Mark Rothko at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958  68.9Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red (1958), oil on canvas, 102″ x 116″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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In the Spring 1998 issue of Modern Painters, the painter Trevor Winkfield described Abstract Expressionism “as a monolith” that has been “accorded a reverential deference which … seems a mite slavish, if not downright unhealthy.” Winkfield was writing about the New York School’s domination of the standard histories of American art, and the other (often eccentric) artists who all but disappear beneath its shadow. The myth of Abstract Expressionism—with its cadre of ambitious artists and their conquest over the School of Paris—is of Promethean proportions, and the authority Abstract Expressionism holds over the art world is by no means diminished today. Many artists rue it as the last time serious art was, indeed, serious; others see it as a cultural nemesis—a patriarchal and nationalistic bugaboo—in need of deconstruction. Abstract Expressionism, epic and immovable, is a historical and artistic moment to which we all invariably return.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be a post-modernist to question how long the Ab Ex orthodoxy can hold. We are, it seems, never lacking for exhibitions dedicated to the New York School, and repeated contact with its paintings has been, for some of us anyway, sobering. There is good Ab Ex painting and (as Winkfield implies in his article) “individual members” of the New York School are significant artists. The passage of time, however, has revealed many of its members to be minor players whose art can’t support the major claims made for it. Key figures like Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky deserve their reputations, even if they aren’t as gargantuan as we may have once believed. Conversely, artists who have been dismissed as “second tier” Abstract Expressionists—painters like William Baziotes and Richard Pousette-Dart—gain in stature every time we see their work. In the end, the question of whether (to borrow Irving Sandler’s catchphrase) “the triumph of American painting” was just that in artistic terms remains an open one.

This fall New Yorkers have an excellent opportunity to assess two of the foremost proponents of Abstract Expressionism. The retrospectives of Jackson Pollock (1912– 1956) at MOMA and Mark Rothko (1903– 1970) at the Whitney form a veritable yin-and-yang of action painting. With Pollock we have the artist as volcanic force, weaving around the canvas splattering torrents of energy. With Rothko we have the artist as hesitant seer, tortuously exploring the parameters, both pictorial and spiritual, of disembodied color. Both men are—or, rather, were—notorious in their own ways. Although Pollock was well-known as a, shall we say, dysfunctional personality, his notoriety is based largely on the formal qualities of his art—his technique famously earning him the label “Jack the Dripper.” In contrast, Rothko’s artistic legacy has been clouded by the manner of his death and the legal wrangling over his estate. For some, Rothko’s suicide remains a hook similar to that provided by Van Gogh’s ear or Toulouse-Lautrec’s height. This relegation of art to psychological document is unfair and a phenomenon Rothko would have reviled. This doesn’t mean that seeing Rothko’s art is impossible—just that one has to recognize the fog before being compelled to look through it.

The exhibition Mark Rothko is an event of magnitude, containing over one-hundred of Rothko’s paintings spread out over two floors of the museum.  It traces the artist’s career from his “realist” scenes of 1930s New York through his Surrealist phase and —with a side bar of the “multiform” paintings—culminates in his floating blocks of color. The show is deliberately paced and we are encouraged to partake in the artist’s —and, by fiat, the New York School’s— arduous journey to maturity. This isn’t a dishonest tack, although it can feel manipulative: when Rothko hits his stride the color of the gallery walls changes from gray to white, right on cue. It does mean, however, plowing through formative paintings of questionable merit. We don’t go to the early figurative work expecting great art, of course, we go to them for portents of things to come. In Underground Fantasy (Subway) (c. 1940), Rothko uses absurdly elongated figures to divide the pictorial field into squared-off areas of incident. Although these areas are segmented vertically, we nonetheless see a compositional undercurrent that will be made plain in the Ab Ex work. In this light, the initial gallery of “Mark Rothko” is fun.

The same can’t be said of the work that follows. Rothko’s surrealist-inspired paintings are wobbly meldings of automatism, primitivism, and elements derived from Miró, Tanguy, and Klee. In Rothko’s hands, this resulted in what could be described as otherworldly still lifes. Linear configurations, alternately microscopic life forms or fantastic machinery, are situated upon broad bands of gray and brown. Rothko’s attempts to tap into the primordial unconscious are earnest—too earnest, maybe— and flaccid. The compositions are clumpy and his biomorphs lack personality. Imagine a Rube Goldberg steeped not in engineering but in Jung, or Klee’s twittering machine left out in the rain. The best painting, Tentacles of Memory (c. 1945–46), succeeds primarily because Rothko left it pretty much alone. Even so, its spidery forms fail to captivate. Rothko’s surrealism is bereft of the magic it so desperately wants to embody.

