PRINT May 1998


This month the National Gallery in Washington, DC, opens the first full-scale American retrospective of MARK ROTHKO’s work in twenty years. To mark the occasion, art historian Robert Rosenblum, who with this issue joins Artforum’s masthead as a contributing editor, offers a personal chronology of his five-decade-long dialogue with the artist’s work.

ca. 1953 Amazing to recall, now that he is as permanently enshrined in the pantheon of artist-deities as Matisse or Mondrian, but Rothko, back in the early ’50s, was a fighting word. I remember vividly the combative, black-and-white climate that divided the New York art world into pro-or-con extremes when faced with the unheralded innovations of the Abstract Expressionists. And in my own academic neck of the woods, NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, there were no-less-heated debates among us graduate students about whether such things as a chaos of poured pigment or a few blurry rectangles of color could possibly be serious art. And on a more sophisticated level, someone—I can’t remember who—quipped that Rothko’s canvases looked like Buddhist television sets. A few of us embraced positively these new experiences, though mainly as an act of faith, a quantum leap into the unknown. What most of us were certain about was that nothing like these paintings had ever been seen before.

ca. 1957 With the advent of Johns and Rauschenberg, artists of my own generation whose work startled me into enthusiastic attention, Rothko & Co. suddenly slipped from present to past tense. In the first surveys of Modern art I taught at Princeton, I proudly and, given the fear most students had of being duped by empty canvases, somewhat riskily concluded the course with a quick run-through of Rothko, Newman, and Still—my pitch for commitment to the cutting edge of art history. And it was then, too, that I met Rothko for the first and last time, when he turned up during a visit I made to Theodoros Stamos’ studio on Columbus Avenue. Thrilled to meet the mythic master in the living flesh, I immediately put my foot in my mouth by asking him, in the most pedantic way, what affinities he felt with the other two artists I wanted to put in his category, Newman and Still. He looked angry, said almost nothing, and left me squirming. I blush to realize now how dumb I was. I was totally unaware that already in 1952, following Dorothy Miller’s “Fifteen Americans” show at MoMA, which gave Rothko and Still equal time, and then accelerating to fever pitch in 1955, on the occasion of Sidney Janis’ first one-man show of Rothko, both Still and Newman had become outspoken enemies of the artist whose work I wished to ally with theirs.

1958 Never mind their towering egos and personal hostilities. For me, Rothko, Newman, and Still were not a serpents’ nest but a Holy Trinity, united by the logic of art history. In the first piece I ever wrote about this new art, published only in French translation as “La peinture américaine depuis la deuxième guerre mondiale” (Aujourd’hui, July 1958), I dramatized their common denominator as “frightening in its implications, standing at the very extremity of the boundary beyond which there is nothing.” As for Rothko in particular, I offered explanation by way of landscape analogies, the seed, I now realize, of some grander speculations to come. “These vast icons,” I proposed, “have at times the orange and yellow luminosity of high noon, or, on other occasions, the blue and black mysteries of a moonlit night. Or they may suggest, too, the eternal presence of sky and earth, air and water.”

1961 These tentative steps at connecting Rothko with landscape painting could now be given ampler support, thanks to my welling passion for and growing knowledge of British and German Romantic painting. With Caspar David Friedrich at the epicenter of a drastic, irreversible change of pictorial structure and emotion that would transform old-master religious art into a secular imagery that thinly veiled transcendental ambitions, I tried a sweeping new construction that could reach from the early nineteenth century to the look and feel of certain Abstract Expressionists. Its ambition, I now realize, was to provide an Old Testament prophecy for the New Testament miracle of what MoMA had called the “New American Painting” in its 1958–59 European traveling show. Usually considered a New World invention, wasn’t this strangely minimal pictorial language and weren’t these mysterious sensations of nothingness and chaos to be found much earlier, in Romantic landscape painting? Published in Art News in February 1961, “The Abstract Sublime” happened to appear at the same time as MoMA’s first Rothko retrospective. It also coincided with a letter to The New York Times that many artists and critics (myself included) signed, protesting the hostile treatment of the Abstract Expressionists by the newpaper’s art critic, John Canaday. My new view of things gave Rothko center stage, comparing his work to both Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, 1809, the ultimate statement of, in Kierkegaard’s words, “Being and Nothingness,” and a no less filmy vision by Turner of some uncharted supernatural domain beyond the water’s edge. In particular, the Friedrich-Rothko comparison seemed to register convincingly—to me, at least, and apparently to many others—and I felt destined to fill in the historical blanks that might somehow connect these two painters, so far apart in time, space, and culture, with a convincing genealogical tree.

