Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel, the French cultural historian Annie Cohen-Solal’s new biography on the artist, focuses on his Jewish identity. Cohen-Solal theorizes that Rothko was a “passeur,” someone who traveled between cultures and navigated their differences, which enabled him to become “an agent of transformation” through his art. Cohen-Solal traces his life from birth in Dvinsk, Latvia, to childhood immigration to America and emergence as an avant-garde artist, emphasizing experiences she claims unsettled Rothko and furthered his passage among cultures. Sometimes, though, she leaps over experiences such as his first marriage to a Jewish woman (barely mentioned) or the quarter-century spent teaching in a Jewish school, presumably because they do not fit her central theme.
Cohen-Solal focuses on the class differences and humiliations she believes Rothko suffered as a young man among rich German Jews and prosperous cousins, as well as his exposure to anti-Semitism in high school and at Yale. But to many Jewish-American readers, the story of Rothko’s early twentieth-century youth will have a familiar ring from family histories: roots in the Pale of Settlement (western Russia), displacement and early struggle, anti-Semitism, and eventual assimilation.
It seems to this reader that when confronted with these issues, Rothko pushed back, propelled by a formidable ego. He barreled through his professional life in the Jewish tradition of the tzadik, or righteous person. Again and again he opposed the status quo. Excluded from the debate club in high school, he formed his own club with Jewish students. At Yale he started a newspaper to express his disgust with the “idol worship” of athletics and social life. Cheated out of a balance on an illustration gig, he sued a wealthy man. He refused to sell his work to the Whitney Museum and reneged on a lucrative commission at the Four Seasons when he found the spaces not up to snuff. Before every show, he drove gallery owners to distraction with his exacting demands. This was a man with a deep sense of justice, and sure of his role in delivering it.
The author details trips Rothko made to California and Europe and his friendships with Gentile artists such as Clyfford Still and Robert Motherwell, which support her theory of Rothko as a passeur. Yet, in many ways, Rothko was a typical New York Jew who inhabited a Jewish olam, or world, through his long association with the Brooklyn Jewish Center’s Academy and the mid-century New York City art scene. Among the cultures Rothko traversed, we should include Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Cohen-Solal writes that Rothko taught at the Academy from 1929 to 1952, where he came to “master his very own political thoughts.” She includes little else on this, other than quoting passages Rothko wrote in an essay about his progressive teaching philosophy. But the Brooklyn Jewish Center was no ordinary place. It was among the largest centers of its kind in the United States, built in 1920 at a cost of $1 million. It housed a synagogue, ballroom, and swimming pool. The Academy was founded in 1928; Rothko was among its first group of about ten teachers who led a small group of young students. Of all the gin joints in all the world, Rothko immersed himself for twenty-three years in a red hot center of Jewish religious, Zionist, and cultural life, teaching exclusively Jewish children within a religious curriculum.
On the other side of the East River, Rothko also was immersed, certainly from the 1930s until the early 1950s, in a scene heavily populated by Jewish artists, teachers, critics, and dealers. The critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg dominated the art debates, passionately arguing aesthetics on the pages of Partisan Review and Commentary, just as they hashed out politics and other subjects, and in doing so they elevated the role of artists in the cultural firmament. And Jewish artists took part in their own debates, ascetic and political. During the late 1930s, politics and art combined on the pages of Art Front, the radical publication of the Artists Union, the Leftist political action group and professional guild to which Rothko and many other New York artists belonged. Rothko and fellow members like the artist Joseph Solman weighed in on the urgent debate over what sort of content belonged on the pages of the magazine: political articles or visual art?
Throughout the book, Cohen-Solal emphasizes class distinctions among Jews, even taking pains to distinguish among Rothko’s widening circle those whom she characterizes as secular or assimilated, as if they didn’t count as Jews or they conferred a cosmopolitan status upon him. This emphasis is misplaced. For it was the noisy fervor and the talent of so many Jewish artists—Rothko among them—and their circle in New York, untethered to the American canon and free in each other’s company to argue the meaning and purpose of painting, that pushed the art world toward its Abstract Expressionist moment.
Rothko was no shrinking violet in that scene. In the 1930s, Rothko participated in the Federal Art Project (a New Deal WPA program) and was also a member of the Artists Union and the American Artists Congress. The latter was a petri dish of communist philosophizing dominated by American Scene painters, a setting that was politically and ascetically at odds with Rothko’s instincts. He bristled at the cultural rigidity imposed by the AAC, which spilled over onto the pages of Art Front. Disputes among artists over the direction of Art Front and, more importantly, the AAC, came to a head in April 1940. Members of the organization backed the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland and began to see the war in Europe from Mr. Hitler’s point of view. That tore it for Rothko. After all, by then he’d been ensconced in the Brooklyn Jewish Center for a decade; hardly a week had gone by without an article in the Center’s Review about the desperate plight of Jews in Europe. He broke with the AAC, joining in a written statement signed by many others including the esteemed academic and critic Meyer Schapiro and the artists Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb, Manfred Schwartz, and Ilya Bolotowsky.
Rothko and several others immediately called for the formation of a new organization that could promote the needs of modern artists in an intellectually free atmosphere. The Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors was formed a few months later and Rothko served on the cultural committee. The founding articles of the Federation, which stated that the purpose of the group was to promote the interests of artists in the practical sense, also specifically rejected the totalitarian regimes of Russia, Germany, Spain, and Japan. O, apostasy!
