The Color of Money

Article excerpt

Byline: Cathleen McGuigan

When Mark Rothko committed suicide in 1970, he left behind hundreds of unsold paintings. Partly, he didn't want to flood the market, but he also found it hard to part with them. He considered his artworks to be his children, and he didn't like to send them off to live with just anybody. In the early '60s, when Jean Kennedy Smith, a sister of President Kennedy, asked to take one or two paintings home "on approval," he refused: "It is not a matter of my pictures fitting in with something else," he said with a huff. One collector who did pass muster was David Rockefeller. In 1960, he bought, for less than $10,000, White Center, a painting of shimmery white and yellow bands on a luscious pink field. It hung in his office until 2007, when he sold it at Sotheby's for $72.8 million--still the auction record for a contemporary American painting. We can only guess how Rothko would feel about that distinction in today's bloated art market, but it would probably drive him up the wall.

Rothko was the last in a line of angst-ridden, soul-searching artists who had a love-hate relationship with success. For him, selling art was secondary to making it--in sharp contrast to the 21st-century art world, where dealers scramble to sign up the next hot young painter fresh out of grad school and where money is the only marker of success. Rothko couldn't have handled that kind of career; even as a mature artist, he wrestled anew with every raw canvas. In the late 1950s, he began agonizing over his biggest commission to date: a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. His struggle to make those paintings forms the backdrop for Red, a 90-minute whirlwind of a play by John Logan that opens on Broadway this week. As played by Alfred Molina, the volcanic artist comes off as darkly comic, cranky, arrogant, angry, self-doubting, brilliant, and monstrous, his rainbow of emotions splattering across the stage. With Mozart on his studio hi-fi, Rothko duels with his psyche over what the commission means. The project fulfills his desire to create an entire environment that will surround viewers with a suite of brooding paintings. Yet he fears the pictures could become mere decor at a fancy feeding trough for the ultra-rich. How could a Russian-born, left-wing artist--who, for the sake of his work, had spent most of his career in poverty--reconcile such a pact with the devil? …