1966 In two articles, “Caspar David Friedrich and Modern Painting” (Art and Literature, autumn 1966) and “Notes on Mondrian and Romanticism” (in Piet Mondrian, The Art Gallery of Toronto, 1966), I began to flesh out with other artists —Van Gogh, Munch, Hodler, Mondrian—the dynastic table that would culminate inevitably in the Holy Grail image of a signature canvas by Rothko, a silent, impalpable radiance that would put us on the threshold of a Great Beyond.

1970–72 With happy timing for the art-historical construction that I hoped would create resonance for Rothko’s long shadow, I was invited to give two series of lectures in England. For the first one, in June 1970, at the Royal College of Art in London, I delivered the three Lethaby Lectures on “Romanticism and Twentieth Century Art,” which of course whipped out Friedrich and Rothko for a final flourish. The artist’s suicide in February of that year gave his role in my scheme an extra poignance. But there was a lot more to be said, and I was happy to say it when asked to give the eight Slade Lectures at Oxford University in April–May 1972. under the title, “Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko” (published as a book by Thames and Hudson in 1975). The timing was even better than in 1970; for at last, on February 27, 1971, Rothko’s chapel in Houston was dedicated, becoming, among other things, a posthumous tribute to the artist-martyr who had taken his own life one year earlier. This chapel, in fact, now provided an ideal terminus for my evolutionary survey of what was essentially crypto-religious art. With its octagonal shape, inspired by an eleventh-century baptistery in Torcello, and its evocative variations on the triptych format, which once had contained Christian narratives but now had become hauntingly imageless, the Rothko Chapel, as it came to be called, summed up, in my new scheme of things, countless Romantic problems and ambitions, all responses to the crisis of faith in organized religion that launched the nineteenth century. Here were fulfilled some of Friedrich’s and Runge’s dreams of creating, in their case with landscape, chapels and shrines that would usurp the waning power of Christian iconography. Finally, I had put Rothko firmly in place. But of course it turned out that I was only partially right.

1976 In patriotic synchrony with the bicentennial, Kynaston McShine organized for MoMA “The Natural Paradise: Painting in America, 1800–1950,” to which I contributed a catalogue essay that obliged me to look at Rothko with American eyes. If I had grafted his giant branch onto Friedrich’s tree, I could also, for this occasion, turn him into a twentieth-century manifestation of what, rightly or wrongly, has been considered an indigenous American phenomenon, Luminism. Weren’t the unpopulated, head-on views of spellbinding sunsets and sunrises that enthralled such mid-nineteenth-century painters as John Kensett and Martin Johnson Heade previews of Rothko’s own vision of immaterial, luminous color that seems to breathe with an expansive mystery? And moving to the 1940s, weren’t Milton Avery’s reductive seascapes related to both this tradition and Rothko’s own work (as he himself avowed in his 1965 eulogy for Avery)? Could Rothko be turned into a Yankee rather than the transplanted descendant of Friedrich, Munch, Hodler, and Mondrian?

