Dark Star ; the Tortured Genius of Mark Rothko ++ 'The People Who Weep before My Pictures Are Having the Same Religious Experience I Had When I Painted Them,' Declared Mark Rothko. His Brooding, Melancholy Art Has Always Provoked Extreme Reactions - and Tonight It Will Spark a Bidding Frenzy among the World's Top Collectors. the Man Himself Would Have Been Both Horrified and Thrilled, Says David Usborne
Usborne, David, The Independent (London, England)
Professional critics and fans of the Latvian-born American abstract painter Mark Rothko have long struggled to fathom the turns in his life and the twists of his soul that inspired his massive canvases of lowering, merging blocks of colour, which are sometimes luminous, sometimes dark and oppressive.
Inescapable in this exploration of the artist, of course, is the shock of his death. Rothko, after years of increasing isolation and depleting artistic output, was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on the morning of 25 February 1970, from suicide. The pool of blood came from a wound he had cut into one arm, at the elbow.
Rothko was 66 years old when he robbed the world of himself and one of the 20th century's most celebrated artists. With him he also took away the only reliable source we might have had about what stirred his creative pulse. (A book he had written, later discovered in a warehouse and eventually published by his heirs, provided little illumination.) That is not to say we do not have myriad clues.
A sometimes tourist in Europe, he was moved by its collections of masters, and especially by Michelangelo. He doubtless drew upon the genius of some of his contemporaries and friends in the American postwar scene, including Jackson Pollock, who died in 1956, in a drunken and possibly suicidal car crash on Long Island after a long history of self-destructive behaviour.
But there is another theme in Rothko's life that never recedes: his long experience - even embrace - of penury, tracing back to his arrival in the United States at the age of just 10, then bearing the name Marcus Rothkowitz, with his Jewish family, who were fleeing oppression in pre-revolutionary Russia.
The pecuniary struggles of his transplanted family - his father died shortly after his wife and children joined him in the US, leaving them to struggle with no obvious income - later became his own as he spurned his mother's urgings that he take up a professional career, opting instead to drop out of Yale University early and embark upon the life of a struggling artist in Manhattan.
The year was 1923, and he told his friends he was headed to New York City, to "wander around, bum about, starve a bit". Only at the end of the 1940s, when his star finally rose and collectors began baying for his works, did he attain something close to a decent livelihood. Even then, though, there was always a tension between Rothko and money.
It was a conflict born largely out of his well-known socialist sympathies and deepening disdain for capitalist excess, of which New York, of course, was emerging as the world capital.
No episode in Rothko's life ismore famous thanhis clash with then brand-new Four Seasons Restaurant in midtown, which even today remains a sanctuary of financial power-broking and gastronomic extravagance. Having almost completed a series of paintings for the restaurant's walls at its opening in 1959, Rothko abruptly changed his mind, refused to hand the pictures over, and made some seriously unkind comments about it.
Against all of this, it is poignant to consider what will transpire tonight, inside the walls of another hallowed institution of financial exuberance in Manhattan. This is not a fancy brasserie, but rather the auction house Sotheby's, with its affluent architecture of steel, glass and polished wood on 72nd Street and York. This evening, the gavel will rise and fall on a long series of lots in the spring contemporary art sale for which bidders will compete, mostly by way of telephone, from all over the world. But one lot rises above all others as the star of the night, and about which the art-world is in a flutter of anticipation.
It is, of course, a Rothko, specifically a canvas entitled White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), painted in 1950 just at the start of the artist's most important creative period. …