- - Wednesday, May 6, 2015


Annie Cohen-Solal

Yale University Press, $35, 282 pages

Jackson Pollock didn’t begin his meteoric career by dripping house paint on tarpaulins any more than Piet Mondrian started out painting white and colored spaces within black boundaries. They had to discover their abstract genres after years of making realistic pictures and learning from there. Finding one’s way to artistic originality and greatness was typically a journey with a cryptic destination, a trial with fickle jurors, coin-toss verdicts and a hanging judge.

This is the message in Annie Cohen-Solal’s illuminating biography of Mark Rothko, a mysterious giant in American art. Driven by an extraordinary color sense and restless mind, he “expressed himself through a remarkable variety of stylistic phases,” she writes. In one decade his painting shifted from figurative to mythological to surrealist to multiform and ultimately to colorful abstraction where he entered a realm of ineffable beauty that was all his own.

Famously in his maturity he produced big canvases filled with floating soft-edged rectangles of color, images that are not easy to comprehend at first glance until minutes later they begin to move, pulsate and shimmer in the beholder’s eye. Art is interactive, he believed: “A picture lives by companionship and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.”

(Lest this newspaper’s readers forget — the author omits this fact — Washington is arguably the best place to experience Rothko besides Houston’s Rothko Chapel. The National Gallery of Art has a thousand works, the largest collection anywhere, while the Phillips Collection has a unique room, which he helped design, containing four paintings.)

Rothko, born Marcus Rotkovitch in a Baltic city in 1903, went to a Talmudic school, then came to America with his family, fleeing the pogroms. He grew up in aspiring-immigrant Portland, Oregon, thrived in public schools and won a scholarship to Yale. Cantankerous and a misfit, he rankled at Eli’s snobbish anti-Semitism for two years, then lit out for New York. Visiting the Art Students League, he had an epiphany: “This is the life for me,” he said, and made it so.

Ms. Cohen-Solal describes Rothko as a bearish dynamo, spiritual seeker, inspiring teacher, progressive activist and a chauvinist for American art. In her telling he almost personifies modernism’s fits and starts during the middle half of the 20th century. He fell in with New York’s avant-garde and its tastemakers; Peggy Guggenheim gave him early exposure; Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell became lifelong friends. He studied ancient cultures, painted subway scenes for the WPA’s shilling, wrote manifestos to champion the originality of his peers and decades later condemned Pop Art. Not a simple man.

Impressively sourced, this biography depicts the debates of post-war Manhattan, and the rivalry between American and European schools, which ended with New York eclipsing Paris as the cultural epicenter. In the postwar world, the new balance of political power between Europe and America resonated in the rise of one art capital and eclipse of another. Ms. Cohen-Solal places the new art within history’s benchmarks — the War, the Marshall Plan, a philistine senator’s diatribe against modernity. She relates the surrounding world to the living artists and their works to prove a point: art matters.

She tells of Rothko’s agreeing to paint murals for New York’s splashiest restaurant in the landmark Seagram Building. He accepted the gig with malice aforethought, intending “to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.” Then he quit after dining there: “Anyone who will eat that kind of food for those kinds of prices will never look at a picture of mine” he declared in a quip that expressed an ethical and esthetic manifesto.

The narrative builds to a coda in the Rothko Chapel, which was funded by an aristocratic couple who had fled Nazism and were influenced by a priest intent on bringing the Catholic Church to embrace art again. Planned with Rothko’s input, the nonsectarian chapel sanctifies a dark suite of his numinous canvases, some measuring 150 square feet, and is now an omni-theistic memorial to this quixotic Jew who died by his own hand in 1970.

Where does Rothko stand in the pantheon? For all his overt originality, he told students near Paestum, “I have painted Greek temples all my life without knowing it.” His son would assert, “This artist who by appearance broke so dramatically with prior tradition [saw] himself not in the vanguard of the new, but as someone carrying forth the torch of the great Western artistic tradition.”

This is a sublime little volume, deftly designed with red binding and salmon endpapers that would make Rothko blush. (Inexplicably the publisher does not credit the designer who gave this gem its visual appeal.) One of Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series, the text first appeared in France and was translated — awkwardly in spots, perhaps too literally — by its author, a Parisian who once served as a cultural counselor to the French embassy here. Salut.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Bethesda, writes about history and culture.

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