PRINT April 1970

Mark Rothko (1903–1970)

VISITING MARK ROTHKO’S STUDIO in the 1960s was always a moving experience, artistically, and a prickly one, socially. Prickly because of the painter’s special pride, which could queer any openness in being with him and make it difficult to speak admiringly or to be casual. His visitors were given to understand that they were in the presence of a supreme master, one who might happen to take ill even the most spontaneous respect. This pride was hardly that of the fast gun who knows he’s very good, or the beleaguered genius, upon whom all eyes were fixed. There was no one “out there” with whom Rothko thought he had to compete. And though he claimed to be in possession of the most ineffable secrets, he did not pontificate about art, and never sought to draw other artists into his orbit. In its morbid recesses, his pride was more disturbing than that, for it was vulnerable to itself. The emotional and intellectual terms on which this sensitive man would be accepted could never be fathomed. And this seems to have made him, underneath the arrogant facade, as suspicious of his own worth as he was hard on others. It is said that he could not tolerate praise because he could not believe in it—believe that it was genuinely felt. Imagining himself displaced by younger gods during the decade, he had no idea of the high regard in which he was generally held, or the almost mythical status he enjoyed. He refused to show in this country any of the work he had done since his 1961 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, for fear it would be hostilely received. No one could persuade him otherwise, though many tried. It would be presumptuous to speculate on all the causes of his anguish, so intensified in recent years. But the depth of it, finally, was traumatic enough for him to have taken his life, age sixty-six, at the start of the seventies.

When his late work comes to be shown, it will reveal the continuity of his inspiration, excepting the transcendent murals he executed for the Philip Johnson-designed chapel of the Institute of Religion, Rice University. Rothko built, in his studio, an octagonal structure similar to the chapel’s, where he studied, with excruciating seriousness, the problem of an abstract art put to the service of religious meditation. For an artist who demanded a certain hushed lebensraum for each of his canvases, the requirement to create an ensemble and an environment, not for the work, but out of it, was an extreme challenge. I remember being surrounded by a group of plum-black, charcoal, and dark maroon paintings, of awesome but not intimidating scale, slotted against each other at various heights, and at shallow angles. Their opaque, imageless surfaces were flat. Their few internal edges were sharp and straight. But their effect could not have been, for reasons impossible to understand, less minimal. Rothko had here been far more faithful to his metaphysics than to his style, and the testament-like result, should his clients see fit to exhibit it, would be the most apposite memorial to the innovator he was.

For the place of an innovator has never been denied him. Rothko may have been quite as jealous as Newman and Still about his historical stature as an originator of so-called color-field painting, during the late forties and early fifties. But possibly even more than theirs, his consciousness of who he was worked haughtily against any wish to transmit what he had accomplished. He took it rightly for granted that there could be no short-term lesson, no rhetoric, in the quiver of his brush. The relative dearth of critical comment on his art during the sixties reflects his own withdrawal from the scene, but it is sad that the importance of his work to such artists as Morris Louis and Jules Olitski was not more emphatically noted. There is as much reason for painters to celebrate his work, and to mourn his loss, today, as there was for sculptors to feel gratitude for David Smith in 1966. A splendor of American art, Rothko’s vision is irretrievable.

Max Kozloff