Lead book review

A strain of mysticism is discernible in the floating colour fields of Mark Rothko’s glowing canvases

Mark Rothko: portrait of the artist as a Jewish mystic (and a picker of fights)

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel Annie Cohen-Solal

Yale, pp.282, £18.99, ISBN: 9780300182040

One of the curiosities of western art is that, until the 20th century, few visual artists were of Jewish ancestry. With odd exceptions such as the Pissarros and Simeon Solomon, the culture tended to produce verbal rather than visual imaginations. With the 20th century that changed. The important group of abstract expressionists that came out of New York after the second world war centred on at least two Jewish artists — Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.

Both possessed a specifically Jewish imagination, and both narrowed down their pictorial language to forms that expressed mystical aspects of their ancestral culture and faith. In Newman’s case it was the ‘zip’, a thin vertical stripe in a colour field connecting Earth and Heaven. In Rothko’s work, after a long period exploring figurative, surrealist and mythical imagery, it was made up of horizontal colour fields floating and dissolving, placed above each other in unpredictable and absorbing proportions.

Quite why Jewish artists emerged at this point and not earlier is an interesting question, addressed to some extent in Annie Cohen-Solal’s new volume in Yale’s ‘Jewish Lives’ series. Many people have discerned a strain of mysticism in Rothko’s mature works — the American abstract expressionist Clyfford Still described him as ‘thoroughly immersed in Jewish culture’. Cohen-Solal is able to be quite specific about this, claiming that individual parts of Rothko’s Seagram murals ‘may recall letters of the Hebrew alphabet: gimel, samekh and mem sophit’. If that is the case, it would explain why a painter of this sort could most easily emerge from minimalist abstraction.

Another explanation might be that artists like Rothko and Newman, whose works seem to require some degree of explanation from a professional, would emerge most naturally from a culture at ease with the practice of exegesis and of exegetes working on commentaries and commenting on each other in turn. Talmudic scholars and critics of abstract art have a good deal in common, including the ability to write at length about what, to the casual observer, isn’t there at all.

Rothko was born Marcus Rotkovitch in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils), a town in Latvia where outbreaks of hideous violence against Jews were common. In 1913, his father Jacob, an educated pharmacist. succeeded in settling with his family in Portland, Oregon; Marcus arrived with a helpful placard hung round his neck reading, ‘I do not speak English.’ He grew up in a community that Cohen-Solal pleasingly evokes:

They bought their bread at Harry Mosler’s bakery on First Avenue at the corner of Caruthers; their cheeses at Calisto and Halperin…their meat from either Simon Director, Isaac Friedman or Joseph Nudelman, the three kosher butchers. Their hair was cut by Wolf the barber, their teeth were checked by Dr Labby the dentist, and they spent their Saturday evenings in the Gem Theatre on Sheridan or in the Berg Theatre on Grant,, both of which showed silent movies for five cents.

Marcus’s education was successful enough to get him into Yale, although his father, who ran an Old World Drug Store and Ice Creamery in ‘Little Odessa’, was far from rich. Yale was seeing plenty of able Jewish students at that time, and didn’t much like it: the dean wanted to ‘put a ban on the Jews’. Perhaps because of this, Rothkovitz (as he now was) dropped out after two years. It was only in 1923 that he first came across life-drawing, and embarked on lessons. By 1928, he was making money as an artist, was included in a group exhibition, and in 1929 was appointed drawing instructor at the Brooklyn Jewish Center’s art academy, a job he kept until 1952.

Photographed above by Consuelo Kanaga
Photographed above by Consuelo Kanaga

Modernism in the shape of the Manhattan Armory Show had reached America six months before Rothkovitz’s own arrival. Before making his unique contribution to art, Rothko (as he finally became in the 1930s) made his name by picking fights, arguing with institutions, forming impassioned alliances called things like ‘The Ten’ (there were nine in the group) and bewildering patrons by rudely refusing commissions — a practice he would maintain all his life.