1978 The Guggenheim Rothko retrospective was a liberation from a prison of my own making. The Friedrich-Rothko comparison had all too quickly become a platitude, even providing a rhetorical conclusion for Diane Waldman’s catalogue essay. Confronted again with the broad and varied spectrum of Rothko’s work, I began to suspect that the Great Chain of Northern Romantic Being to which I had yoked him was painfully single-minded, however useful it had once been in underlining an alternative, parallel history of modern painting. Invited to lecture on Rothko at the Guggenheim in November, I let the artist spread freely in new directions, especially to art-for-art’s-sake territory—Whistler, Monet, Bonnard, Matisse—which I had earlier held at bay in order not to adulterate his Northern asceticism. If he was a monk, wasn’t he also an epicurean? Hadn’t MoMA’s acquisition of Matisse’s Red Studio in 1949 been a major catalyst in his evolution? Had he not painted, only weeks after the master’s death on November 3, 1954, a canvas titled Homage to Matisse? And I emphasized, too, his indebtedness to Symbolism, whether in the primordial underwater fantasies of Redon or in such oddball American manifestations as Elihu Vedder’s Memory of 1870, which almost literally illustrates (ectoplasmic head floating above a symmetrical view of sky and water) the kind of supernatural presence often discerned subliminally in Rothko’s cloudy tiers of paint.

1981 The Pace Gallery asked me to write a catalogue essay for a show about Rothko’s Surrealist years; and for this, too, I had to relocate him, this time to New York’s ’40s hotbed of Modern art, from MoMA to 57th Street. Considering ambitious works like Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944, I could now connect Rothko to the likes of Miró and Masson (artists whose sensual, Latin character would have polluted the spiritual Nordic pedigree I had once traced for him), not to mention the Navajo sand paintings shown at MoMA in 1941 that had also left their mark on Pollock. And moving outside these arty precincts, I also suggested the surprising affinities between the Darwinian fantasies of unicellular life in the Rite of Spring sequence from Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and Rothko’s pulsating, microscopic creatures of the ’40s. Was this Zeitgeist or just a coincidence, given what we know now about Rothko’s absorption of comparable biology and geology textbook illustrations during his student years at Yale, 1921–23? (Newman’s zips, by the way, are also prefigured in Fantasia, in the daringly “abstract” sequence of orchestral sounds made visible that opens the movie.)

1987 The Tate Gallery asked me to do a catalogue essay for its Rothko retrospective, which gave me a chance to put some of my newer connections in print, whether about parallels to Albers’ Homage to the Square or how Monet’s panoramic water landscapes at the Orangerie offered perhaps a better analogy to the Rothko Chapel than my German Romantic holy landscapes. But when I actually saw the Tate show, something sad happened. Exactly that component of mystical brinksmanship that had initially thrilled me in Rothko’s art and that could make him a soulmate of Friedrich’s had died. It was not that I doubted for a moment the authenticity of Rothko’s own exalted ambitions or of my own earlier responses. It was simply that such goals now seemed to belong to a distant era. Rothko and his equally high-serious colleagues had become endangered, perhaps extinct, species, the last heirs to Friedrich’s or Van Gogh’s fervent faith that paintings, like preachers, might even change people’s spiritual lives. What I now saw was only a profusion of largely similar canvases differentiated by a gorgeous variety of colors and tones.

1998 In preparing this chronology, timed for the opening of the Rothko retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington, I leafed through the galley proofs of the catalogue and immediately fell upon a moment in 1952 when the artist refused to let the Whitney acquisition committee review two of his paintings, claiming that he had a “deep sense of responsibility for the life my pictures will lead out in the world.” I can’t imagine any artist I like saying this now, but I’m glad Rothko could say it then. Now, as our century comes to an end, such a passionate belief in art’s magical power to save souls and to open transcendental vistas may seem as remote as the Middle Ages. With much nostalgia for these earlier, lost pieties that Rothko’s canvases could inspire during his own lifetime and my own youth, I am curious, but nervous, about how totally unspiritual my response will be when I get around to seeing again these once hallowed portals of mystery.