Few 20th-century artists have been so little-understood as Mark Rothko. And that's just the way he wanted it. But a grand new retrospective exhibition and the publication of the first definitive study of his paintings may shed real light on his enduring mysteries
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A MAJOR RETROSPECTIVE of paintings by Mark Rothko is currently touring American museums and will have its only European showing at the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris next January, when many of us will cross the channel to pay our respects to an exceptional artist. A huge new catalogue raisonne of Rothko's works is about to be published and - from today - the Tate Gallery is reopening the room in which its late-1950s Rothkos are usually hung. They will be on show for five weeks, so now's an especially good time to ask what sort of homage we should give to Rothko. The "Seagram Murals", as they are called, are probably the most popular, certainly the most discussed, of any group of late- modern paintings in the Tate's collection. They are constantly the subject of the Tate's education programme. Goodness knows how many talks have been given in front of them, to schoolchildren and experts alike. And yet we still do not know what these pictures are about, or how they fit into Rothko's work as a whole.

This is partly Rothko's own doing. He was adept at devising obfuscations that might add to the genuine and inherent mystery of his paintings. He presented the murals to the Tate as an act of especial generosity, while making sure that negotiations for the gift were worryingly protracted. The whole business of the transfer of the paintings from his New York studio had to be rendered private, even secretive, and it was made more tragic - or horrible? or sinister? - by his suicide. At the Tate there was a high-security loading bay. As the murals were delivered, members of the gallery staff gathered there to see the new acquisitions. A secretary also came downstairs with the telegram saying that Rothko had killed himself. Were the gift and his self-willed death somehow connected? Nobody knew, and nobody could even begin to guess what thoughts had been in the artist's mind.

Rothko was almost pathologically concerned about the effects his paintings would have on the people who saw them. At the same time he did not wish any spectators to have the privilege of understanding his motives and beliefs. He said that he hated all art critics and art historians. This was not because they might misjudge him. Rothko disliked experts because they might be able to pin him down. Desire for anonymity was part of his character, combined with a desperate curiosity to know what people thought about him. When he had museum exhibitions in big galleries where he was not likely to be recognised, Rothko would mingle with his spectators, following them from picture to picture, straining to overhear their comments. It seems that he preferred people to be puzzled. Explanations were not to his style of thinking.

The current retrospective answers a number of our questions about Rothko, as does a gigantic new catalogue raisonne of his paintings by a scholar of Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam (Yale University Press). We now know a great deal more about his development, and particularly about his early life. The nature of Rothko's fame is also relevant. The exhibition that made his worldwide reputation was a retrospective organised by the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1961, which travelled throughout Europe until early 1963. This was the time when some wired person made the often- quoted remark that his paintings were "like television sets for Zen Buddhists", a smart phrase that had some truth in it, and certainly expressed a mood of the day. Rothko used the 1961 show to make it appear that his life as an artist had begun in 1945. Therefore his monumental, brooding canvases seemed to have come from nowhere, and the exhibition's atmosphere of metaphysical enquiry was augmented. But those paintings did of course come from a source, and it is now possible to say what it was.

ROTHKO WAS a painter for a full 46 years before his death in 1970. He was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia, the son of a pharmacist. In later years he did not talk much about his childhood but let it be known to close friends that he remembered "the knout on the end of the Cossack's whip". The Rothkowitz family followed a familiar pattern of emigration. The father was the first to leave Russia for America. Having found cousins in Portland, Oregon, he sent for his wife and children. They arrived in America in 1913. Young Marcus did better than the rest of them. Alas, he learnt to be clever and unhappy at one and the same time. He quickly grasped English, did well at school and at the age of 18 got himself a scholarship to Yale: a real achievement, especially when one thinks of the exclusivity and anti-semitism of the old Ivy League universities.

