Mark Rothko: Hardships and Glory Behind His Life

Rothko has always opposed the use of art as a commercial decoration. In order to express this anger, he adopted dark colors and poured the inner depression and heaviness layer by layer into the picture.

On May 8, 2012, at the Christie’s auction, Mark Rothko’s oil painting “Orange, Red, and Yellow” sold for US$86.88 million, setting the highest record of contemporary art auctions at the time; the New York spring auction in May 2019 In, Rothko once again became the focus of the spotlight. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art took Rothko’s 1960 work “Untitled”, which was collected for more than 50 years, from its collection, and Sotheby’s New York sold it at an estimated price of 35-50 million U.S. dollars. Some people will definitely wonder why this kind of work that only paints a few color blocks and is so simple that anyone can complete it, sells such a high astronomical figure?

Rothko has repeatedly emphasized that he is not an abstract painter. This sounds a bit stubborn. If there is no combination of color blocks, what would his paintings look like? For him, it’s more than just playing around with the color patches. The theme of his creation is the eternal tragic situation of mankind. For him, high prices and admiration of “really beautiful” and “really magnificent” are the biggest misunderstandings of his works. He believes that being loved by the market means that the work will be reduced to a functional “decoration”, which is far from his original intention.

Rothko’s painting process is so mysterious that it is regarded as a “religious ceremony”. The painting process is strictly confidential and is never shown before the completion of the work.

The huge reputation and wealth that Rothko won after his death formed a sharp contrast with the hardship, anxiety and struggle of his life. Just like Van Gogh, their struggle period in his life was actually only “freedom to starve to death” and the freedom to adhere to the artistic conscience. This tragic spirit selected these artists with saint qualities, and at the same time achieved the most complex and profound charm in Rothko’s art philosophy.

Between tragedy and purity
Rothko was born in a Jewish family in Russia in 1903. It was an era when the Jews were regarded as the incarnation of evil. Roscoe’s childhood was spent in the shadow of the Tsar’s Holocaust.

In 1910, their family immigrated to the United States. “You can’t understand the feeling of a Jewish kid who came to the United States in Divinsk’s costume and could not speak a word in English.” This feeling of shame, like standing naked in front of everyone, made Rothko feel even more isolated.

As a result, this kind of loneliness of a stranger fills his picture. In his work “Street View”, an adult and two children have almost no expressions. The whole picture freezes with emptiness and sadness, as if they are homeless.

The famous “Roscoe Church”.

Not long after moving to the United States, Rothko’s father died of advanced colon cancer. As a result, the burden of the family fell on the shoulders of the mother alone. Nevertheless, Rothko’s academic performance has always been excellent. At Lincoln High School, Rothko was a star debater. He also took the “drama art” course and considered a different career. During this period, he himself once tried to paint, and his paintings have always remained dramatic.

After graduating from high school, Rothko was admitted to Yale University, but he could always feel the unhappiness of the wasp sting. Because of his Jewish status, Rothko’s enrollment was cancelled during the first semester of the university.

He moved out of the campus, wandered around, often hungry and cold. However, the way to deal with these unpleasant experiences is to go to the relaxing Manhattan. In the fall of 1923, it was not a prohibited rhythm rock band that attracted him to Manhattan. When he approached art, he felt unclear. He stayed away from art when he was at Yale, and when he arrived in New York, he joined the art student league’s sketching class. But obviously, he is very contradictory between painting and acting. In 1924, the arrogant and silent artist returned to Portland to participate in the performance training of the local company. He said that it was Josephine Dylan’s company, which brought him to the world of music, color and design for the first time. Combining all these elements together with his sensitive intuition for tragedy, the painter Mark Rothko was born.

How powerful is art? Can it make you feel like love, sadness or fear? Can it stop the never-ending flow of life suddenly, let the noise of life disappear, and reach our most basic emotions-anxiety, desire, ecstasy, and fear?

Throughout the history of art, if we can achieve the above points, we need to have stories, at least characters, to convey this impulsive poetic emotion: either a crying saint, a full-bodied sexy stunner, or a soul highlighted Portrait painters, or heroes in trouble, even those landscape paintings without figures, need to be immersed in a light of perceptual memory.