Having left behind the fractious cacophony of the AAC, Rothko put down his paint brush for a little while and spent much of 1940 quietly writing The Artist’s Reality, a book-length essay (published posthumously) on the history and purpose of painting, in which he formulates his personal ideas on art as a form of social action intended for communication. Rothko writes about his ideas on “unity,” tracing the idea back to Greek philosophers and writing that, in the modern era, “the church remains as the symbol of the need and desire for that ultimate unity” of “all phenomena” relevant to human conduct. And while much of the language of The Artist’s Reality is expressed in dense, abstract language, he very plainly criticizes political dogma and regionalism as antithetical to the progress of art. In interviews he gave from the late 1940s through the early 1960s (after which he seldom spoke about his work), he said his paintings were about basic human feelings. He sought to draw the viewer into a direct emotional experience that he hoped would mirror the “religious experience” he had while creating the work.
Though he didn’t publish the essay during his lifetime, Rothko acted on his theories, by moving away from association with dogmatism and applying his unity theory. The latter was done with respect to his paintings and the way they were displayed, shifting the discussion about art to include the space paintings would inhabit in an effort to break down barriers in the way people experience art. He painted on a large scale because he believed that small works alienated the viewer who stood apart from the work and dwarfed it; the larger the painting, the more enveloped the onlooker becomes by it, Rothko reasoned. His goal was to create paintings that were intimate and human, which he believed could not be accomplished by a small canvas. He also insisted that his paintings be shown so as to create a total experience: hung low and close together, with walls painted a dull color so as not to distract the viewer, and with the work of other artists excluded from the room.
Rothko’s work in the early 1940s reflected his interest in mythology, the collective unconscious, and primitive cultures. These were interests shared by other artists of that time period but still unfamiliar ground to some critics. A 1943 exhibit of Rothko’s surrealist painting The Syrian Bull (1943), together with a surrealist painting by Adolph Gottlieb, was met with a negative review by the New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell, who expressed bewilderment over the paintings. Rothko, as a member of the Federation’s cultural committee, couldn’t take that lying down. He and Gottlieb fired back with a now-famous letter to the Times denouncing academism in art and extolling the virtues of imagination, risk, and the revelation of truth. The letter—really a manifesto for avant-garde art—practically spat on the “trite tripe” of American Scene painting, “social pictures,” and anything hung over a mantel, pledging to paint only that which is “tragic and timeless.” Rothko’s original draft was gentler than the published version; another artist, Barnett Newman, who had a flair for polemics, edited the letter and pumped it up, the Rothko expert Bonnie Clearwater has written. Rothko, ever the tzadik, signed his name to the final version.
While the words of Rothko’s 1943 manifesto seem extreme now, they were written when American artists continued to struggle for recognition in comparison to their European counterparts. The post–World War II years, however, brought an improvement in confidence. In 1948, Rothko joined the painters Robert Motherwell and William Baziotes and the sculptor David Hare to establish the Subjects of the Artist School in a loft at 35 East Eighth Street in Manhattan (later known as Studio 35), where they lectured on art theory to a growing community of abstract expressionists coalescing in Greenwich Village. It became the birthplace of a defiant idea that caused the tide to begin to turn in favor of a new American art form.
In 1950, the Metropolitan Museum planned a large, national exhibit of contemporary American paintings. The works were to be submitted by artists to a jury of Metropolitan Museum curators for selection. This did not sit well with the avant-garde artists of New York, who were concerned that the curators were prejudiced against modern painting. They signed an open letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s president, Roland L. Redmond, protesting “the monster national exhibit.” The artists said they would not submit work to the museum’s jury because the curators were hopelessly biased against “advanced art.”
“[F]or roughly a hundred years, only advanced art has made any consequential contribution to civilization,” the artists rebuked Redmond in the letter, casting modesty to the wind. This was stern talk indeed, directed at the grandest art institution in New York by a group of struggling artists. Rothko lent his name to the letter along with seventeen other painters, with added support from ten sculptors.
The New York Times published a copy of the letter, which resulted in a flurry of rebuttals in local media. That captured the attention of Life, which arranged for a picture of fifteen painters who had signed the infamous letter. The memorable 1951 issue of Life shows Rothko looking sternly into the camera, seated in the front row of the group. They are dressed like bankers and their grim visages project an image of high-minded profundity. The picture ran with a caption dubbing the group “The Irascibles,” a name that stuck. The ensuing notoriety helped propel many members of the group, including Rothko, out of obscurity. Thus, The Irascibles’ public refusal to participate in a juried show that likely would have excluded them in any event turned out in the end to be a winning gambit. It was a move worthy of Groucho Marx, another Jewish genius who operated outside the establishment; Groucho fans will recall he famously expressed disdain for any club that would have him as a member.
Rothko’s last major project before his death in 1970 was the Rothko Chapel in Houston, commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil. There, he was able to animate his obsession with creating a total experience for the onlooker by integrating his paintings into the plan of the surrounding structure by coordinating from the start with the architect. The Chapel houses fourteen enormous paintings (the commonly accepted number of Stations of the Cross). The paintings are so large they had to be brought into the central room through an opening in the roof before the Chapel was completed. The Chapel, which describes itself on its website as “a modern work of religious art,” is a nondenominational institution open to the public for a variety of religious and social events. Visitors are surrounded by the paintings, which, by virtue of their darkness and enormity, become part of the human, spiritual experience, as Rothko intended.
Cohen-Solal has made an important contribution with a well-researched book about Rothko’s life. She argues that he became an agent of transformation by crossing cultural boundaries; still, it’s just as possible that the power and universality we see on his canvases are the result of the supportive Jewish olam in which he chose to live, work, argue, and paint for decades in New York.