Invisible Points of Departure: Reading Rothko's Christological Imagery *

Article excerpt

There are some artists who want to tell all, but I feel it is more shrewd to tell little.

Mark Rothko, 1958

Jewish identity increasingly figures in new histories of modernism in general, analyses of American art, and, recently, abstract expressionism. (1) Although abstract paintings have signified "Jewishness" only since the late sixties, this essay looks at the antecedents of such re-identification in one canonical figure, Mark Rothko, examining three paintings from a narrow range of time in the early days of World War II. His Antigone of 1940 (Figure 1) remains one of his most familiar paintings from the formative period spanning 1940 to mid-1943. It is one of a small handful of works canonized from his early production: paintings that traditionally stand as emblems of his interest in myth and tragedy and as precursors to his later surrealist works of the mid-forties. The product of a sudden shift in subject and style, this abrupt change bestows on Antigone an originary status that repeatedly draws the attention of scholars, although not necessarily awareness of traces of Jewishness. Nearly unknown is Antigone's companion piece, A Last Supper (Figure 2), which sold immediately, vanishing from public view, and the potentially informative relationship between the two works remains uninvestigated. Several studies on paper exist for these paintings. They display shifts in subject in the migration from paper to canvas, yet they too remain unexamined for what they reveal about Rothko's working process and the significance of imagery he considered and rejected along the way to the finished paintings. These changes, I argue, intersect with the complex workings of Jewish identity in the formation of abstract expressionism. With an eye to the changes from paper to canvas and painting to painting, I also investigate here an untitled canvas hitherto overlooked by scholars in conjunction with the canonical Antigone and the recently rediscovered A Last Supper. These three paintings and their related works on paper reveal that Rothko's struggle to find a new vocabulary established very early--earlier than previously thought--a unique process of abstraction that led, over the course of the decade, to the large abstract paintings of the fifties that constitute his signature style. This process, developed in a very short period from 1940 to mid- or late 1943 coincides with changes in the way Rothko fashioned himself as a modern artist, specifically with reference to his Jewishness.


Examining the canvases and studies together sheds new light on the works but not simply because they extend traditional interest in them for Rothko's turn to "universal" subject matter. Rather, the conjunction of these works on canvas and their studies reveals how contemporary pressures on the artist's Jewish identity and his reaction to the Holocaust and its antecedents structured these paintings, through subject matter that has, on its face, nothing to do with either. They raise the larger question of how to depict or see something that does not seem to be there, or how absence can register as a presence. Absence and its tropes figure as major themes in Holocaust Studies in the examination of postwar cultural production, a field that turns its gaze primarily to literature and film. (2) Sometimes visual art is included in this discourse, such as Morris Louis's early abstractions, the Charred Journal series (1951). (3) However, most studies of Jewish visual artists issue from the field of art history, focusing on artists' Jewish identity, and may or may not include the Holocaust or antisemitism as major issues shaping their work. (4) When the Holocaust structures artwork in a major way, it is often through this notion of absence, referring to both the lost Jews of World War II and the cultural future they would have carried with them, elaborated and developed had they lived. Rothko's work of 1940-1943 provides an unusual opportunity to see an early variant of this strategy of depicting as present that which is missing, by gesturing to its very omission. …