, was trying to say something modern. Like a number of his contemporaries, he spent the 1930s experimenting. His New York subway scenes, for instance, were simplified, stark; subject matter seemed less important than the formal elements-line, shape and color.

DORE ASHTON: And he did it this way and so did others, including Joseph Solman and-what was the name that he was quite friendly with-Ben, Ben-

PAUL SOLMAN: Ben Zion.

DORE ASHTON: Ben Zion.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now the reason I know who Ashton’s talking about is that this is the art I grew up with. The Joseph Solman Ashton just mentioned happens to be my father, fellow founder, with Rothko, in 1935, a group of dissident American modernists, The Ten. Like Rothko, my father was fascinated by New York, and its endless visual variety susceptible to simplification. My dad’s the only one of The Ten still alive. Actually, at age 89, he’s still painting. And, since they exhibited together so often, Joe Solman may be the only person who remembers Mark Rothko’s reaction to The Ten’s early critical reception.

JOSEPH SOLMAN, Artist: He was so unnoticed by the general critics at that time that he was very bitter about it. They even didn’t notice him, they didn’t even say that he was bad. That’s true. He complained about that.

Groping towards the eternal.

PAUL SOLMAN: In the 1940′s, Rothko took off in a new direction: a conscious, some would say self-conscious, embrace of ancient myth in an attempt, like the European surrealists before him, to create a global language. Ancient birds and ancient Greeks abound. Perhaps his most famous work of this period: “Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea,” features symbols of music, the truly universal language. That’s what Rothko said he was shooting for here.

DORE ASHTON: It’s a tone of voice which is eternal, never changes, and that the, the whole issue of time is not linear. It’s circular.

PAUL SOLMAN: So he’s groping toward the eternal–some statement about the eternal.

DORE ASHTON: Oh, I’m sure of that, yes. Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sure of it why?

DORE ASHTON: Well, because one feels it in the work. I feel it in the work.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did he tell you that as well, I mean when you talked?

DORE ASHTON: No, he would never, he would never say something so banal as I’m groping for the eternal.

Images and symbols dissolve into shapes and colors.

PAUL SOLMAN: Groping, not necessarily succeeding. And by the end of the 1940′s, Rothko had changed course again. Recognizable images and symbols dissolve. All that remains are the shapes, defined by color. The shapes become fewer-so too the colors. The paintings become bigger. And by 1950, Mark Rothko was making paintings like this one, which he showed Dore Ashton on her first visit to his studio.

DORE ASHTON: I was stunned. It swept me away. I was tremendously moved by it. And I think it was this painting where he said to me, you know, it’s tragic.

PAUL SOLMAN: In a painting like that–maybe blood in the middle or something, but death?

DORE ASHTON: It’s not literal death. But awareness of mortality is what makes many people make works of art.

PAUL SOLMAN: You mean the life force to keep you going in the face of death.

DORE ASHTON: Absolutely and-and the-possibly instinctive desire to outlast your body-to be there.

A devotion to abstraction.

PAUL SOLMAN: Rothko had become empathetic about the priority of abstract themes, even with fellow artists. My father-who continued to pain recognizable subjects-recalls arguing with him around 1950. The Ten had long since disbanded and this was a meeting of yet another group, the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, that bucked conservatism in American art. But Rothko wanted to go further.

JOSEPH SOLMAN: He claimed that everybody should paint abstract in the Federation, that that’s the only road, and then I got up and said that’s too dogmatic.

PAUL SOLMAN: When the Federation rejected Rothko’s proposal, he went his own way. Soon, he became part of the burgeoning abstract New York School, posing for Life Magazine as one of “The Irascibles” with the likes of Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning in 1951. And from this period onward Mark Rothkos are as recognizable as Norman Rockwells: variations on a common, in his case transcendental, theme. But, might they not seem a bit-monotonous?

DORE ASHTON: Some people respond, and they think, oh, how could he do the same thing every day, but, of course, if you look at it from his point of view, it’s never the same. Each painting is an attempt to express a specific feeling: joy, fear, all of those things.

PAUL SOLMAN: Rothko considered his work spiritual and wanted viewers to be spiritually moved by it. And at the Rothko show some were. Nicole Asquith and Ned Steiner actually wrote poems inspired by a 1953 Rothko entitled “Number 61.”

NICOLE ASQUITH: That long thirsted-for-horizon bleeds into the silent link, smothered in its own blue chalk. White silent ghosts, withered and yellow, glide by. The blue of my perception comes back to me-

NED STEINER: Light shines on the other side and is projected into the dark room. Space hanging in space. The water separated from the waters.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lynn Metheny had a somewhat different way of putting it.

LYNN METHENY: It makes you feel very small in the face of these color fields sort of encompassing you.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you’re sort of in the paintings?

LYNN METHENY: Exactly. Exactly.

PAUL SOLMAN: He spoke about wanting people to be in the paintings. That’s why there are no frames and why it’s-the paint is actually all the way over on the sides.

LYNN METHENY: And I think, you know, the size of them as well helps that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you think you have a competitive advantage because you’re kind of short?

LYNN METHENY: Perhaps, perhaps.

“The dark is always at the top.”

PAUL SOLMAN: By the mid 1950s Rothko had won fame and fortune. But success made him squirm, says Ashton. In 1958,America for example, he began a series of murals-this is one of them-for New York’s swanky Four Seasons Restaurant–but later–reportedly horrified by the ostentation of the setting-he abandoned the commission.

DORE ASHTON: He was worried that he would be perceived as selling out very often. And when he finally got a commission from a woman that was above reproach, Madame De Menil, it was a great relief for him.

PAUL SOLMAN: In 1965, Dominique De Menil, the modern art patron who died last year, commissioned 18 paintings from Rothko for a chapel she was building in Houston, near the museum that bears her name. The dark and brooding result-considered by Rothko to be his most important work, was prelude to the black paintings done a few years later-to some, subtle exercises in the sparest of colors–to others, signs of physical deterioration and mental despair.

DORE ASHTON: At the very end of his life he did a number of paintings which he did on paper-very large sheets of paper–and he said to me, “The dark is always at the top.” A few weeks later when he committed suicide, I remembered his saying that and I thought how ironic, it was really true. He got to the top himself, and that was the darkest place of his life.

PAUL SOLMAN: In the end, Rothko was not only beset by alcoholism, emphysema, heart disease, and separation from his wife, but, says Ashton, he was deeply unhappy with the way his work was going. Had he lost his transcendent touch? Or, as Time Magazine art critic Robert Hughes wonders, did he ever really have one?

PAUL SOLMAN: Robert Hughes says “his mature paintings could be ravishingly beautiful in their depth and relationships of color but was this enough to constitute a major religious utterance? One can only answer without skepticism that it was not.”

DORE ASHTON: But if you go to the Rothko chapel and hang around for a few days, all kinds of people come there deeply moved and say they’ve had a spiritual experience.

JOSEPH SOLMAN, Artist: It’s anyone’s call what’s transcendent.

PAUL SOLMAN: Though my father and Mark Rothko started out together, they arrived at very different notions about the aim of art. But though my dad’s aesthetic may be more representational than transcendental, he too has come to admire Mark Rothko.

JOSEPH SOLMAN: At first, when I and many others who knew him saw his work, we thought he did tasteful paintings about nothing because he had lovely color schemes. Later, I began to see the power of color, what a power of color could do without subject matter, and I admired it, and I began to like it, and I thought he was the best of the abstract expressionists.

PAUL SOLMAN: The power of color. In the end, it’s an epitaph that even Mark Rothko might have liked.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Rothko exhibition moves to New York’s Whitney Museum this fall and to Paris next year.