Mark Rothko

By Christopher Zoukis

East Marion Cemetery, Suffolk County, New York:  the odor of pine trees, grass and inactivity loiters in the air.  Tall pine trees responsible for the pitch smell stand in the distance like a living, green wall around the cemetery.  In symbology, evergreen signifies immortality.  Which is ironic, since all illusions of immortality have come and gone for the permanent residents of East Marion Cemetery. 

The dead know only disappointment.

In olden times pine trees were thought to preserve bodies from corruption, which explains why they used it in coffins and in cemeteries.  And the fruit of the pine tree, the cone, was considered both flame-shaped and phallic, representing masculine creative energy and fecundity and good luck.  To the Jews, the pine cone is a symbol of life.

There are lots of Jews buried here.

Grass in cemeteries signifies submission.  In this case, submission to death.  And grass abounds here, stretching far and wide.  Plus it adds a peaceful note to the proceedings. 

The tang of inactivity is the polite acknowledgement of the discomfiture that death has caused.  No one who resides here has anything to do.

Near one of the corners, not too far from the pine trees, sits a small gray boulder, weighing more than an American luxury car.  Its shape is that intended by God and nature, which is in a word, natural.  On one side, though, the front side, a machine has cut out a rectangle, leaving a smooth, flat surface.  This flat surface, and the letters and dates on it inform us that it is a gravestone.

The man it belongs to was a famous and accomplished artist.  A song commemorating him was written and performed by Dar Williams on her album, The Honesty Room.

In November of 2005, his oil on canvas painting, Homage to Matisse, sold for 22.5 million U.S. dollars at public auction.  This broke the standing record for post-World War II paintings.

Then in May 2007 his painting White Center, also called Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose, sold for 72.8 million dollars at Sotheby’s New York.

Yet the man who painted these masterpieces committed suicide because he wasn’t very happy.

Marcus Rothkowitz, aka Mark Rothko, was born in Latvia in 1903.  At his birth, Latvia was Vitebsk guberniya, and part of the Russian Empire.

After he left Latvia, Rothko always felt like he didn’t belong.  Like Lucifer the Son of the Morning Star, aka Satan, he judged himself a vagabond.  Satan, after taking a third of all angelic creatures with him in his revolt against God, was of course persona non grata with the elect angels.  He deplored mankind as inferior to himself and therefore limited his contact with them to that of temptation(s) alone.  Even God he regarded as inferior, having somehow gotten the job by means of luck or nepotism.  And among his own company, the fallen angels, aka demons in today’s Christian patois, he’s an outsider because he’s a former cherub and, according to God Himself, the most beautiful creature to come from the hand of God.

Satan’s an outsider to the outsiders.  He doesn’t fit in.

Neither did Mark Rothko.  His family members were educated in the public school system of Russia.  Later, though, Rothko’s father converted to Orthodox Judaism, making himself and his family outsiders, as they were now identified and separated out as Jews.  And he sent young Marcus to cheder, Hebrew school.  Marcus was the only member of his family thus educated.  Being Jewish he was an outsider to the society in which he lived.  At cheder he read the Talmud; this made him a stranger to his own kind, his own family.  So he was a stranger among strangers.

Today, less than one percent of Latvians are Jewish.  Indeed, only about a third of Latvians believe there is a God, whereas almost half the population would be defined as pagans, i.e., they believe in a spirit or life force that flows through all things. 

Rothko’s father relocated to the United States, residing in Portland, Oregon.  Rothko remained in Russia with his mother and sister.  They then took ship to New York and journeyed west to Oregon.  Within days of their arrival, Rothko’s father dropped dead.  The word ‘poor’ became a kind of capacitor in Rothko’s life.  Along with insecurity, embarrassment and shame, it energized him.

Rothko attended Yale University, for the first year on scholarship and the second year he paid for himself by demeaning labor.  Feeling like he didn’t belong, he dropped out.  He moved to New York, took a job in the garment district and fell into art.  While enrolled in the New School of Design one of his teachers was Arshile Gorky.  Another of his teachers was Max Weber, from whom Rothko absorbed the notion that art is more than mere technical proficiency.  It is religious and emotional expression.

Rothko socialized with Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Joe Sloman and John Graham.  He married Edith Sachar, who designed jewelry.  During this formative period, Rothko subsisted on welfare. 

His wife’s success in the business of art reopened Rothko’s wound, his sense of not belonging.  Her success pushed him outside once more.  Their marriage dissolved like Alka Seltzer in a glass of water.

Fearing that the slumbering dragon of American anti-semitism might be aroused by Nazi sympathizers, Rothko changed his name.  On the surface this fear appears ridiculous, but one has to be Jewish to understand this kind of fear.  It’s a chill that deepens and spreads through one’s spiritual vitals.  Too, he was trying to belong.  So Marcus Rothkovich became Mark Rothko.

Rothko divorced Edith and married Mary Alice Beistle, who illustrated children’s books.  At this time Rothko took the plunge into abstract expressionism.  He changed not only wives, but also his style of painting.  Abstract art “clarified” his vision.  He had found his “breath of life,” which is the Hebrew ne shammah, the breath that God gives to each person at birth.

