Mark Rothko: The Man Behind the Paintings

A courageous biographer threads his way through the private and tortured world of one of the 20th century's most important artists

BIOGRAPHIES of artists can sometimes seem peculiarly irrelevant. They can leave the reader panting to get back to the immediate experience of the art they love or admire - and away from words. They can also foster the conclusion that biography is just background; the art itself is the foreground, the thing that really matters. The art is, in fact, the means by which the artist has chosen to be remembered. In extreme cases, it may be virtually the only reason an artist is worth remembering.

On the other hand, exhibition catalogs and even monographs frequently relegate the biographical side of an artist to nothing more than a chronology in note form and concentrate centrally on the work.

This is the case with Diane Waldman's 1978 volume connected with the Guggenheim's retrospective of Mark Rothko (born in Dvinsk, Russia, 1903, died in New York 1970). The host of reproductions are particularly useful in her book. On the whole, this kind of treatment of an artist is what the art world prefers. Biography is background.

After all, every last detail of an artist's history may not necessarily feed our understanding of his work; it may largely be the antithetical debris above which the artist has endeavored to hoist his art. This could certainly be argued in the case of Rothko, whose classic works aim at - and in the view of many people, achieve - a transcendence above the ordinary. In some extraordinary way they are of a different order, belong to a different realm, from the mess or even chaos of the day-to-day life of the artist who conceived and made them.

Biographers are too easily tempted to think of the works of an artist as the tip of an iceberg, the visible evidence of a life. And they then think of themselves as heroic divers into the murky waters out of which this tip emerges, so that these indeterminate depths assume an importance that may even diminish the art itself. Yet it is the character and universality of the art that finally determines the artist's worth. The art may be a consummate ``success'' while the artist is paradoxically a ``failure.''

A thoroughgoing biographer - one as relentlessly dedicated and admirably articulate as James E.B. Breslin is in his mammoth ``Mark Rothko: A Biography'' - is unlikely to agree entirely with this view of biography. Every last detail matters crucially to Breslin: Rothko's marriages and separations, his elations and depressions, his furies and moods and ideals and deceptions, his friends and enemies, his ancestry, his children, his studios, his pronouncements.

Nothing, it almost seems, can be left out, and much can be repeated - in the case of crucial quotes many times over - just in case the reader has skipped over or forgotten them.

Breslin, in his additive way of building an image of the artist, describes above all Rothko's paradoxical nature: self-assertive yet self-destructive. He was a showoff, lovable and despicable by turns, impulsive and deliberate, kind and mean. He was a completely dedicated painter - working hard even in his last illness and final depression - but sometimes declared a fierce hatred for art.

Nor does Breslin confine himself to Rothko. Any figure who touched Rothko's life - from other painters like Milton Avery, Clyfford Still, or Barnett Newman to dealers, curators, collectors, advisers, patrons, doctors, assistants, and lodgers - all are grist to Breslin's mill and may well be treated to extensive minibiographies of their own. The rise of Pop Art in the '60s was a matter of incomprehension and distaste to Rothko - so Breslin describes it at length. Indeed he does everything at length.

Fortunately he is an unusually engaging writer.

Through the pages of this biography, the reader is led slowly forward by means of the author's convincing integrity and a sympathy for his subject that is refreshingly free of undue adulation (Rothko, on a good day, would have liked that).

One praiseworthy aspect of the book is that Breslin continually returns to Rothko's work, indeed to laboriously detailed analytical descriptions and assessments of it. His narrative drills its way, like some great auger, through the clay and rock of Rothko's deeply confused psyche. There are well-chosen illustrations, but still not enough of Rothko's work. I used the Waldman book for fuller visual support.

In Breslin's afterword he makes plain his awareness that biographies of artists per se have their doubters and critics. But his motives, as Rothko's ``first biographer'' (clearly a proud claim), are genuine and practical.

Breslin is basically satisfied if his readers ``feel that this book has deepened or enriched or complicated their sense of Rothko's paintings....'' His primary conviction is that Rothko's art is not only ``rich and moving,'' but that it has also been, and presumably still is, misunderstood, trivialized, oversimplified, overlooked and disregarded.

This is certainly what the Rothko that Breslin portrays thought.

Almost determined to be misunderstood, Rothko was the Eeyore among modern American artists: full of necessary resentments. Rothko would have been lost without them according to Breslin. Despair, aggression, a sense of doom and tragedy, were his art's life blood.

Ironically, given the remarkable number of words this biographer uses to tell Rothko's story, Rothko himself increasingly distrusted word statements.

Breslin is conscious of this, quoting a number of times a telling Rothkoism: ``Silence is so accurate.'' The artist also had a growing need for ambivalence and secrecy, which is why he certainly would not have liked Breslin's determined delving and exposure.

OCCASIONALLY, there are glimpses of the warm, humane, buoyant side to this multifaceted artist. I wonder if Breslin has given them sufficient space and attention. If, as Breslin clearly believes, Rothko's art is the direct outcome of his life, then the transcendent ecstasy - an expression that Rothko used - of his classic and most intensely colored work surely came out of a real joy and not just from anguish and aggression. But the artist also firmly declared there was more beneath the surface of his paintings. He objected to people finding only serenity in them.

The paintings ought, he said, to be described as ``serenity about to explode.''

Rothko's paintings remain an astonishing achievement. A biographer - even as good a one as Breslin - may try to place or explicate them in terms of a life. But the fact is that they are gloriously elusive and wordlessly inexplicable.

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