Mark Rothko

He was the greatest living American painter (or so they said). In 1958 maybe, but he had gone through 30 years of financial hardship and mental struggle,
wrestling with the biggest question of all:
What could art do?
Could it cut through the white noise of daily life, connect us with the basic emotions that make us human: ecstasy, anguish, desire, terror?
Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Self-portrait from 1939 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)


“A picture lives, by companionship, expanding
and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.
It dies by the same token.
It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.”
– – Rothko

After the Holocaust and the Atom Bomb, Rothko said, you couldn’t paint figures without mutilating them. So, could just colors and shapes move us, the way Michelangelo had.
Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

Rothko’s multiforms… It was all very seductive, loose, and pretty. Rothko started to sell. But he knew the difference between prettiness and power. And it was power that he was after. The power to take people somewhere they would recover their humanity.
Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

Untitled from 1958 (National Gallery of Victoria, Australia)


“When somebody asked him how close to the pictures they should stand, he answered, ‘Right back, about 18 inches.'”
Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

“The people that weep before my paintings, they are having the same religious experience as I had when I painted them.”
– – Rothko

On the commissioned murals for the Four Seasons restaurant, Seagram Building (NYC)
“I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite
of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.”
(The New Yorker, April 5, 2010, p. 26).

That autumn… he and his wife Mel went to eat at the Four Seasons. Rothko was someone that thought it was immoral to spend more than five bucks on a meal, and was often perfectly happy with a Chinese take-away, the cheaper the better.  But as he sat among the millionaires with Mel his heart and his confidence sank like a stone. “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for that kind of money, will never look at a painting of mine”.

The next morning he looked at the 30 or so paintings, some of the most beautiful and moving things not only Rothko but any modern artist had ever created, and saw only the ruin of a great project.

His paintings would never hang in the Four Seasons.
Manhattan had beaten Mark.
Or had art had triumphed over money?
After all, how many artists do you know who would say ‘no’ to
two and half million dollars?
Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

Red on Maroon Mural [intended for the Four Seasons] from 1959 (Tate Gallery, London)

mark rothko untitled (section 3) 1959_0

“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing, no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet is was a golden age. For we all had nothing to lose, and a vision to gain. Today, it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large, I will not venture to discuss.
But I do know that many of those who are driven to this life
are desperately searching for those pockets of silence, where we can root and grow.
We must all hope that we find them.”
– – Rothko


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