Tracing Mark Rothko’s Eternal Search for the Sublime

In June 1958, Mark Rothko agreed to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant, which was to be designed by Philip Johnson in Mies van der Rohe’s new Seagram Building, in New York. To produce the paintings, the meticulous, intellectual Rothko took a large studio on the second floor of the former YMCA at 222 Bowery. For more than a year, he threw himself into the commission, shifting his palette from the famous bright colors of the 1950s—luminous yellows, oranges, reds, and blues that practically vibrated off the canvas—to darker geometric forms in black or crimson hovering on backgrounds in shades of maroon. By the fall of 1959, Rothko had completed the series—three sets of large, dusky canvases. Then, for the first time, he actually went to the Four Seasons. He was horrified. Such a frivolous, expensive spot was not at all what Rothko had in mind for his art, and by December he had pulled out of the project.

Just weeks later, on February 9, 1960, the French American art collectors Dominique and John de Menil made their way to the Bowery to see Rothko. It was their first meeting, although the de Menils already owned several of the artist’s works. That day, in the double-height, light-filled loft were the fresh Seagram paintings, some measuring as much as 9 by 15 feet. “We were overwhelmed by the power and passion of these great somber murals,” Dominique de Menil recalled. “We felt like we should walk softly and whisper.”

Photo © 2023 Regina Bogat, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 1998, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Adagp, Paris, 2023.

No. 21 (Untitled), 1949.

1998, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Adagp, Paris, 2023.

Mark Rothko’s Light Cloud, Dark Cloud, 1957.

The de Menils were not alone in sensing the ineffable in Rothko’s work. At around the same time, the art historian ­Robert Rosenblum made a similar point in an important essay in ­ARTnews titled “The Abstract Sublime.” Rosenblum compared Light Earth Over Blue, 1954, a classic Rothko abstraction consisting of a pale rectangle hovering above a black and blue form, to Monk by the Sea, 1809–1810, a mystical landscape by the ­19th-century ­German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, and The ­Evening Star, circa 1830, a spare canvas of sea, horizon, and sky by J.M.W. Turner, the 19th-century English Romanticist. “We, ourselves, are the monk before the sea, standing silently and contemplatively before these huge and soundless pictures as if we are looking at a sunset or a moonlit night,” Rosenblum wrote. “Like the mystic trinity of sky, water, and earth that, in the ­Friedrich and Turner, appears to emanate from one unseen source, the floating, horizontal tiers of veiled light in the Rothko seem to conceal a total, remote presence that we can only intuit and never fully grasp. These infinite, glowing voids carry us beyond reason to the Sublime; we can only submit to them in an act of faith and let ourselves be absorbed into their radiant depths.”

A new generation of viewers is now able to experience the pull of those depths, thanks to the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s massive retrospective “Mark Rothko,” on view in Paris through April 2, 2024. Spread out over four floors, the exhibition comprises 115 works, including Rothko’s little-known figurative paintings from the 1930s and early 1940s; 42 of his most renowned large-scale abstractions from the 1950s; three of the four masterpieces from the Rothko Room in the Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C. (the fourth was deemed too fragile to travel); and all nine canvases that were initially created for the Seagram Building and now belong to the Tate Modern, in London. The retrospective will offer a rare chance to see the full scale of the artist’s historical achievements.

Rothko, who along with Jackson Pollock has been considered a pillar of the Abstract Expressionist movement, was immensely respected by his peers, notably Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. A wide range of contemporary artists have been touched by his work, including Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, and George Segal. “The paintings were a shock,” recalled the artist Gerhard Richter, who first came across Rothko in the 1960s. “They were so serious, not wild like Warhol. Rothko’s attitude with regard to painting and the job of the painter was particularly impressive to me. He was a man who created a special art for us, and no one else will do such paintings again. I believe Rothko will be important for centuries to come.”

1998, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Adagp, Paris, 2023.

Self-Portrait, 1936.

1998, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Adagp, Paris, 2023.

No. 10, 1957.

It is his sheer skill as an artist, as well as the deep themes that viewers can sense when they confront the work, that has made him endlessly fascinating. “My father always occupied himself with the most essential and universal of questions, ultimately helping us seek with him the meaning of human existence through his artwork,” explains Christopher Rothko, a clinical psychologist who left his career and has become a leading expert on his father’s painting. “These existential questions are with us all the time, but it is Rothko’s gift to us that he redirects us from all the noise and distraction of modern times to this primary heartbeat that underlies our view of the world. As our cultures become increasingly disintegrated and focused on the purely external, his work resonates even more profoundly with those who take the time to stop, to look, to experience.”

