Dear Mark Rothko, we’d like to get to know you again

Mark Rothko/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

During the past few months, I saw the Mark Rothko show at the Portland Art Museum a few times, attended the play “Red” about an episode in Rothko’s life and attended  a concert with music by American modernist composers who were inspired by Rothko. I thought about Rothko and read about Rothko. At the end of all that, though, I didn’t feel any “closer” to Rothko, even though I felt I should.

Rothko, after all, had been a Portlander for a time, and the subtext of all of this Rothko activity was that we, as a city, were changing our relationship to him, acknowledging him maybe or re-claiming him somehow. I supported this idea, mostly because it had become embarrassing, our denial of the connection, even though I saw this as a sign of our own lack of self-confidence, not disapproval of his “advanced” painting style.

Things are different here now, and we needed to start somewhere, roll our eyes at our own silliness, find our way back to him and embrace one of the Titans of Abstract Expressionism, shyly perhaps, but still… And given our new confidence in our cultural importance, reaching out to Rothko, even so many years after his death in 1970, maybe was something we could manage.

But what if Rothko didn’t reach back? What if what he became as an artist in New York City really didn’t have much to do with us? What if after all our efforts to reintroduce ourselves, he still seemed remote and distant?  Or rather, what if I felt distant from him?  How much does that matter?

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Mark Rothko lived in the Old Oregon, an Oregon that H.L. Davis, the state’s only Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction, described best.

“It was Oregon, all right: the place where stories begin that end somewhere else,”  Davis wrote at the end of a little travel piece he wrote for Holiday magazine in 1953. “It has no history of its own, only the endings of stories from other places; it has no complete lives only beginnings.” And charitably he concluded, “There are worse things.”

To the Old Oregon, Rothko arrived from Latvia in 1913 at the age of 10 and left in 1921 with a scholarship to Yale. He briefly returned (and worked in the theater here) in 1924, before moving back East, to New York. And though he returned from time to time to see family and do some sketching and watercolors, his story was played out and ended somewhere else, namely New York City.

Fairly soon after my arrival in Portland in 1979, then-art critic/now artist/teacher Paul Sutinen told me that Rothko had graduated from Lincoln High School, a bit of news that I found at least semi-astonishing. Rothko lived and grew up here? Subsequently, almost no one ever brought it up, except as a bit of trivia. (By the way, the California-identified Richard Diebenkorn was born in Portland, though he left at 2 for Seattle.)

The Portland Art Museum didn’t exhibit Rothkos, the local galleries were too small to carry his work,  the art world rapidly segued from Abstract Expressionism to Pop to Minimalism to Conceptual and Land art to neo-Expressionism and then to a grab-bag we call Post-Modern. And though the city had (and still has) some excellent abstract painters, including the great Carl Morris, none of them would we consider “Rothko-esque.”

For all intents and purposes, Rothko and Portland didn’t belong in the same sentence.

So, we really did need a re-introduction, Rothko and Portland, and that’s what we’ve had during the past couple of months. The Portland Art Museum opened the first exhibition of his work here since 1933. Portland Center Stage produced “Red,” John Logan’s account of a few important months in Rothko’s life in the late 1950s. And Third Angle Music Ensemble played Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel,” which Feldman made to honor both the artist and his most famous work.

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Daniel Benzali as Mark Rothko in “Red”/Patrick Weishampel

Can we get close enough to Rothko to somehow “claim” him — as a long-lost cousin or something, even if “native son” is beyond us? Well, sure, the power of the human imagination being what it is. But those brooding rectangles belong to art history now, its competing stories, theories, shreds of evidence and above all those crisp online and textbook images. We make of them what we will.  And those rectangles, the physical residue of “Rothko,” supersede the stories and the biographies.

John Logan in “Red” offers us a possible and plausible Rothko, the painter we didn’t get to know very well. Not that we’d have wanted to, based on Logan’s portrait. That Rothko is surly, arrogant, demanding. He wants to make art free of the pull of human concerns — art for art’s sake — but also art that makes us truly human, an art that has it both ways, in short. “I am here to stop your heart,” Logan has him say. “I’m not here to make pretty pictures.”

