Books: Irascible Rothko

Annie Cohen-Solal disappoints in her biography of a great artist who had a great life story.

‘Untitled’: A 1952-53 Rothko painting at an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. (photo credit: VINCENT WEST / REUTERS)
‘Untitled’: A 1952-53 Rothko painting at an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
(photo credit: VINCENT WEST / REUTERS)
YOU KNOW the iconic Mark Rothko paintings, those huge floating rectangles of luminescent color. One critic compared them to a “Biblical image of the heavens opening up and revealing a celestial light, a light sometimes so blinding, its brilliance so intense that the light itself became the content of the vision, within which were delivered annunciations of things closest to the human spirit.”
Led in a somewhat different direction, another critic fudged and fussed over “these silent paintings, with their enormous, beautiful, opaque surfaces [that] are mirrors, reflecting what the viewer brings with him… They suggest the entrances to tombs, like the doors to the dwellings of the dead in Egyptian pyramids, behind which the sculptors kept their kings ‘alive’ for eternity… The whole series of murals brings to mind an Orphic cycle… the artist descending into Hades to find the Eurydice of his vision…” Or maybe the paintings lead to neither heaven nor hell. Maybe you simply favor the third critic who likened the works to “a set of swatches prepared by a house painter for a housewife who cannot make up her mind.”
Having contemplated over the years the murals in Houston’s Rothko Chapel, in the Rothko rooms in London’s Tate Modern and in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and elsewhere, I’ll admit I’ve dithered. Probably reflecting my character, I’ve been mesmerized by the blacks, the dark rubies, the browns, while remaining unmoved by the citrus yellows and oranges, the pretty pinks.
But there’s no question where Annie Cohen-Solal stands – it’s squarely in front of every Rothko square of every color, with profound awe and admiration.
Cohen-Solal would seem a likely choice to write about Mark Rothko for the Yale University Press “Jewish Lives” series. She has written extensively on American painters, produced a study of the renowned art dealer Leo Castel and, most notably, wrote an acclaimed life of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Equally significant, she shares with Rothko (1903-1970) a life story as a Jewish outsider who became an eminent insider of contemporary Western culture. In Rothko’s case it was a sojourn from a small town in what is now Latvia to the heights of the international art world. For Cohen-Solal it was a journey from Algeria to Paris and from there to renown as a scholar, author, cultural ambassador and university lecturer in France, Germany, the US and Israel.
None of this however explains why Cohen-Solal’s “Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel” is so deeply disappointing.
One obvious reason is the indefensible limitation imposed by the Jewish Lives series, which often matches fine writers with brilliant subjects but demands the job be compressed to around 200 pages. (“Rothko” is 208 pages of text; the rest is notes and bibliography.) I’ve read the series offerings on Emma Goldman, David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, King David and I forget who else, and each reads like an extended Wikipedia entry. You simply can’t expect 200 pages on such complex and compelling persons to be anything beyond entry-level biographies.
These are books, earnest as their authors may be, for the short-attention-span generation.
Brevity aside, some of the Jewish Lives are splendidly written. The current offering is not. To be sure, at over 750 pages, James E.B. Breslin’s 1993 magisterial biography “Mark Rothko” is not for everybody. But I can’t see how Cohen-Solal’s biography can satisfy anybody.
Cohen-Solal was also ill-served by Yale in other ways. It was of course appropriate to include color reproductions of Rothko’s paintings, but hardly useful to offer them just a tad larger than postage stamps. We also get some quite pointless graphics, such as the map showing Rothko’s residences and studios in New York, or the chart, very much like an airline seatback screensaver, illustrating his transatlantic flights – while so much else in the text cries for illustration.
Nor were Yale’s copy editors doing the author any favors by swallowing such peculiar spellings as “rabbi Joahannah ben-Zakkaj,” “Betsalel,” or “schmates,” which appears to rhyme with skates. Trimming her exclamation points would also have been in order.
I ALSO suspect that in return for archive access and other cooperation from Rothko’s son Christopher, Cohen- Solal was chivvied into reticence. Why else would she murmur only the briefest reference to the artist’s abandoning his family in 1969 and moving into his studio? Or inform us that his death was declared a suicide, but not provide the slightest suggestion as to how or why? Or merely mention the 12-year battle over Rothko’s multimillion- dollar estate in a single paragraph, amplified by a single footnote? Whatever the case, “Rothko” remains so thin on the ground that little support is evident for Cohen-Solal’s repeated insistence that Marcus Rotkovitch’s study from ages four to 10 at a Talmud Torah in Dvinsk (later Daugavpils), Latvia, influenced his art and philosophy ever after. Rothko was a genuine intellectual, a frequent lecturer, and a dedicated essayist, but she in no way convinces us that the artist was a “Jewish thinker.”
Cohen-Solal would have been on firmer ground exploring the virtual Jewish mafia involved in the American Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s, when so many artists and critics and gallery owners (Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Milton Avery, Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, Sidney Janis, Katherine Kuh, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, to name just a quick baker’s dozen) promoted a radically intellectual and Torah-friendly non-pictorial art.
Raised in Portland, Oregon, the studious Mark Rothko went off to Yale to immerse himself in the liberal arts, but quit after two years, declaring that “the whole institution is a lie and serves as a cloak of respectability for a social and athletic club.” Moving to New York, Rothko visited a friend at a life class and decided – famously and as if on impulse – to take up painting. He began by exploring some of the more prominent modernist movements – mythologism (including Christian iconography), surrealism, multiformism, etc. – and he apparently had as much talent for friendship as he had at the easel. His efforts and ideas were always bolstered by like-minded artists, and together they were forever forming oppositional groups, organizing their own “outsider” shows and issuing manifestos.
Rothko’s most notable posse became known as the Irascibles, a term that well describes the man. It was in his nature, for example, to rail against New York’s venerable Metropolitan Museum for not featuring contemporary art; then when the Museum of Modern Art was established, Rothko decried what he perceived as its anti-American bias; next, when the Whitney was founded specifically to celebrate new American art, Rothko condemned it for its tastes. Perversely, when the Whitney expressed a desire to purchase works from a Rothko gallery show, the artist refused the sale. Later, when the Museum of Modern Art indicated it wanted to showcase Rothko, the artist told the writer John Fischer: “They need me. I don’t need them.
This show will lend dignity to the Museum. It does not lend dignity to me.”
And then, of course, there was the famous commission for murals at the exclusive restaurant in Samuel Bronfman’s new Seagram skyscraper.
Rothko accepted the commission, but noted, “I hope to 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 compliment.” The restaurant, which Rothko described as “a place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off,” accordingly did reject the murals. Happily, they ended up at the Tate Modern in London.
Even more happily, Rothko accepted the commission for the proposed non-denominational chapel adjacent to the Menil family’s art museum in Houston, and the resultant 14 massive, darkly shimmering paintings are considered the artist’s masterpieces. By this time, Rothko was widely acclaimed, and his paintings sold for fabulous sums. But it would not be long before a new generation of artists would be setting the art world on fire with pictures of soup cans and copies of comic book panels – a kind of art that stood in opposition to everything Rothko had worked himself toward throughout his life.
Still, Mark Rothko was a great artist and had a great life story. He deserves much better than Cohen-Solal’s effort.