An Outsider in Latvia, America & Art: Mark Rothko

by Randall Radic

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.

One in particular is the famous and accomplished artist Mark Rothko.

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, a part of the Russian Empire. 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 as Jews.  He sent young Marcus to cheder, Hebrew school.  Marcus was the only member of his family thus educated. 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.

Rothko’s father emigrated to the United States, residing in Portland, Oregon, yet Rothko remained in Russia with his mother and sister.  They then took a 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 young Marcus’ 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 a 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, he subsisted on welfare. However, 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, and eventually their marriage dissolved.

Fearing that American anti-Semitism might be aroused by Nazi sympathizers, Rothko changed his name–Marcus Rothkovich became Mark Rothko.

He 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.

Then something happened.

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 is the visual rendition of listening to Wagner–a 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.  His paintings are religious experiences because Latvia itself is a religious experience.  In Latvia, sounds are muffled and soft as if your ears are stuffed with cotton; rays of light hunker in the frigid air rather than radiate.  The air itself tastes of old concrete and metal–like Russian air.  The color of the light and the sky varies somehow from those in California, or Rome, or Harare. The curvature and remoteness of the horizon provide a lonely sense of discomfort.  Perhaps this lost sense of Latvia, his lack of connection, disoriented Rothko.

Fame and fortune gathered the artist into their bosom.  Yet his second marriage began to implode at the same time.  As his fame increased Rothko engaged in petty fights with his artist friends, particularly Still and Newman. He drank heavily and abused drugs because he could not 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.

Rothko 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 his flesh.  A heavy sleepiness washed over him.

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

Rothko needed to learn to how to live life outside of art.  He could put paint on canvass as no one else.  Like a god, creative energy flowed forth from him.  Yet for all that, he didn’t know how to love, how to be loved, how to forgive, and how to be forgiven.

In the end, maybe it’s as simple as Rothko’s stripes were vertical when they needed to be horizontal. And for all his skill with paint, he forgot to paint them the right direction.

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