Mark Rothko, “Entrance to Subway” (1938)/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

Daniel Benzali made a magisterial Rothko, for Center Stage, one moment imagining himself in the company of Rembrandt, the next worried about the Pop artists who are about to submerge Abstract Expressionism, mostly by laughing at its self-importance, tiny mammals scurrying about gnawing at the eggs of the dinosaurs. No, that’s not what happened to the dinosaurs, and abstract painting, some of it wonderful, is still part of the post-modern scene. But their decade of dominance crashed.

Benzali played a Rothko certain of himself and tormented, petulant and mercurial, grandiose and practical. Somehow he made standing in front of an imaginary canvas exciting, something he did for long stretches of the play. But he wasn’t someone you could get close to very easily.

Maybe we can relate to his rejection of the commission for murals in the Four Seasons restaurant inside Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s modernist temple, the Seagram Building, which is the incident that Logan dramatizes. The money was big for the time, $30,000, but once he realized that restaurant patrons would be clattering their forks and clinking their glasses instead of regarding the painting, he turned down the commission, and the murals he had completed ended up in major museums in London (the Tate), Tokyo and Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery, after spending a decade in storage (three of the Seagram “sketches” are in the Portland Art Museum Show). Rothko’s assistant warns him that a fancy restaurant won’t be a good home for the paintings, but Rothko insists that they will stop the diners in their tracks—until he visits the restaurant himself.

We don’t know as a matter of fact what Rothko’s reasoning was. Logan quotes Rothko a lot in the play, but his “resolution” is conjecture. Was the real Rothko this much of a stereotype, the Romantic Artist, condescending one moment and impossibly needy the next? I doubt it, but Logan’s account is still fascinating, mostly as an assertion about the power of art, art as a central concern of humans, art as a transformative agent that asks us to be more than we are.

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A few things about Abstract Expressionist Titans:

1. They genuinely seemed to hate the “commerce” of art specifically and capitalism generally. They thought about it, wrote about it, fought each other over it, declined major commissions because of it, resisted it in thought and deed.

2. By creating and then sticking to particular, recognizable logos — the ovals of Motherwell, the swirls of Pollock, the color curtains of Still, the calligraphy of Kline, and yes, the rectangles of Rothko — they made themselves instantly identifiable in that marketplace and more commercially successful.

3. Their pursuit of purity — art for art’s sake, to use the cliche — made them targets for the sublime ironists who were about to replace them. Mark Rothko, meet Andy Warhol. And their debates now seem precious to us, though maybe that’s because we’ve become so “conceptual”: now the relation of the art object to the market place is integral to the meaning of the work. To think otherwise is to be naive, and maybe that’s how the New York Abstract Expressionists seem to us now.

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My closest contacts to the Abstract Expressionists were the Morrises, the late Portland painter Carl and his wife Hilda, who made abstract sculpture.  They knew many of them and operated in a similar way. I think of Carl as a cross between the Northwest School founded by Mark Tobey, a close friend of the Morrises, and the New York AE painters.

Carl Morris, “Emerging Units of Light Traverse the Dark” (1959)

Carl Morris actually lived among the AE painters for several months in the mid-’50s, “invited” by Barnett Newman to join the crew. But he found that he couldn’t paint in the “marketplace,” as he called it, and moved back to the house and studio he and Hilda had built for themselves (and son David) on Skyline Boulevard.

I bring up Morris for a few reasons. He believed that Newman, Rothko, Kline, Pollack and company were absolutely authentic about what they were doing. About Motherwell, he said that somehow the Spanish Civil War had gotten “inside his gut” and it wouldn’t let him go. And he told me stories about their little arguments and battles.

But Morris took another path to painting. He didn’t develop a single “logo.” Instead, he juggled and combined several different ideas about abstract painting, most of them (not all) derived directly from the world of the Northwest. Which put him at odds with art for art’s sake artists, I suppose, but freed him to experiment throughout his career. One of his last great series of paintings was based on an outing he had with another great Northwest abstractionist, William Ivey, when they were caught camping in the mountains as a late spring snowstorm blew up and engulfed them. He tried to capture the sense of confusion they had about what was sky and what was earth with some photographs and then in the studio in a wonderful chaos of line and swirls of paint.