What is astounding about the paintings is how drab they are. Given what we know about Rothko’s oeuvre, the dreariness of his symbolism can seem like the work of a different artist altogether. Therefore, when we first come upon the “multiform” paintings of the late 1940s, the change—indeed, the improvement—in Rothko’s color is startling. Not being a Rothko-phile, I can’t say for sure whether the leap from Vessels of Magic (1946) to No. 9 (Multiform) (1948) is the artist’s or the curator’s. (At the Whitney, this transition has the feel of someone flicking a switch.) It is, nonetheless, a stunning development. Recent conjecture that Rothko’s pronounced use of color was the result of contact with the work of Pierre Bonnard seems reasonable. His fields of color can, at times, suggest interior spaces and their soft, flickering light is not unrelated to the French master’s painting. Certainly, Rothko’s forsaking of surrealism freed him to concentrate on his gifts for color and (as Ellsworth Kelly notes in the catalogue) proportion and measure. The multiforms are, to be sure, transitional paintings, but we, nonetheless, applaud Rothko for the hurdle he has cleared.

Rothko subsequently jettisoned the patchy irregularity of the multiform paintings for a simplified, symmetrical format. His canvases become occupied by horizontally oriented rectangles, stacked one on top of the other, and, at times, interrupted by a blurry stripe of color. The sine qua non of Rothko’s maturity is just that: color, warm and full. Entering the gallery containing the first of his signature paintings is like being wrapped in a chromatic blanket. This metaphor is one Rothko would have understood. He once recommended that the ideal viewing distance from one of his paintings was eighteen inches, so that the viewer would be subsumed by the field of the painting itself. At Rothko’s best, this is what happens. The paintings function like environments of color whose construction, taller than wide, echoes our own. Rarely do we feel that the canvases have been pumped up for effect. When Rothko was later forced to work in smaller formats for health reasons, we realize just how integral scale was to his vision. Without their encompassing size, Rothko’s paintings are boxes rather than events.

Although one is aware of the artist’s scumbling and scraping of pigment, Rothko’s paint handling doesn’t announce itself as such. In fact, it often threatens to disappear altogether. His images are emphatic without being physical. The myriad washes of paint give each block of color density and presence, establishing its own tentative hold in space. These expanses of color may fall back, come forward, jog against each other or announce themselves forcefully. This pictorial tension isn’t unrelated to Hans Hofmann’s push-and-pull, although Rothko’s work is too taciturn for such a punchy conceit. Call it nudge-and-shift. In Black over Reds (1957), a black rectangle hovers over— “governs” may be a better word—two red rectangles on a reddish ground, creating a cavern-like light. The pulse of the painting is subdued but heated, a dialogue between colors that embraces mystery and eludes the academic. Rothko imbued color with a dramatic amplitude that is astounding given an art of such limited means.

Yet somewhere after the midpoint of the show we become aware that the objects on view aren’t paintings so much as “Rothkos.” The work becomes repetitive, if not, strictly speaking, formulaic. It’s the evidence of an artist who had dug himself into a rut so deep that he was incapable of scrambling out of it. Some of the later paintings, particularly the black monochromes, are attempts at, well, something, but they are timorous and flat. By the time we reach the black and white paintings of the final gallery we are left not with profundity (as his admirers would have it), but stasis.

Leafing through the catalogue of the exhibition, I came across a 1969 acrylic on paper by Rothko and, placed directly opposite, an oil on canvas by Alberto Giacometti, dated 1958. Comparisons with established masters are meant to buoy an artist’s work and are, more often than not, specious. Yet this one was telling, albeit inadvertently. Compared to the rigor of Giacometti’s work, Rothko’s oeuvre begins to look fussy and evasive. “The progression of a painter’s work …” the artist stated, “will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles.” I would be the last one to downgrade clarity, yet by essentializing his art to such a radical degree, Rothko ultimately found himself confronted with an artistic void. That he made something real of that void is undeniable; that he found himself constrained by it is, likewise, unarguable. The tragedy of Rothko’s art, as opposed to his life, is that such a difficult journey should lead to such a frustrating denouement. Rothko’s accomplishment will outlast that of many of his colleagues. Yet the deflated mood the viewer is left with after exiting Mark Rothko is the consequence of a legendary figure falling inexorably to earth.

© 1998 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 1998 edition of The New Criterion.

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