Cohen-Solal’s (Leo and His Circle: A Life of Leo Castelli, 2010, etc.) study of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is notable for her ability to link his strong Jewish ties to his changing, evolving art. Her access to newly available archives enables her comprehensive portrait of the man.
Born in Russia, Rothko's father insisted he attend Talmud Torah from ages 4 to 10, after which his family immigrated to Portland, Oregon, and a strong Jewish community. While he quit the temple shortly after his father’s death in 1914, his ties to Judaism and his anger at being a minority and an immigrant often obsessed him. He abandoned his scholarship to Yale after two years due to the WASPish exclusion practiced against Jews. The author seems to skip over Rothko’s art education; suddenly, at age 32, he has his first solo exhibition in Portland, followed by exhibits in New York and Paris the following year. His style changed often in the 1930s, when he was part of “The Ten,” a group of radical, experimentalist individuals rejecting regionalism and searching for the true form of American art. He went from a mythological phase to surrealism to a multiform period. Dissatisfied with realism, he explored “subjective abstraction.” When he saw Matisse’s Red Studio in 1949, he plunged fully into the realm of abstraction. The artist was always angry, especially at art institutions, which made him hostile and suspicious. They rejected the new American artists and treated his paintings as “decorative.” Rothko was obsessive and controlling in exhibitions, but his art conjured emotion out of simplicity; even in the dark, his swaths of color exuded their own light, making his work a complete experience.
A sure hit for fans of art history, and readers looking to understand modern art and especially abstraction will find this wonderfully enlightening.