Books: Less opportunism and more rigour in study of Rothko, please

The 10 essays of Seeing Rothko are distinctly varied in quality


Publications derived from symposia are often tricky affairs, as the immediacy of the spoken word does not always transfer to the printed page. Based on a one-day event (plus a “closed session” the day before) at the Getty Research Institute in 2002, Seeing Rothko is no exception. It aims to encourage new approaches to the subject—which is presumably why the organisers chose several contributors hitherto unknown as Rothko scholars.

The result is a medley of 10 essays within a badly designed cover. The book’s introduction flatters this author insofar as it reprises certain debates from the catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s paintings. I entitled my introduction “To see Rothko”, to avoid what were by then (1998) already clichés of the new art history: the buzzword gerunds of “seeing”, “framing”, “looking” et cetera, ad infinitum. That Glenn Phillips fails to reference my work is doubtless an oversight. More puzzling is his assertion that a Rothko requires “the viewer to be in front of the canvas”. Rarely do pictures require a beholder to be anywhere else.

Thereafter, the essays vary. The veteran Rothko authority Dore Ashton revisits her knowledge of the artist’s ideas with characteristic elegance. Thomas Crow prints a lecture first delivered in 2001, rehearsing John Gage’s insights about the influence of Beatus manuscripts, while ignoring the medieval and other Hebraica crucial to Rothko’s imagery of the mid-1940s. By contrast, Sarah K. Rich’s sortie into 1950s American relaxation manuals is almost engaging enough to obscure its irrelevance. Likewise, Jeffrey Weiss links Rothko, via the phenomenon of inverted paintings, to 1960s process art. In fact, these compositional upendings evolved from his exploring the body’s vertical symmetry around 1946, rendering its lower parts as simulacra of the upper ones. Hence Rothko’s early concern, for instance, with the water’s edge. At such a threshold, bodily presence and uncanny reflections, sky and sea, above and below, pivot in a play of mirroring inversions. Fortunately, John Elderfield’s shrewd enquiry into psychological issues lifts the anthology onto a higher plane.

The Getty has also purchased two early Rothko sketchbooks. Facsimiles of these valuable documents conclude Seeing Rothko, alongside Charles Harrison’s commentary on the so-called “Marshall Jenkins” example. Beyond the strikingly variable orientation of the images and notes (unremarked, nevertheless, in Weiss’s account of “Dis-orientation”), the most significant aspect of these sheets escapes scrutiny: namely, how their recourse to everyday objects and architecture laid the foundation for Rothko’s first mythic works, such as The omen of the eagle (1942), in which Braque’s guéridons and other artefacts metamorphose into bizarre chimeras, hybrids that Rothko would later efface into his classic format. Further omissions, errors or merely derivative scholarship elsewhere undermine this volume.

On the evidence of Seeing Rothko, the Getty Research Institute should perhaps direct its research mandate with less opportunism and more rigour.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Studies of Mark Rothko: Less opportunism, more rigour, please'