At one point, Morris told me, Rothko approached the Morrises and said he’d been thinking about a painting with a line that stretched across the entire canvas (instead of his usual floating rectangles). But wouldn’t people read that as a horizon line, he asked? Morris replied, “Well, if you have to ask the question…” and left it at that, though in retrospect I’m a little sorry that he didn’t just say, “Mark, you can do whatever you want.” You shouldn’t feel hemmed in by your previous work, because that’s just trading one orthodoxy (traditional painting) for another one.

I have always preferred the West Coast artists of that generation — Morris, yes, Diebenkorn, Park and Guston, who gave themselves permission to try new directions. Since hearing that story, I’ve hated the idea of Rothko trapped by his own rectangles.

Is it a true story? Both Morrises told it to me, but they were remembering something that had happened more than 30 years previous and they were in their 80s when they told it. Still, I’m inclined to believe it, though I offer it here not as a “fact” but as a possibility, the possibility that Rothko sensed that what he was doing was somehow a dead end. Maybe that fits into his death by his own hand in 1970, though I’m more tempted to think of that as a result of his health problems in the late 1960s, his separation from his wife, the arduous task of creating the murals for the Rothko Chapel, which he never saw installed. That’s another thing about Rothko that we don’t know.

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The progressive painters of the 1950s in New York often knew the progressive composers, and Morton Feldman knew Mark Rothko and greatly admired his murals in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, deep, dark paintings somehow hovering between matter and emptiness.

When Feldman composed his Rothko Chapel  in 1971, the year after Rothko’s death, he wrote this piece specifically with the dimensions of the octagonal chapel and the great purple paintings it contains in mind. I hesitate to type “purple” because it sounds silly compared to the visual experience of the actual paintings.

Mark Rothko, “No. 14” (1951)/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

For its part of the Rothko immersion, Third Angle Music Ensemble enlisted the Resonance Ensemble for a performance of Feldman’s music (among other things). The site was the Kridel Ballroom at the art museum, which had been curtained off to resemble the dimensions of the actual Rothko Chapel and lit to suggest its deep color.

After I got home, I listened to a recording of the composition by the Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble, just to set it in my mind. It’s a lovely, moving rendition, more dramatic and swelling than what I’d just heard in the Kridel Ballroom. But I decided within a minute or two that I liked the live version I’d just heard better, precisely because it wasn’t dramatic or swelling.

The music requires a chorus, and the Resonance Ensemble, led by Katherine Fitzgibbon, was  an excellent one (a friend at the concert who knows his way around choruses calls them the best in the city). It has to be, because the instrumental music rarely provides a clue to the pitches the choruses must hit when their parts finally arrive in the score. And those pitches crash against each other at times as the choral bits buzz in and out of the score. Rarely does anyone get to “sing out,” though when they do, as Catherine van der Salm and Tim Galloway can, their plainsong is all the more pure and startling.

The same goes for the instruments — Brian Quincey on viola, Jonathan Greeney on various percussion and Yoko Greeney on celeste (a keyboard instrument) — which push and pull in various ways, moving along at slow cadence, with deep drums and simple viola lines combining with complex, dissonant chords, sometimes ignoring each other and occasionally blending for a moment or two, both with each other and the voices, a temporarily heavenly sound that moves toward minor ground quickly.

Toward the end, Quincey’s viola breaks loose for a passage in an entirely different form, “a keening, minor-key, modal song, redolent of the synagogue,” as critic Alex Ross describes it in his The Rest Is Noise, which I find absolutely crucial to understanding 20th century music.

Ross says Feldman wrote this section in high school, comparing it to a similar gesture by Alban Berg in his opera Wozzeck, and he also argues that Rothko Chapel alludes to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron in an attempt to create “a divine music, appropriate to the somber spirituality of Rothko’s chapel.”

Divine? I’m not sure, but like Rothko’s greatest work, Feldman’s can re-organize your senses and your priorities for a little while. Does he suggest the absolute? Some unified ground of being? Something ineffable that links us and maybe leads us? Well, either you experience that or you don’t.

