A son examines his father’s enigmatic art.
Psychologist Rothko, son of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and chair of the board of directors of the Rothko Chapel, Houston, illuminates the artist’s often misunderstood works in this unusually personal and insightful melding of memoir and art criticism. His father, writes the author, aimed “to speak as directly as possible to our inner selves…to communicate with our most core human elements,” and “to connect with the human spirit.” While the author acknowledges that this goal is both romantic and naïve, he argues that only by being open to the emotion and the drama in the works can a viewer fully appreciate their effects. “What is occurring in Rothko’s work is a type of chemistry between artist and viewer—a primal, preverbal communication—mediated by the painting,” the author writes. Each viewer, therefore, will experience the work differently. Rothko thoughtfully analyzes the artist’s early figurative paintings, transition to surrealism, “sensuous and extroverted works of the 1950s,” massive murals for the iconic Seagram Building, and the designing of the Rothko Chapel in the 1960s. By 1949, Rothko abandoned figurative work, aiming to create an experience “freed from the residue of the everyday” and disassociated from “the figure, from myth, from story and anecdote.” His son cautions against seeking biographical explanations for his father’s art. Although Rothko was born in Latvia, for example, his son does not believe that Latvian landscape or memories served as “the wellspring of his pictorial imagination.” Instead, he draws upon The Artist’s Reality, his father’s unfinished manuscript, to probe the philosophical underpinnings and cultural zeitgeist that informed his work. Included in that zeitgeist was the scientific search for nature’s most basic elements. Like a scientist, Rothko was engaged in a project of stripping away to discover the essential.
The author’s intimacy with his subject affords him a privileged, and fascinating, angle of vision.