Transcendental art

Transcendental art

One hundred years ago, on August 5, 1913, a 10-year-old Russian boy, Marcus Rothkowitz, accompanied his mother and sister and travelled second class on a sea journey on SS Czar from Libau, a port on the Baltic Sea, before reaching Brooklyn on August 17.

Twenty years later, Mark Rothko held his first solo show of paintings at the Portland Art Museum, Oregon and then in New York. His reputation grew steadily, and in 1961, when his two-month exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he became the first living member of his generation to have a one-man show at the prestigious venue; the exhibit later travelled to London, Amsterdam, Basel, Rome and Paris.

Rothko’s triumphant artistic career as an iconic abstractionist suddenly and tragically ended in 1970. On a cold February morning, his 66-year-old body in a long underwear and thick black socks was found on the kitchen floor of his spacious studio in a pool of blood. He had evidently swallowed an overdose of barbiturates and then cut the elbow veins of his right arm with a razor blade. His trousers were seen folded neatly over the back of a nearby chair. His wallet was intact. No suicide note was found. The kitchen tap was running.

In a 1958-lecture at Pratt Institute, Rothko had declared that the first ingredient of his work was “a clear pre-occupation with death; nothing else is to be taken seriously.” In a later interview, he confessed to an absolute lack of interest in the relationship between form and colour. “The only thing I care about is the expression of man’s basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny.”

Complicated life

By all accounts, Rothko’s life was a difficult and complicated one. His personality, as one of his acquaintances recalled, was ‘kind of deep and solemn and grim and bitter’.
He was friendly, gracious and articulate but could also turn uncaring, uncompromising and unsympathetic, particularly in his later years. He disliked young artists and was wary of friendship among his peers. He looked for a social life outside of the competitive art world.

Rothko distrusted material success; he was furiously against the museum world and commodification of art by galleries. He did not sell his paintings before thoroughly evaluating the buyer first. He never framed his works and was very particular about the lighting for his paintings. He hated criticism of his work and detested being called a painter of abstract landscapes.

More shockingly, he didn’t want to be associated with nature in any way. “One of his statements that shocked me most was saying that he really hated nature, and that he felt uncomfortable in the natural world,” recalled poet and close friend Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006). “He did not carry on a dialogue with the world. His immersion was in selfhood, essentially.”

Rothko admired Shakespeare and Mozart and was fixated with the literary work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich was a favourite story of his.

As an artist, Rothko liked to paint large pictures but could barely draw. Kunitz points out that “like many artists, he came to recognise his limitations and then to work outside them, to create a style that didn’t require that particular skill and leaned on what he was a master of. He felt he was pulling something out of the depths that was stronger than our surface deftness with draftsmanship.”

Tracing roots

James E B Breslin, in his biography of the artist, observes that the origins of Rothko’s combativeness, his prophetic ambitions, his intense desire for success, his guilt about success, his uncompromisingness, his propensity to isolate himself, his wish for community, his mixed feelings about both wealth and poverty, his suspicions, his suspicions about himself and his vulnerability to despair could be traced to his early days in Dvinsk, Russia.

Rothko had always resented his enforced migration to the US; he never felt entirely at home in his adopted land. He once told his artist-friend Robert Motherwell: “You don’t know what it is to be a Jewish kid dressed in a suit that is a Dvinsk, not an American idea of a suit, travelling across America and not able to speak English.”

After years of struggle, Rothko did become successful, but that brought him no relief. “Success produced its own headaches,” writes Breslin. “As an outsider, he had long felt bitter and deprived. Now, as an insider he felt uneasy and contaminated.”

In his final years, Rothko was being treated for depression. He was also drinking heavily. When he died, Kunitz delivered his funeral oration on February 27, 1970: “Once I told Rothko that he was the last rabbi of Western Art,” recalled Kunitz. “And that made him smile, which was a relief, since one could never be quite certain when his face would darken... Others could and still do produce paintings that resemble his, but Mark’s transcendental quality, his effect of a pulsing spiritual life, of an imminent epiphany, was a secret he did not share with others and maybe only partly understood himself.”

Later, Kunitz wrote a poem on Rothko titled The Artist, which reads as follows:
His paintings grew darker every year.

They filled the walls, they filled
the room;
eventually they filled his world
all but the ravishment.
When voices faded, he would rush
to hear
the scratched soul of Mozart
endlessly in gyre.
Back and forth, back and forth,
he paced the paint-smeared floor,
diminishing in size each time he turned,
trapped in his monumental void,
raving against his adversaries.
At last he took a knife in his hand
and slashed an exit for himself
between the frames of his tall scenery.
Through the holes of his tattered
the first innocence and the light
came pouring in.

Auction favourites

Rothko’s paintings — shimmering zones of colour — are favourites in international auctions and have often broken records. In May 2007, his 1950-painting White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) was bought for $72.84 million by Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family, setting a record for the highest price ever paid for a work of post-war art at auction.

Five years later, on May 8, 2012, his Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) went for a whopping $87.5 million at Christie’s and set another world auction record. Last November, his 1954-painting No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) exceeded the pre-sale estimate of $35-$50 million when an anonymous bidder decided to take it for $75.1 million at the Sotheby’s New York auction.

“Pictures must be miraculous,” believed Rothko.

“The instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.”

He also said that a picture lived by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. “It dies by the same token.”

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