However, Mark Rothko firmly believes that symbolic art no longer allows us to feel human tragedies from the bottom of our hearts. He believes that the problem of modern society, especially consumer society, is that many things are difficult to describe. The role of modern culture is to continuously satisfy daily desires and numb the originally painful heart. The problem of modern art is how to use the most basic brushes and canvases to choke the never-ending flow of daily life and let us reach the real human situation. The victory of photographic images has made this problem more complicated-optical imaging copied reality, making us more and more blind to the deeper realities. Only a brand new visual language mixed with strong emotions can wake us up from the chaos. So he tried it and opened his eyes to New York.

In 1945, Rothko’s work began to receive praise from American art critics. At that time, his painting style had changed from dark and moody expressionism to colorful surrealism. Although Rothko’s reputation has risen, he is still very poor, which is related to his stubborn nature and paranoid attitude in the world. In 1952, the Whitney Museum wanted to buy two of his paintings. Not only did he refuse to sell them, he also called this important art museum a “scrap station”. There are numerous similar examples. This is the artistic attitude that Rothko, as an intellectual who sticks to his own opinions, shows when facing the society, which is only loyal to himself.

For Rothko, 1949 was a creative watershed. He got help from Matisse. At that time, Matisse’s “Red Studio” was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. Rothko watched it over and over again with a reverent pilgrimage mentality. In this painting, Matisse canceled the pure perspective and created a new image space. Venetian-style red covers the entire space, and the eye cannot see clearly where the boundary between the floor and the wall is. The perspective and three-dimensionality pursued by paintings for centuries are easily eliminated here. However, this approach not only did not let the tension of painting disappear, the processing of deformation actually deepened this power.

Henry Matisse, “The Red Studio”, collected by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

There are often audiences crying in front of Roscoe’s paintings, and this is exactly what Roscoe hopes to achieve: to make art itself transcend flat and three-dimensional, even abstract and concrete, and give people religious spiritual power.

Rothko saw this, and he understood. His paintings seem to be moving towards mystery, focusing on structure, color, smudge, and exaggeration. Sometimes they seem to hover over the surface of the canvas, and we seem to be standing above a cloud that gathers and then disperses. At other times, these clouds seem to be in a ready-for-money posture. All in all, it is very attractive and dazzling. At this time, Roscoe began to have a market. But for these reasons alone, he felt that it was not enough.

He is keenly aware that American life is flooded with more and more abundant things: scarlet lipstick, hot dog mustard, yellow-green refrigerator, yellow and blue Chevrolet. Faced with these artificial bright colors and fake emotional expressions, Rothko wanted to restore the power of true colors-let it take its eyes to the unknown. In 1949, he finally found this unknown land.

Although life is still difficult, the joy of finding the direction of life’s creation is very clearly reflected in the colors used in Roscoe’s paintings during this period: intense red, bright pink, apple green, and warm earth colors-orange red, lemon Huang… is cheerful and lively with the elegance and freshness of Renaissance architecture.

The strong visual appeal of the new picture has made Roscoe an unprecedented success. After joining the gallery of the famous art dealer Sidney Giannis in 1953, Roscoe’s first major museum exhibition was held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954. Mainstream media such as “The New York Times” are not stingy with exaggerated words, and describe Rothko’s work as “the rising star of abstract expressionism.”

However, the great success after the “transformation” did not bring him happiness. Rothko is obsessed with Nietzsche. This Jew who has suffered from exile and life has a strong sympathy for the “tragic nature of life” mentioned by Nietzsche in “The Birth of Tragedy”. It is precisely because of this pessimistic attitude towards life that he believes that the work is essential and “religious”, but the success in the market makes the work inevitably become an ornament of the upper class.

Rothko tried to record these cruel feelings on the canvas, as if he was playing an archaeologist who uncovered the remains of ancient sacrificial offerings. Mythological images and images of beasts, internal organs, and divination rituals began to appear in his works: Syrian bulls, Egyptian eagles, Indian snakes, half-humans and half-beasts, feathers and scales, mouth and claws, pecking, sliding, and meandering. . These images are filled in the decorative color block area, it looks like an excavator is digging a pile of bones.

Rothko’s various expressions have one thing in common: they expand and dissolve each other, contaminate and penetrate each other. These works express a wonderful position, so that when you turn around and leave, you can still feel its existence.