Rothko’s canvases from this period were grandiose in concept, with titles such as ‘Antigone’ and ‘The Omen of the Eagles’. These paintings don’t really work, but they were starting to gain a lot of attention. Barnett Newman, who wrote in 1942 that America would soon ‘become the cultural centre of the world’, was also attracting interest, along with Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. The American critical establishment seemed ready for such artists, even before they had developed their distinctive style, and the four exhibited at Betty Parsons’s famously avant-garde gallery.

By 1949, Rothko had begun to paint the great floating abstracts of dissolving oblongs that would make his reputation for posterity. He was always secretive about the processes he used to create these remarkable, glowing, depth-filled canvases, and it is only quite recently that technical analysis has established that he was experimenting with egg tempera as well as oil and acrylic. He was as perverse and puzzling as ever in his engagements with the art world, insisting that he didn’t want to be shown in institutions — which he thought would make him look too decorative — but only in a private context. ‘I’ve come to believe that no painting should ever be displayed in a public place,’ he once pronounced.

Though in 1958 he did accept a major commission to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building (saying he ‘hoped to paint something that will ruin the appetite for every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room’), he soon changed his mind and returned the huge advance, keeping the paintings. Nine now hang in Tate Modern. By 1957 his canvases were selling for $5,000 each, a figure which depressed him then and which has only risen steadily since his death.

They are marvellous paintings, for which no reproduction prepares you, and which are best seen in certain conditions, wonderfully described by Bryan Robertson, an early English supporter:

Rothko asked me to switch all the lights off, everywhere [in the Whitechapel Gallery]; and suddenly, Rothko’s colour made its own light: the effect, once the retina had adjusted itself, was unforgettable, smouldering and blazing and glowing softly from the walls — colour in darkness.

Failing that, the perfect subdued light in the Menil Chapel in Houston, a building constructed to hold Rothko’s last and most overwhelming series, gives some sense of these ideal circumstances.

His life ended in chaos and depression: abandoning his wife in 1969, he moved into his studio, where he was found dead the following year, having overdosed on anti-depressants. His teenage daughter was left to try to recoup the estate from the grip of his executor and some brutally ambitious gallerists — whose conduct was ultimately described in court as ‘manifestly wrong and indeed shocking’.

Rothko’s children recently funded the establishment in Daugavpils not only of a Rothko Centre but also of a synagogue — there wasn’t one. At the time of their father’s birth there had been 50.

Annie Cohen-Solal has written an interesting study of Rothko’s intellectual influences, which betrays her French origins only in her minor addiction to absurd rhetorical questions such as: ‘What if the virulence of the Ten had been triggered by decades of indifference and passivity toward art, in a country marked for too long by philistinism?’ Well, what if not? But it’s a good way into this cryptic and argumentative painter, whose moods are often painfully apparent in his art — a vivid orange on chocolate; a deep, glowing, angry purple on black.

His popularity is perhaps baffling, but irresistible — though it was much resisted by Rothko himself while he was able. His own attitude to the physical appearance of things might be more complicated than anyone can now explain. John Hoyland observed, tantalisingly, that ‘I doubt if he even liked his own appearance very much.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • lyovmyshkin

    Spinoza wasn’t an important philosopher and nor is Rothko an important artist. His lack of technical prowess, lack of imagination and banal simplicity is only imagined as powerful in the deluded imaginations of people like Cohen and the author of this piece.

    His catapulting to prominence has more to do with the echo chamber of ethnocentrism.

    The emperor, now and forever, is naked.

    • Simon de Lancey

      Is the reason you consider Spinoza unimportant the fact that he was a Jew, by any chance?

      • lyovmyshkin

        No, sir.

        It is not being a Jew that interests me but rather the culture of propelling figures beyond what their contribution would merit. I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon of which Rothko and Spinoza are prime examples.

        Others have called it “ethnic nepotism” which I think is apt.

        • Richard

          Rothko, maybe, but Spinoza? Surely not?