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Mark Rothko, “Self Portrait” (1936)/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

So far, I’ve ducked the exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, which closes on May 27, even though in front of Rothko’s “Self Portrait” (1936) on my last visit to the show I thought I started to get him—or at least  the edge of his unknowability—just a little. The dark smudges behind the dark blue lenses of his spectacles. The red smudge of lip beneath his mustache. The impossibly sharp cheekbones and jutting chin. The shock of hair behind his high forehead. His sturdiness and thick hands. The WPA browns and tans and purples.

This fellow, who signs his name “M Rothkowitz,” has the fortitude it will take to make his way through the Depression, explore the further shore of surrealism and burn his bridges to the frameworks of the past for the uncertainties of abstraction. Or at least so I imagine.

The paintings I like best in the show are the transitional ones from the late 1940s, splotches and free-floating shapes that are about to resolve themselves into the rectangles we know best, starting at No. 8 (1949), and never come back. This seems so inevitable now. So final, even though I remember the question he posed to the Morrises.

The smaller paintings from his early years, his figures and scenes, aren’t particularly distinctive, except for that Self Portrait, but their very familiarity (both to advanced painting in Europe and New York and WPA art) makes them enjoyable.

I don’t have the same response to the mature Rothkos in the show, which need more room than they’re given maybe. Another painting is always in the corner of the eye, so we can’t give ourselves to any one of them. I’m attracted to the brighter Yellow Over Purple (1956), and then to the somber Untitled (1963), but they don’t truly absorb me. When I notice that the rectangles get their shimmer from hundreds of tiny lines on the edges of the shapes, the artist’s hand asserts itself, but I’m always backing up and backing away, attempting to get a fix on the color, the shape and the intent, to find the transformative sweet spot. I’ve been told that it’s there, I just can’t seem to find it, no matter how I squint.

My first trip I was irritated that there wasn’t more signage to draw the connections, Portland to Rothko, a little more biographical information and art history gloss on the paintings. But does wall text have occult powers? Could it have woven us together somehow? Aren’t the paintings themselves supposed to do that? Aren’t they the ones with the key to the occult?

In “Red,” Logan has Rothko assert that his paintings are tests for how human we are. Maybe I just don’t measure up.

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I can’t quite fathom why Portland “lost” Rothko in the first place. Sure, his time here was relatively short, 1913 to 1921, with some trips back to see family, the lengthiest in 1924, it seems. (Arcy Douglass’s account for PORT is the best I’ve seen on his Portland years.) And his old neighborhood in the rough and tumble South Auditorium district was bulldozed to make way for what is now Naito Parkway.

Mark Rothko, “Untitled” (1957)/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

But how did the city’s Art Fathers and Mothers let him slip away? I’m thinking specifically of Thomas Colt, who led the museum in the late 1940s and ‘50s and was a booster of “advanced” painting, not that I blame him alone. Did no one here keep an eye on Rothko as he began to emerge in New York’s art scene in the 1940s before going super-nova with his glowing rectangles of color? Did no one collect him? Invite him back to lecture? Make any attempt whatsoever to introduce him into the city’s cultural “discourse”? For all I know, efforts were made and rejected, but somehow I doubt it.

Was Rothko too far to the Left politically? Too Jewish?  Too experimental as an artist? Too associated with New York? All of the above? Honestly, I don’t know. By the time I got here, at the beginning of the New Oregon, no one talked about him. By that time, though, I think it was because we didn’t think we were “worthy” of him somehow.

During the past decade or so, though, maybe we’ve become more self-confident. Lives are being lived here that will end with their important work concluded here, in H.L. Davis’s formulation.

Maybe the lesson of this introduction to Rothko is that it’s just that. An introduction. And if we can figure out how he’s important to our local culture, he will get closer and closer to us, step out of the art history books and find us on our streets and in our galleries somehow. Maybe not the Rothko of “Red,” maybe that Rothkowitz fellow who signed the self-portrait. That guy looks formidable but approachable. And I’m thinking he has something to tell us, if we keep asking questions.

NOTES

Some of this essay originally appeared on a post I wrote for Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts&Life page.

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