Indeed, it was a “breath of life.”  For up until this point he was a good painter, but produced nothing remarkable, nothing original; in fact, the word ‘nothing’ pretty much describes his representational-impressionistic art. 

Something happened.  I don’t know what.  No one seems to know.  The biographers, those sympathetic vampires, and the art critics, the effete wannabes, say his style was developing and finally came to fruition.  I disagree.  Rothko’s change in style was akin to St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus – a religious miracle of pure randomness.  Thus the only acceptable explanation is that which is unacceptable, unexplainable, and untenable to persons of no spirit.

By means of a miracle, Rothko purged himself of fear of artistic failure.  But other forms of fear lurked in the shadows of his soul, waiting.

Cioran put it best when he wrote:  “A man who fears ridicule, even if a genius, is doomed to mediocrity.”  This wisdom applies to Rothko and to those who fear ridicule for belief in the miraculous.

Pure color in two or three forms on very large, vertical canvasses became the mark of Mark Rothko.  For him, the sheer size of the canvas embraced the viewer, providing intimacy.  Rothko’s desire was to place the viewer inside the picture.  A religious experience as opposed to simply standing and looking at a picture.

And it is a religious experience.  I stood in front of a Rothko at San Francisco’s MOMA.  Dark blue, purple and brown, it sucked my breath away, then inhaled me.  It’s the visual rendition of listening to Wagner.  Spiritual transportation to the never-never-land of the Empyrean.

My personal opinion is this:  Rothko’s use of pure color and large canvasses were manifestations of Latvia – his lost sense of place – emanating from his soul.  And his paintings are religious experiences because Latvia itself is a religious experience.  For Latvia is like a woman, she makes you wonder if her beauty does not conceal another quality which you cannot fathom…just as a woman’s beauty camouflages her more abstract virtues.  This female enigma is palpable when you stand in front of Latvia’s statue of liberty atop the Freedom Monument in Riga.

She is Riga.  And Riga is Latvia.  Both are female:  fertile, low-lying plains, covered by pine forests.  Because of the nearby Baltic Sea she is humid, continental and temperate.  Warm summers and mild Springs and Autumns, like a woman in love.  But like the proverbial scorned woman, in winter she is coldly extreme.  Heavy snowfalls are common and wonderful.  It is then that the abstract virtues of the city emerge.  Sounds are muffled and soft as if your ears are stuffed with cotton; rays of light hunker in the frigid air rather than radiate.  And the air tastes of old concrete and metal – like Russian air. 

An acquaintance of mine asserts that real cities are places where many ethnic groups are evident, including blacks, and real cities have modern tall buildings and lots of nightclubs for partying all night.  So by his definition Riga is inadequate, and not a real city.  Riga has very few blacks, if any, and although it has new, modern buildings they stand next to an eclectic mix of Renaissance, baroque and Jugendstil architecture, which makes the city seem like a fading movie star trying to retain her dignity through botox.

Happily though, there are nightclubs where one may party.  The best is probably Galerija Istaba near the affluent part of town called Vermanes Park.   Lacking the funds to hang an original Rothko, the Istaba has opted to make its first floor an exhibition of local arts and crafts.  On the second floor is the bar where the ambience is cozy and the décor is European-rough.  Latvian partying, though, is vintage 1980s, a bohemian mix involving poetry, music and gallons of vodka.  I can see Rothko sitting at the bar, nursing a vodka, the energy of Russia pulsing from him. 

Too, Latvians are partial to what is called scenography, which is best described as Andy Warhol on steroids – pumped up Art deco.  And there’s a touch of this nuance in Rotko’s paintings. 

In other words, there exists a distinctive psychic aroma in Latvia.  The composition of the air is thick with melancholy; the color of the light and the sky varies somehow from those in California, or Rome, or Harare.  It has a different density, a sullen energy.  The curvature and remoteness of the horizon provide a lonely sense of discomfort.  It’s all too vast.  In Latvia the earth seems bigger.  And the tension of   gravity, the pull of Russian soil, tugs stronger at the feet.

Perhaps this lost sense of Latvia, his lack of connection, disoriented Rothko. 

As his fame increased Rothko engaged in petty fights with his artist friends, particularly Still and Newman.  Once again, he felt as if he didn’t belong.  This, too, was indicative of his Latvian soul.  For Latvia has had poor relations with Russia for a long time.  It’s no wonder, then, that Rothko’s personal relationships suffered.    

Fame and fortune gathered Rothko into their bosom.  Yet his second marriage began to implode at the same time.  Rothko drank heavily and abused drugs because he couldn’t accept his acceptance.  He became sexually impotent.  So, on the one hand, he felt that old familiar feeling of being outside.  On the other hand, he had finally attained recognition and financial success as an artist.  But rather than gratification, he felt only more disassociated.  He was used to not belonging, and when he discovered his acceptance, he couldn’t handle it.

For Rothko like Marilyn Monroe, suicide seemed the only answer to his gloom, the shambles of his life.  Fear!  Shame!  He overdosed on anti-depressants trying to make the feeling go away.  It didn’t work.  Taking a razor, he opened the veins in both his arms.  Rivers of blood poured out.  Then a chilling numbness tingled in his flesh.  A heavy sleepiness washed over him.

His assistant, Oliver Setindecker, found him dead in his kitchen.