          • lyovmyshkin

            I would call him a man surfing upon the wave of a much greater movement around him. Hitchens called him “The greatest Jews that ever lived”, others have been nearly as lavish going so far as to credit him as the central figure of the enlightenment.

            Like with Rothko, I think this has more to do with ethnic kulturkampf than truth.

          • Richard

            I read his work quite extensively as a student, and found it really fascinating. The commentator Karl Jaspers had some interesting things to say about his work, too. I thought him a first-rate mind, and simply cannot agree. But, of course, not all arguments carry equal veracity for all people

          • lyovmyshkin

            Indeed. Well said.

    • kentallard

      Wait. You view an article about Mark Rothko as an opportunity to slander Spinoza, a giant of philosophy? Do you think Sandy Koufax was overrated as well?

      Even a corn fed middle American Protestant gets the drift. You suffer from ethnic Tourettes. It does not flatter you.

      • lyovmyshkin

        Fair enough.

        Sandy Koufax was very good. Had dignity. A man of a bygone era.

  • polistra24

    Rothko may have been a mystic, and he was certainly an obnoxious Communist, but he wasn’t an artist. The entire premise of the article is absurd.

    • lyovmyshkin


    • kentallard

      I am not generally a fan of what we call modern art. Far too many instances are just people without talent wanting to consider themselves artists. I appreciate all attempts at creativity – but some simply come up short

      Rothko is not one of those people.

      For me his art taps into some sort of Jungian emotional universal. When I view his work in person my intellect tries to resist, but my spirit says otherwise. I think his works are masterpieces of the first order.

      I recently saw a storefront theater group in Chicago perform Red, the play about Rothko’s artistry. It was transcendent and gave great insights into his thoughts on creative expression and the human spirit.

      I’m not sure what being an “obnoxious” communist has to do with art. In any event Rothko embraced communist philosophy at a time before it was hijacked by sociopaths, when idealists held out a promise of economic equity for all.

      If you can dismiss Rothko so casually, you might inadvertently be informing us more about yourself than Rothko.

  • Dan O’Connor

    One big ethno-tribal mutual admiration society racket whose job is to hype each other up to genius like status by shear reflex .

    • lyovmyshkin

      Do they honestly expect us to swallow this charlatans primitive daubing as “profound?

      Can you imagine the inner life of someone who actually takes this garbage seriously?

      • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

        Vacuous yet luminous?

  • edithgrove

    Certainly great artists, and Jewish, but perhaps most importantly they were gifted and caught up in the great engine of Modern Art that New York became.

  • Guest

    I like when ignorant peasants think they know what’s art or not.
    Go on, simple-minded folk, tell the MOMA, Centre Pompidou and the TATE Modern what’s art, and what’s not. Hehe.

  • Terence Hale

    “A strain of mysticism is discernible in the floating colour fields of Mark Rothko’s glowing canvases”. Wonderful works of art as demonstrate by your picture ‘Orange, Red, Yellow’ where the orange fray at the ends. Almost like the Dutch.

  • Richard

    One of the interesting things about IQ testing is that it shows up different strengths. Ashkenazy Jews score the highest of any ethnic group in numeracy and literacy, but not in visual or spatial intelligence. This is reflected in the real-world. It is only surprising to people who reject the genetic basis for talents.

    • Gwangi

      Interestingly, Aborigines also score highly for visual memory (which makes sense as they evolved to remember landscapes, so natural selection would kill off those who weren’t good at that) but low for numeracy, literacy, IQ.
      This phenomenon and others connected with racial origin and intelligence are unmentionable though…

      • lyovmyshkin

        Which is probably why Aborigines, despite their numerous struggles, to this day produce complex and decent artwork.

        Unlike the fraud mentioned in this piece.

        • Richard

          De gustibus non est disputandis…

    • thomasaikenhead


      “Ashkenazy Jews score the highest of any ethnic group in numeracy and literacy, but not in visual or spatial intelligence.”

      This is simply not correct!

      Please provide a reliable or credible source to validate your claim?