In 1955, Fortune magazine called a work by Rothko a good investment. In response, his friends Newman and Steele nicknamed Rothko a “treacher”, which made him fall into deep trouble. Deep frustration. Rothko also tried hard to justify his creation. In 1956, he said to the critic Selden Rodman: “I am only interested in how to express the most basic human emotions, tragic, ecstatic, destructive, etc.” But when you really stand on them In front of me, it is really difficult to associate such beautiful colors with “tragedy” and “death”, and the only thing that can be associated is joy. The failure to escape the fate of “decoration” made Roscoe more depressed and cynical, and laid the groundwork for his subsequent transformation and tragedy.

The color of death
In 1958, Roscoe, who was at the peak of his career, represented the United States in the Venice Biennale. In the same year, through the recommendation of Alfred Barr, the director of MOMA, Rothko received a commission of 35,000 US dollars (approximately equivalent to the current 2.5 million US dollars) for the “Four Seasons Restaurant” of Seagram Brewing Company’s new headquarters on Park Avenue. “Create murals.

Although this was the number one order for abstract expressionist artists at the time, to Rothko, who had always opposed the use of art as commercial decoration, such a commission was tantamount to blasphemy. However, Roscoe accepted the order, not for a generous reward, but out of anger: “I accept it because I have absolutely vicious intentions. What I want to paint will surely destroy them. Appetite. At that time, if the restaurant refuses to hang my painting on that wall, it will be the highest courtesy to me.”

After working on orders for Four Seasons Restaurant for 3 months, Roscoe explained his understanding of art for the last time in a speech: “When I create, a tragic feeling is always with me.” To express With this anger and tragedy, Rothko adopts an unprecedented bleak tone, pouring the inner depression and heaviness into the picture layer by layer. Although the project only needed to provide 9 murals, Roscoe finally created 30 works for this purpose, and a group of them was darker than a group, which was finally completed under the influence of the Medici Library built by Michelangelo in Florence The famous “Siegram


However, Rothko eventually returned the order. In 1969, he donated this group of murals to London’s Tate Modern. The Tate Modern set up an independent space for Rothko to exhibit these 9 giant murals and will not exhibit any other works. The other two sets of murals are currently in the Kawamura Museum of Art in Japan and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The return of the order caused a lot of controversy at the time, but it did not affect Roscoe’s reputation. Freed from the commercial order, Rothko began to prepare for the 1961 MOMA retrospective.

The bright colors of the past returned to his picture, but the faint glimmer at the edge of the color block was gradually swallowed by black, and darkness seemed to have taken root in it. Even the brightest orange began to bring a sense of fatalism. At this time, Rothko’s style has fully matured. He has truly achieved his goal of conveying primitive human emotions such as “tragedy, ecstasy, and destruction.” Coming at you, swallowing everything.

In 1968, Rothko was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, and he began to live alone. His depression gradually worsened, and he finally fled to the studio alone, completing the last batch of works in his life in a whole year. The picture was only black and gray, indicating death.

In the late period of Rothko’s life, the fire of his life and the color of his paintings gradually dimmed, and finally sank completely into darkness. He was commissioned by John and Dominique Demenier to create a meditative architectural space in Houston, which is today the famous “Roscoe Church”.

These paintings were not delivered until Roscoe’s death. The huge paintings composed of dark and solemn tones created a tragic spiritual space. And when we stare at these murals, we will find that within that dim color, there seems to be a kind of light coming through the darkness to strike you, mysterious and powerful. The “Roscoe Church” is considered to be the masterpiece of Roscoe’s artistic career and a sign of the end of his life.

On February 25, 1970, Mark Rothko cut the blood vessels and nerves in his wrist with a razor, ending his life in his Manhattan studio. He left a series of unspeakable and fabulous paintings for the world, like floating spaces, shining in the dark.

The brilliance behind
Even at the end of death, the troubles that money brought to Roscoe did not dissipate. Instead, it evolved into the most sensational art scandal of the 20th century: after Roscoe’s death, his former agent Bernard Rice illegally took possession of it. He sold a lot of his legacy and sold more than 800 paintings to the Marlborough Gallery at prices far below the market. Later, after a long legal dispute between Rothko’s son and Marlborough Gallery, the scandal ended.

In the era when Rothko died, pop art represented by Andy Warhol began to rise, and abstract expressionism became a stepping stone for the upstarts. Moreover, even within the list-drawing group, Roscoe’s position at that time was far inferior to that of the standard bearers such as Pollock and De Kooning, and he was in a neglected position for a long time.

