Was Judaism a color on Rothko’s palette?

Like many people of my generation, I first grooved on Mark Rothko\'s paintings at Washington, D.C.\'s Phillips Collection in the 1960s.Despite my long interest in those points at which \"art\" and \"Jewish\" intersect, and plenty of immersion in the meditative qualities of Rothko\'s work, I considered my admiration for Rothko\'s art to be at some distance from my Jewish sensibilities.
November 9, 2006

Like many people of my generation, I first grooved on Mark Rothko’s paintings at Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection in the 1960s. The museum’s founder, Duncan Phillips, an early Rothko patron, had assembled four sublime paintings in a small room (approximately 13-by-24 feet) — what the artist said was “in a scale of normal living” — enabling the viewer to be saturated by the luminous colors of the paintings. The reverential mood of that very special room (recently reinstalled) presaged later assemblages of Rothko paintings, most notably the artist’s late work for Houston’s eponymous Rothko Chapel. At Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Chief Curator Paul Schimmel has just brought out eight of the museum’s 10 Rothko paintings in an “intimate” installation. Here’s your chance to ponder the layered meanings of all that reverence with which many of us have addressed the artist’s work. And it’s also an opportunity to consider whether there’s anything especially Jewish about the majestic works of the artist, who was born in 1903 as Marcus Rothkovich in Dvinsk (now Latvia), Russia.

Despite my long interest in those points at which “art” and “Jewish” intersect, and plenty of immersion in the meditative qualities of Rothko’s work, I considered my admiration for Rothko’s art to be at some distance from my Jewish sensibilities. True, Rothko’s 1930s associations were with various New York — mostly Jewish — artists (such as the unjustly ignored Ben-Zion), many of whom he gradually outgrew. In line with the political commitments of so many of his cultural colleagues, Rothko was engaged by the generally leftist political issues of the 1930s and ’40s. But it’s evident from both his writings and his work that his major involvement was with his painting. If we are to believe his various comments and those of collectors and critics who knew him well, Rothko really cared about the way in which viewers saw his work. That’s different from the assertive and even macho image that we associate with so many of his fellow abstract expressionists, with their strong sense of a public-be-damned arrogance, leaving museum curators, collectors and critics as the powerful intermediaries who tried to make this crazy — “my child could do it” — art palatable to a skeptical public.

It’s interesting, therefore, to consider Rothko, writing to critic Katherine Kuh in 1954, arguing that he put his trust in the psyche of the sensitive viewer who is free from conventional patterns of thought. He didn’t know how a viewer would use his pictures to meet the needs of his spirit, but he was certain that when the viewer had both needs and a spirit, there could be a true exchange.

It’s in this unusual concern for his audience — looking for “a consummated experience between picture and onlooker” — that I find Rothko most persuasively Jewish, as well as oddly apart from his contemporaries. Having been subjected to a rigorous Orthodox Jewish education prior to his immigration to the United States at the age of 10, Rothko was probably the best Jewishly-educated of his painter colleagues, while avoiding the pretentious pseudo-intellectual Jewish pronouncements of Barnett Newman.

But whatever Rothko’s Jewish commitments, they weren’t clearly evident in his paintings. As (Jewish) critic, Dore Ashton, has written, he was “no stranger to the history of the world in which suffering predominates,” but somehow sublimated the specificity of his reaction to the events of his day into something more universal, using themes from ancient Greek tragedy. This reflects a concern with the validation of painting itself — in that sense very much attuned to the then-new “triumph of American painting” (critic Irving Sandler’s term) — rather than with meaning in or of painting. Art, Rothko wrote, is “an adventure into an unknown world.” He worried about telling the public “how the pictures should be looked at and what to look for. While on the surface this may seem an obliging and helpful thing to do, the real result is the paralysis of the mind and the imagination.”

And yet, inevitably, there are interpretations that have worked in contradiction to the artist’s assertions. After all, who’s to say that we need to believe the artist, or that he ought to have the last word. I first encountered this years ago while reading that Rothko’s 1950’s vast layered pools of indescribable, sometimes murky, colors might be “brooding Hebraic” paintings without recognizing the potentially anti-Semitic thrust of such critical comments, perhaps meant positively. More recently, Matthew Baigell, probably the most astute (and most Jewishly educated) scholar currently writing about contemporary artists and their Jewishness, argues that, having come of age in “an era of rampant anti-Semitism in America and because of his desire to appear as a modern artist without parochial attachments, Rothko simply could not proclaim connections with ancient Israelite memories or archetypes, but could do with ancient Greek ones, instead. It was an old Jewish habit, but for Rothko the trials of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon substituted for the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem.”

It’s true that Rothko spoke and wrote of “tragedy” and the “tragic” — suggesting that “perhaps the artist is a prophet.” Like most Jews of his generation, he was also deeply affected by the sense of helplessness at watching the unfolding of events in Europe during the 1930s and the abyss of the Holocaust. Professor Baigell contends that “if we assume the Holocaust was a devastating experience for Rothko both while it was happening and in retrospect, then his paintings, certainly those of the early and middle 1940s, when there were still suggestions of legible imagery, can be read as his profoundly tragic responses — as a Jewish artist — to the Holocaust.

Those earlier works aren’t the ones before which we reverentially melt in the various installations that, since 1960, have sought to give us more Phillips Collection experiences. Perhaps the artist instinctively understood that he could reach us more directly via the simply visual, rather than through majestic traditional classical themes reminding us that our familiarity with Edith Hamilton’s mythological is sketchy, at best. It’s too bad that those earlier Rothko paintings are less familiar to the general public, because they serve as important, perhaps more readable, touchstones for understanding the artist’s early sense of responsibility.

MOCA is taking on a gutsy task in suggesting that a handful of paintings from the permanent collection can be worthy of a special exhibition. The installation re-exposes us to the familiar Rothko of lush and deeply saturated, endlessly-layered, colors. These meditative, luminous, and numinous works, spanning the years 1947 to 1960, suggest movement toward a post-Holocaust Jewishness, one that the artist may have instinctively felt, prior to his death in 1970.
Rothko’s late work isn’t so much about some dark and mysterious Jewish sensibility as about a kind of freedom from dogma and cant: the mystery of clarity.

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