      Can you even provide an accepted definition of the term for ‘ethic group’?

      • Richard

        I’m afraid I can’t recall, it was some years ago. However, if you have the time to research on the internet, you will find it. It was a proper academic work, though. I note something here that might give some idea: http://en.metapedia.org/wiki/Jews_and_intelligence

        Ethnic groups are people who have in some way been a group who have certain genetic patterns, owing to isolated breeding patterns. You might think of breeds of dogs as “ethnicities” of dogs. These are verifiable by genetic testing; for instance, skeletons can be assessed in this manner, both physically and by genetic testing. There are other important aspects, too: if you need an organ transplant, you are very much more likely (vastly so) to find what you need from somebody else of your ethnic group. This is an important issue, since what are called BMEs do not donate blood or organs much, and so tend to have much lower survival chances if they need transplants.

        Attributes such as height, relative leanness, propensity to crime (the ability to inhibit violent thought), testosterone levels, etc., are all substantially hereditary, and the possession of such genes is also correlated with other attributes, such as, in most cases, skin colour and geographical origin (where the breeding group originated).

        It is complicated, since one would expect that through miscegenation, all genes would be shared equally, but this is not actually the case. In other words, one ethnicity tends to win out over the other, which demonstrates the enduring nature of such things in a physical sense.

  • Gwangi

    Can you see what it is yet?
    Errrr…. Nope.

  • MaxSceptic

    Rothko the mystic? The on mystery is why anyone with a brain would think that the stuff Rothko produced is art.

    How future generations will laugh….

    Anyway, I don’t think that his output of rubbish is in any way connected to the fact that his parent were Jewish.

    • Dunstan

      Yeah, he’s not nearly as good as Thomas Kincade is he? That guy really knew how to paint a fantasy cottage that LOOKED JUST LIKE a fantasy cottage!!!! Now go and put some cream on those scabby knuckles.

      • lyovmyshkin

        That’s too simplistic. It’s all too easy to make this a Lowry vs Hirst style debate and beforehand claim the intellectual higher ground. It’s a false dichotomy. I don’t dislike abstract or conceptual art in of itself, I simply believe that there is more to art and that the rise to prominence of people like Rothko has more to do with politics and ethnic nepotism than it does with real talent or innovation.

        Not everyone who disagrees with you is a brutish philistine, no matter how comforting that delusion might be.

        • Dunstan

          Maybe so, but I didn’t reply to you did I? You just jumped on my response to the lumpen Sceptic Twonk in order to deploy words like dichotomy and nepotism. Demonstrating, of course, that you are ever so clever and not all apeish.

          Rothko’s art was, is and always will be profoundly beautiful and beautifully profound.

          • lyovmyshkin

            “Rothko’s art was, is and always will be profoundly beautiful and beautifully profound.”

            I pity you.

          • Dunstan

            Wot, no big wordz ??

            Stuff your pity. Luddite.

          • lyovmyshkin

            >Insults others for using “big wordz”
            >Accuses others of being “Luddite” for not appreciating his shit-tier primitive taste.

            “Luddites” resist technological progression you fucking moron.

            I pity you.

          • Dunstan

            “Luddite” functions as a generic pejorative for unthinking arses prone to contemplating their ethnic kulturkampf. Now run along back to your paint-by-numbers.

          • LyovMyshkin

            How can you even see me from the towering echelon of your own haute sensibilities?

          • Dunstan

            I can’t, what with you occupying an “echo-chamber of ethnocentrism”. I can just hear you occasionally. Like the whining of a gnat.

          • kentallard

            You need to channel your emotions in a healthier direction.

          • lyovmyshkin

            Thank you. 🙂

      • MaxSceptic


        With such anger you must sympathise with Rothko’s angst and well-justified feelings of pointlessness.

        • lyovmyshkin

          I’ts called “alienation”, Max. 🙂

          Dunstan is “alienated” from bourgeois standards giving him a unique conception of beauty.

  • lyovmyshkin