Jewish Artist Mark Rothko: An Outsider in Life and Death
In Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel (Yale University Press, Jewish Lives), cultural historian Annie Cohen-Solal sheds light on one of America’s most famous artists, largely from a Jewish perspective.
Cohen-Solal sets the stage by explaining that the artist’s father, having found religion later in life in Dvinsk, Russia, enrolled his youngest child in a cheder and later a yeshiva (Orthodox schools). Upon his father’s death in 1912, one year after the family immigrated to the U.S., 10-year-old Marcus Rotkovitch abandoned religion, seeking instead a new identity and an independent place for himself in the new world.
But becoming Mark Rothko did not change his self-perception as an outsider. Years later, Rothko confided to fellow artist Robert Motherwell, “You don’t know what is to be a Jewish kid dressed in a suit that is a Dvinsk, not an American idea of a suit, traveling across America and not able to speak English.”
Exceedingly bright, Rothko believed he deserved no less than the privileged class, which he resented. His prospects brightened after receiving a full academic scholarship to Yale University. Unlike most of his peers, however, he had to take a job when his scholarship expired. Feeling very much an outsider, he dropped out before his junior year.
Rothko moved to New York, took on odd jobs, and lived aimlessly until visiting a friend at the Art Students League of New York, where he saw students sketching a model. He enrolled in Parsons The New School for Design, where painter Arshile Gorky became one of his instructors and cubist artist Max Weber, a fellow Russian Jew, became one of his mentors.
Under Weber's tutelage, Rothko began to view art as a tool of emotional and religious expression that transcended any particular religion. It seems hardly a coincidence that Jews made up a large percentage of the leading abstract expressionists and that the group he helped form, “The Ten,” consisted of nine Jewish artists. Even so, Rothko refused to be typecast as a “Jewish artist,” just as he refused to pigeonhole his art as abstract expressionism, insisting it was unique.
His resentment of the privileged class continued even after he achieved success. On occasion, he would keep a painting rather than to allow its sale to a buyer whom he saw as rich, arrogant, or intellectually incapable of understanding or appreciating his work. He returned the sums he received for his largest commissioned work, for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, when he realized it would merely be a backdrop for high-society diners. He felt such a setting would vulgarize his work.
Rothko’s genius as an artist was in developing an original means of conveying emotions in art. In his color forms, Rothko imposed pure blocks of color on top of one another, sometimes bifurcated by other colors and sometimes simply radiating off of the canvas. His interest, he said, was:
“…only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”
Rothko was almost 50 before he developed his distinctive stacks of color panels. Prior to that, Simon Schama writes in The Power of Art, Rothko would have “been remembered at best as a mildly interesting, derivative talent.” Rothko acknowledged the influence of Henri Matisse’s “The Red Studio.”
Over the years, perhaps mirroring his mental state, Rothko’s paintings became darker and darker. His once-vibrant, colorful, optimistic fields gave way to large, almost-solid fields of dark purple, blue, browns, almost black.
In 1968, Rothko was diagnosed with a mild aortic aneurysm. Ignoring his doctor’s orders, Rothko continued to drink and smoke heavily, avoid exercise, and ignore dietary prescriptions. He died in his studio on February 25, 1970, from overdosing on anti-depressants and slitting his arms with a razor blade. He was 66 years old.
Fame brought Rothko no solace. He could never shake the demons that had haunted him since coming to America. He remained that Jewish kid dressed in a Dvinsk suit, unable, or unwilling, to speak the language of his peers.