In these days of shrinking attention spans and social media shallowness, Rothko represents substance and authenticity. There is nothing performative here. And there has been an aura around him that endures even five decades after his death. Just one example: the 2009 Tony Award–winning play Red, which dramatized the making of the Seagram paintings, with Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant. The secondary market is another indication, with auction estimates flirting with $100 million per canvas. In 2016, an exhibition at Pace Gallery, “Rothko: Dark Palette,” spurred a complete reevaluation of his later paintings, which some had found too depressing or difficult. Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher told of a collector, back in the day, who was disappointed by the dark painting Rothko had selected for her and suggested that she rather have something bright and joyous. The artist’s response: “Pink, red, orange, and yellow—aren’t those the colors of an inferno?”

© 2022 Elizabeth Felicella.

The Rothko Chapel, photographed by Elizabeth Felicella, holds 14 of the artist’s later works.

1998, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Adagp, Paris, 2023.

Black on Maroon, 1958.

Marcus Rotkovich was born in 1903 in the Russian empire, in what is now Latvia. The city of Dvinsk had a population of 90,000, almost 50 percent of which was Jewish, but it was a perilous time, particularly after the failed revolution of 1905. Such slogans as “Destroy the Jews and Save Russia” were approved by the czar. The youngest of four siblings, Rothko went to Talmudic school for a formal religious education. In 1913, he and his mother and sister immigrated to the United States, settling in Portland, Oregon, where his father and elder brothers had already established themselves. Rothko’s father died shortly after they arrived, leaving the rest of the family to face the challenges of surviving in a new world.

After a two-year stint on a scholarship at Yale University—which he hated—Rothko went to New York in the 1920s, studying with Arshile Gorky and Max Weber at the Art Students League. By the 1930s, he was a working artist; in 1940, he shortened his name to Mark Rothko. In 1944, after his first marriage ended in divorce, he wed Mary Alice Beistle, known as Mell, an illustrator. In 1945, Rothko had his first major solo exhibition, at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of This Century.

The time during and just after World War II, a pivotal decade of his career, has been meticulously re-created at the ­Fondation Louis Vuitton. Rothko moved from figurative paintings to ­Surrealism-inspired images with mythological themes. By 1946, he had dropped the frames from his paintings, directing the viewer’s gaze onto the canvas. His work shifted to great splotches of yellow, orange, gray, and black, and then to the massive geometric blocks of orange and yellow and white for which he became known.

© 2005, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rothko at work in his New York studio, 1953.

1998, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Adagp, Paris, 2023.

Untitled (The Subway) (Subway Station), 1937.

When many consider the transporting ability of Rothko’s art, they think of those 1950s color fields. The artistic adviser of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Suzanne Pagé, who has collaborated closely on every stage of this show with Christopher Rothko, is convinced that those canvases are more substantial, less decorative than some might think. “Many people, even other artists, talk of mystical experiences before his paintings,” she says. “I don’t use the word—I don’t dare—but I do know that through this work, we gain access to a certain transcendence.”

It was that same sense of the divine, which had touched the ­ de Menils on their first visit with Rothko, that inspired them, four years later, to commission him to create a series of paintings for a nondenominational chapel in Houston. He produced 14 massive panels, in shades of dark purple and black, and placed them in a simple octagonal building. It is one of the great examples of spiritual architecture of the 20th century, and a work that Rothko considered the culmination of his career. “It took courage for Rothko to paint nocturnal murals,” Dominique de Menil stated at the opening of the chapel, in February 1971. “But I feel that it was his greatness. Painters become great only through obstinacy and courage. Rothko was prophetic in leaving us a nocturnal environment. Night is peaceful. Night is pregnant with life.”

1998, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Adagp, Paris, 2023.

The Omen of the Eagle, 1942.

Tragically, the artist did not see the opening of the Rothko Chapel; the year prior, having had an aortic aneurysm, he killed himself in his New York studio. His daughter, Kate, who would turn 20 that year, and Christopher, still a boy, became the stewards of his legacy. “Because I knew my father only until 6 years of age, I am not in the best position to speak of his character,” says Christopher. “And yet there are things I have learned, not least from active interaction with his paintings. What is often spoken of is his fierce intellect and his uncompromising attitude when it came to the perception, reception, and presentation of his art. While certainly true, I think that misses the essential humanity that permeates every piece. It is because of this that his paintings speak so directly to viewers, and it is what allows us to communicate so emotionally with his work.”

Some have had a hard time separating Rothko’s later period from the tragedy of his suicide. “Many people will see especially the darker paintings in places like Rothko Chapel and think that there is this nothingness that they perceive as despair,” explains Christopher. “And I think Rothko was absolutely challenging them. He’s saying how important it is to look at these existential questions that take you right to the brink of ‘Why am I here?’ But the answer is always in the affirmative—the great act of creating is an optimistic act.”

He had a more pointed observation in Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, a book of essays he authored in 2015. “If Rothko’s works still make us uncomfortable,” he wrote, “then perhaps it is not comfort we should be seeking.”

© 2005, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

A photo of a young Rothko, circa 1920.


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