On Monday, during an exchange of e-mails with Dave Lull, I started thinking about the painter Mark Rothko. He is a living presence here in Houston, home of the Rothko Chapel, the project that dominated most of the last decade of his life. Rothko was a somber man, a depressive who abused alcohol and drugs. He committed suicide in 1970. I associate his late work – large canvases of muted colors, visions of nothingness -- with Samuel Beckett’s landscapes, but without the Irishman’s sense of comedy. A study devoted to Rothko's humor could be published on a 3-by-5-inch note card.
I recently read Writings on Art, a slender collection of Rothko’s occasional writings, mostly letters, edited by Miguel Lopez-Remiro. One piece, “A Talk with Mark Rothko,” made me laugh out loud. It was not actually written by Rothko, but rather is a brief, anonymous account from the Yorkshire Post of the artist’s visit to a showing of his work in Leeds, England, in 1961, and it reads like a parody of small town newspaper writing. As the former editor of a weekly paper in rural Ohio, it’s a milieu I know:
“Mr. Mark Rothko does not look like an artist. At the preview of an exhibition of his paintings at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, he was wearing a sober, dark suit.
“He did not like to talk of himself or his work. `You see the pictures. You look at them and think about them. This is what interests me.’ He is an American.
“When he was asked what he thought of our artists, he said: `I do not think in terms of nations. I think in terms of men. From the little that I have seen in this country, I would say that your artists are very much alive and vital. But I do not want to answer these questions.'
“He hinted that in the midcourse he had changed from figurative paintings to his now abstract form because of a need to move on into fresher, more exciting pastures. He said he was a decade older than the late Jackson Pollock and had known him well. He smoked tipped American cigarettes continuously.
General Sir Brian Horrocks was at the preview. Did he like the pictures? `I think they are marvelous, I really do.’”
On a more serious note, Rothko gave an address at the Pratt Institute in 1958, in which he said:
“I have never thought that painting a picture has anything to do with self-expression. It is a communication about the world to someone else. After the world is convinced about this communication, it changes. The world was never the same after Picasso or Miro. Theirs was a view of the world which transformed our vision of things. All teaching about self-expression is erroneous in art; it has to do with therapy. Knowing yourself is valuable so that the self can be removed from the process.”
He follows this with a list of seven “ingredients” for a work of art. Here is the first on his list, and this brings us back to Beckett:
“There must be a clear preoccupation with death – intimations of mortality….Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death.”