The market value may be affected by many aspects in a short period of time, such as popularity, comparison, jealousy, greed, etc., and so on. But if the time is extended to centuries, all it can rely on is artistic value and its position in art history. The market trend of Rothko’s works reflects this law.

Rothko uses art to dispel the continuity of time. Like many avant-garde artists of his time, he dealt with graphics frontally, and his painting style was a bit exaggerated, but at the same time, he was able to connect with the painting traditions of centuries ago through his “style”. It is the dialogue with tradition and the breadth and breadth of understanding of time that make him so different from contemporary artists and finally stand out.

Strictly speaking, the establishment of Rothko’s master status was after the 1990s. With the publication of a series of research monographs such as “Roscoe” (1993) and “Art Philosophy: The Artist’s Truth” (2004), Rothko received the recognition that art history deserves.

Rothko’s early masterpiece “Underground Fantasy”.

51 years after Rothko’s death, the price of his works has risen tens of thousands of times.

Roscoe once said: “Painting is an exercise of continuous elaboration. The painter clarifies the image, but we must ensure that this image is communicated to the viewer.” Therefore, Roscoe is sometimes regarded as the most authoritarian artist among modern painters. If there is no such elusive exchange, he believes that the painting is unfinished.

Therefore, for Rothko, painting must not stop at the last stroke, it is just the beginning. The painting itself will continue to change and grow-“expansion and acceleration” is his favorite word, bringing a constantly changing mystery to the viewer’s consciousness. Therefore, the connection between Rothko’s brushes and our eyes is not accidental, but a process of using artistic experience to make an impact.

Rothko was terrified of letting his paintings “walk into the world”. He did shed tears several times in the face of this situation. A Swiss broker was shocked by the artist’s reaction to the “leave” of his work-Rothko stammered while sobbing that he could not bear to let his work “leave”.

Because of such attachment to works, it is natural that Rothko hopes to show them in the best condition. He likes the vertical format, one of the reasons is that it is a crowd-controlled installation. Only when a small group of people gather in front of a painting can the sensory communication be more targeted. He will do everything possible to attract viewers to stop. If he fails to get results, he will suddenly lose his temper or take his paintings directly from the exhibition. Therefore, the lights in the exhibition must be dim, and no spot of light can be projected on the works, so as not to create a false “romantic” atmosphere. He believes that his paintings already have inherent drama and can emit light without Need to accept external light. The position on the wall is also critical-as low as possible, the bottom of those frameless paintings almost touches the floor. Anyway, this is his posture when he painted them.

Rothko has always avoided the space of the art gallery. He hopes that the painting can jump directly from his studio to the viewer’s gaze. His idea is to make the museum a space similar to a studio, so that we can share with him the process of completing those works.

Under our gaze, those images are always in a state of gradual completion. This is the core of the vitality of the work. A finished work is static and dead. Rothko has always worried that once he is not present, the vitality of his paintings will be exhausted; he is worried that his works will be hung on the wall above the sofa in a certain apartment, and the fate of the painting seems to have ended.

If Rothko is a man with a strong desire for control, it is because every one of his paintings is the product of careful calculation. Visitors to his studio will find pots, brushes, glue, and boxes of eggs (for coloring) everywhere. More often, he just stared at the works, smoking, constantly adjusting the visual effects of the works, and exploring how to make the combination of works produce better results.

What he wants to express is not some kind of illusory light, but a kind of physical experience, representing a small fragment of the world. He constantly dilutes the paint, so that sometimes the dots of paint are sprinkled on the canvas, looking like glitter particles embedded in the sky. There are no heavy color blocks in his paintings, but color blocks of translucent tulle texture. They float, approach each other, leave, hang in the air, and glide, creating an inner spirit and a restrained sexy.

After nearly half a century of precipitation, most of Roscoe’s paintings have entered the museum collection system, and the number of works that can be circulated on the market is limited, only about 10 pieces per year, which has become a scarce resource and popular item on the auction floor.

Undoubtedly, Roscoe is the unattainable predecessor of many artists, a fragmented memory in art history, and this memory is embedded in the long course of human development. But if Rothko saw the brilliance behind him, he might say with contempt: “It has nothing to do with me.”

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