On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

MY LIFE WITH ROTHKO

c. 1953 Amazing to recall, now that he is as permanently enshrined in the pantheon of artist-deities as Matisse or Mondrian, but Rothko, back in the early 1950s, was a fighting word. I remember vividly the combative, black-and-white climate that divided the New York art world into pro-or-con extremes when faced with the unheralded innovations of the Abstract Expressionists. And in my own academic neck of the woods, New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, there were no-less-heated debates among us graduate students about whether such things as a chaos of poured pigment or a few blurry rectangles of color could possibly be serious art. And on a more sophisticated level, someone--I can't remember who--quipped that Rothko's canvases looked like Buddhist television sets. A few of us embraced positively these new experiences, though mainly as an act of faith, a quantum leap into the unknown. What most of us were certain about was that nothing like these paintings had ever been seen before.

c. 1957 With the advent of Johns and Rauschenberg, artists of my own generation whose work startled me into enthusiastic attention, Rothko & Co. suddenly slipped from present to past tense. In the first surveys of art history I taught at Princeton, I proudly and, given the fear most students had of being duped by empty canvases, somewhat riskily concluded the course with a quick run-through of Rothko, Newman, and Still--my pitch for commitment to the cutting edge of art history. And it was then, too, that I met Rothko for the first and last time, when he turned up during a visit I made to Theodoros Stamos's studio on Columbus Avenue. Thrilled to meet the mythic master in the living flesh, I immediately put my foot in my mouth by asking him, in the most pedantic way, what affinity he felt with the other two artists I wanted to put in his category, Newman and Still. He looked angry, said almost nothing, and left me squirming. I blush to realize now how dumb I was. I was totally unaware that already in 1952, following Dorothy Miller's "Fifteen Americans" show at MoMA, which gave Rothko and Still equal time, and then accelerating to fever pitch in 1955, on the occasion of Sidney Janis's first one-man show of Rothko, both Still and Newman had become outspoken enemies of the artist whose work I wished to ally with theirs.

1958 Never mind their towering egos and personal hostilities. For me, Rothko, Newman, and Still were not a serpents' nest but a Holy Trinity, united by the logic of art history. In the

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