The social promise did not last, and I cannot thereafter find anything in Rothko's life that he considered a success in the world's terms. Like all true pessimists, he began to accept defeat in the years of his first maturity. Something, we don't know what, went wrong at Yale. He left without a degree, found menial jobs in New York and began to be a painter. He was good. Rothko signed up for some art classes but didn't really need tuition. The companionship of the classes was more important than the advice. Furthermore, the young painter was prolific. Anfam's researches reveal that he painted no fewer than 254 canvases between 1925 and 1945 - the date when he liked to think that his artistic career began. So, in two decades of work, Rothko had a substantial output. He sold hardly anything, though he contributed to a number of exhibitions. This is why his early art has hitherto been so obscure. None of it was destroyed, as was sometimes rumoured. The paintings were simply stored, and Rothko found it convenient to mystify his origins.

The current exhibition shows about a dozen of these early works. Looking at the whole range of them in Anfam's catalogue raisonne one is struck by, first, their resemblance to such indigenous American art as the "Ashcan School", and then by their increasingly solitary flavour. Marcus Rothkowitz - he did not become a naturalised American citizen until 1938, and shortened his name in 1940 - set out to explore the eccentricities of his developing style. Paintings of streets and subways, followed by nudes and portraits, were replaced by invented iconic signs, or weird birds, or pallid, empty landscapes. Often, these experimental subjects were worked out with watercolour on paper, but the oil paintings are far more successful. They show how he became a master of his touch. Rothko's mature works of the 1950s don't call attention to their brushwork. In fact they tend to subdue the evidence of the way that they were painted. But Rothko was a "brushy" painter none the less, and when he came to produce his masterpieces he had spent long years in feeling his way on canvas - making touch the perfect vehicle for emotion.

In a self-portrait of 1936 we encounter the young painter and his emerging powers. He looks a bit like a professor. At the same time he is too wary and self-absorbed to be a pedagogue. He has written his Russian name at the bottom, though surely there was no need for a signature, since the painting was for himself as well as by himself. We see how, already, Rothko is starting to make a frontal composition. Look at how those enormous, dark, imponderable eyes address this viewer. We feel the later artist. And this may be important, for it adds to the speculation that many, if not all of Rothko's sombre and gripping paintings are really self-portraits. Against all the evidence, Rothko often said that he was not an abstract artist. He claimed that his paintings were about reality. The declaration makes more sense if, by "reality", Rothko meant his own self.

As the art history books - written by the authorities who so irritated him - tell us, Rothko's painting began to converge with the currents of the abstract expressionist movement around 1940. So did his social life. He and first wife Edith knew Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb, the sculptor David Smith and other artists who were to become prominent later on. They criticised each other's work, went on holiday together, formed clubs and associations and contributed to group exhibitions. Accounts of these friendships belong to formal and public art history. It is far more difficult to assess the movements of Rothko's mind. What is more, the historians of Abstract Expressionism fail to tell us where Rothko lived and - a crucial matter - how he earned his living. After all, no money came to his household from the sale of his paintings.

He was a teacher. In 1929 (commuting from a cold-water apartment on East 25th Street), he began to look after children in the Centre Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. There Rothko remained for at least 10 years, probably more, for he was without a dealer until Peggy Guggenheim gave him his first one-man show in 1945. Quite a lot has been written about Rothko as an intellectual. We know that he studied Nietzsche and Greek tragedy. Very likely he knew Russian literature. Like so many of his generation, he pondered simple introductions to philosophy. However, I believe that Rothko's real intellectual pursuit was linked to his job. He was interested in the way that children produce art. What does children's art mean? Are its characteristics universal or governed, like adult art, by a child's immediate culture? Here were questions he attempted to resolve in a book. Little remains of his investigations, just some notes. As so often with Rothko, nothing can be proved about his thoughts. Yet we do have evidence about his convictions on the subject of art's universality: his own paintings.

Covering his tracks as usual, Rothko stated that his painting, like all true art (he never specified which true art) should be universal, tragic and timeless. When he said things of this sort, which was often, he disarmed criticism and foreclosed discussion. I think we should forget about the "universal" side of Rothko's aspirations and return to one particular, the Brooklyn Jewish Centre; and we should also put aside the concept of "timelessness" to think of the specific condition of immigrant Jews, and their children, in the New York of 1945.

