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The human spirit and condition without tears: David Anfam on the Rothko family

Mark Rothko’s son reflects on his father’s art

When Yale University Press published the catalogue raisonné of Mark Rothko’s canvases in 1998, it heralded how the publishing house would subsequently corner the scholarly market in books on the artist. Among the titles that followed was The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art (2004), a fascinating if frustrating newly discovered manuscript written by Rothko around 1940-41. The artist’s son, Christopher Rothko, edited the volume, and has now followed it with Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out. It is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the artist, in a nicely compact format.

The organisation of the book is somewhat unusual and the better for it. Eighteen essays include topics that range from “Rothko’s Humor” and “The Seagram Murals” to “Black and Grey” and “Mark Rothko and Music”. Overall, the author—who trained as a clinical psychologist and whom, I should add for full disclosure, I have known for almost three decades—manages to maintain a healthy mix of personal anecdotes with more rigorous intellectual insights.

His basic premise is that the crux of Rothko’s art hinges upon the human spirit and condition, a conclusion with which his father would doubtless have agreed. While it is clear enough to see how Rothko’s output of the 1930s engages the existential with its anxious figures in claustrophobic settings, discerning the same in his well-known abstractions presents a far greater challenge. The book does a doughty job of tackling the latter, even presenting a digitally altered image of one composition to illustrate its canny command of form and proportion.

By contrast, in some 40 years I have never seen a spectator crying in front of a Rothko, something that the book asserts does occur, although I may well have been looking the other way when it happened. But if such people do indeed cry, it begs complex questions that the text broaches yet does not altogether answer. In short, we should compare Gerhard Richter’s dry response that it is not possible for paintings to make us cry (music, surely, is another matter). And if tears do well, might we have been conditioned to them by preconceptions about the canvases’ spirituality and so forth?

On a less metaphysical plane, the author is right to debunk such a myth as the epic dimensions of the paintings, which are actually most often merely of moderate size. The humour also leavens what is too often a ponderous approach to the subject, just as it is heartening to see Rothko’s legacy now honoured by, say, an arts centre in his name in his birthplace, Dvinsk in the Pale of Settlement, now Daugavpils in Latvia. Also, a persuasive case is made for the primacy of the later dark canvases over those prior to 1957. In short, much of the book’s appeal lies in its diversity, as it skips nimbly from one topic to another.

Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out is nevertheless likely to have its critics, not least on account of its proscriptions and omissions. We learn that the word “stacked” must not be used in describing the famous rectangles, a judgment for which there is justification. Less so the anathema against the adjective “sombre”—Rothko himself used it aptly at least twice. Likewise, Rothko’s long-suffering biographer James E.B. Breslin gets short shrift; Brian O’Doherty, one of the most eloquent commentators on Rothko, doesn’t rate a single mention; and Clyfford Still, with whom the artist formed a powerful relationship in the 1940s, features in passing only once. However, these are art-historical quibbles. What we have here for the uninitiated is a fresh, opinionated dialogue between father and son.

• David Anfam is the senior consulting curator of the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, and the director of its Research Center

Mark Rothko: from the Inside Out

Christopher Rothko

Yale University Press, 328pp, £25/$35 (hb)