A Second Death for Rothko

Article excerpt

On February 25, 1970, Markus Rothkowitz killed himself at age sixty-six in his studio at 157 East 69th Street by cutting himself with a razor blade and bleeding to death. When Oliver Steindecker discovered Rothko, according to Lee Seldes' The Legacy of Mark Rothko (Da Capo, 1996), the painter was "clothed in his undershirt, long johns with blue undershorts over them, and, on his feet, long black socks." The report in The New York Times the next day went so far as to call Rothko "one of the greatest artists of his generation." A recent review by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian illustrated Rothko's suicide: "Mark Rothko was found on the morning of February 25 1970, lying dead in a wine-dark sea of his own blood. He had cut very deep into his arms at the elbow, and the pool emanating from him on the floor of his studio ... was on the scale of his paintings. It was, to borrow the art critical language of the time, a colour field."

Rothko was surely not the only artist of his time to commit suicide. He joined Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Kay Sage (1898-1963), and a slew of others. One year after Rothko's suicide, Diane Arbus would take a lethal dose of barbiturates and slit her wrists. But unlike his peers, who in many ways found an aesthetic paradise full of fame, Rothko is now suffering a death after death. Arguably the greatest painter's painter--that is the painter whose work was so completely about painting and so little about anything pretentious, narrative-driven, or conceptual--Rothko's work is being increasingly reinvented as literary play, rather than serious painting. Three recent books are the prime culprits.

The recently published The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art (Yale, 2004) by Mark Rothko, with an introduction by his son, Christopher Rothko, was discovered nearly two decades after the artist's death in an accordion manila folder marked "Miscellaneous Papers." (On the cover, the artist crossed off the word "plasticity" and wrote "Artists Reality" above it.) Dating the work is difficult. In the introduction, Christopher Rothko notes that one page of the manuscript carries a letter by Rothko on the reverse side dated March 23, 1941. Rothko's mentor Milton Avery, Christopher Rothko further notes, refers to a book upon which Rothko was working as early as 1936.

Regardless of when the manuscript was written, it is an enormous find, and it took Rothko's son and daughter, Kate Rothko Prizel, sixteen years to prepare it for production. Christopher Rothko calls his father's work "preverbal," by which he means "it would be hard to find less-narrative painting. Like music, my father's artwork seems to express the inexpressible--we are far removed from the realm of words." He notes that the "written word would only disrupt the experience of these paintings; it cannot enter their universe."

Why then, Christopher Rothko asks himself aloud, should Rothko's writings be printed--especially his unpublished manuscripts that he could surely have published if he desired?

His answers are somewhat scattered. He first asserts that Rothko did not trash the book, so he must not have necessarily opposed its publication. "Far from discarding this book he never finished ... my father guarded it and, consciously or unconsciously, stoked the fires of interesting all those who heard murmurs of its existence." The fact that Rothko did not publish the book for so long, to Christopher Rothko, then somehow becomes proof that Rothko indeed wanted the book published.

Christopher Rothko then argues that the book simply must be published, because it "is like being given the keys to a mystical city that one has been able to admire only from afar." If the art historian unearths the Holy Grail of an unpublished manuscript, it seems in Christopher Rothko's view that surely his desire to parade the writing ought to be given full reign to trump the wishes of the author. …