Many of the parents of the young people whom Rothko taught, and perhaps their children too, would have had Yiddish or Russian or another European tongue as their first language. Most of the people Rothko knew in Brooklyn would have been poor. They valued education; and in 1945 they would be learning more and more about the Holocaust.

I wouldn't recommend a postwar Rothko painting to a Zen Buddhist but can imagine one of his best paintings at the front, or the very end, of a Holocaust museum or a shrine to the young, innocent dead of Hitler and Stalin's global war. So, I suggest, could he. The door or portal shapes in his mural paintings belong to solemn and architectural commemoration. In the later 1950s, Rothko came to desire a reserved, hushed and dark environment for his pictures. He thought that they should be contained by appropriate architecture. As soon as he was wealthy enough, Rothko began to convert his studio into the private version of such a public space. He also, disastrously, turned the lights down when he asked people to the studio to look at his paintings, although he had painted them with the illumination of harsh artificial spotlights.

ROTHKO'S BEST individual paintings were generally made between 1950- 54. They are also his most colourful, in the sense that the pinks, oranges, maroons and blacks are tuned to each other and to the rational revelations of daylight. These are lovely paintings which do not brood. They are more free from worry and deliberation than any of Rothko's previous or subsequent works. His supreme period was brief. Like so many of the painters who made Abstract Expressionism renowned - Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman - Rothko had an extended apprenticeship, a short glorious burst and then an awful decline beginning just at the moment when his art became recognised, acclaimed, famous.

I don't know why Rothko's painting went wrong but have the unwelcome feeling that the pattern I described just now is akin to human experience as a whole, at any rate for many of us. Rothko and his comrades did believe that their art immediately replayed the cycles of life, whether primordial or contemporary. A fantastic notion: but for a little while the abstract expressionists wrung from such an attitude a modern nobility. When Rothko's paintings are full and relaxed they tell us about such a condition. Alas, not even the most considerate and well-chosen exhibition can pretend that Rothko was always a giant of creation. The truth must be that he recognised his own failures and did not think that he was a better person than those whose whispers he monitored as he anonymously stood beside them during his retrospectives.

Some mutual acquaintances have left me with stories of what a pleasant man he was (they always say "nice", as though to make him less Olympian). One of them, a new conceptualist artist of the 1960s, found himself sitting next to Rothko on a bench, in a crummy downtown district by the Hudson river. The old painter talked kindly and movingly to the young jerk who had never known artistic hardship. This meeting was just before Rothko killed himself. Worn out by age, illness, drink and half a century of personal miseries, Rothko was still generous. Perhaps he spoke to the confident conceptualist as he used to do with the underprivileged children of the Brooklyn Jewish Center.

To the benefit of us all, Rothko became friendly with Norman (now Sir Norman) Reid, who was the Director of the Tate Gallery in the later 1960s. Reid was not only a shrewd administrator of a British public collection. He was - and is still- a painter. Whenever Reid visited New York he went to Rothko's dark studio. For long hours they talked as fellow artists, the American painter drinking more through the night than his Scottish guest. Reid needed a clear mind and nimble fingers to be lucid: he made cardboard models of the proposed room in the Tate for the "Seagram Murals", then he and Rothko discussed the best places to hang the pictures that were to be donated. All was agreed. What an achievement this was for the Tate! Eventually the paintings arrived, accompanied by the news of their artist's death.

! 'Mark Rothko': National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (001 202 737 4215), to Sunday 16 August; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (00 1 212 570 3600), 10 September to 29 November; Musee d'Art Moderne, Paris (00 33 1 53 67 40 00), 8 January to 18 April 1999. The exhibition catalogue, edited by Jeffrey Weiss (Yale University Press, pounds 40), is out now. `Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas' by David Anfam will be published by Yale on 14 September (pounds 75 until 31 January 1999, then pounds 95). `Seagram Murals': Room 23, Tate Gallery, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 13 September.