By William Boyd

On the 29th February 1972 the English artist Keith Vaughan went to see an exhibition of Mark Rothko paintings. Vaughan recorded the occasion in his diary: ‘To Hayward Gallery in the afternoon to see Rothkos. Feeble stuff. Large décor.  Boring to paint and look at.  Not surprising he killed himself if that was all there was to do.’  This is both ironic and shrewd.  Ironic in that Vaughan was also to kill himself five years later (though for reasons unconnected with his art) but shrewd in that, even in this throwaway remark, he gets to the crux of our responses to Rothko and his huge, darkly luminous paintings.

Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903, in Dvinsk, Latvia.  His family emigrated to America when he was ten years old. Like many celebrated artists of his generation – the post-war American Abstract-Expressionists, the so-called New York School – Mark Rothko was at best a mediocre painter, and would have been judged as one, until he found his magic formula. Amongst his number one can cite similar examples of famous artists who couldn’t really draw: Barnett Newmann, Clyfford Stills, Franz Kline and, the most graphically inept of all, Jackson Pollock. It seems to me no accident that all these artists sought refuge in abstraction where their signal inadequacies in the world of figuration would be no impediment. The move was canny and acclaimed – all these abstract artists achieved great renown and concomitant wealth. But, did it bring aesthetic satisfaction – or to put it more prosaically: did it make them happy?

This question is at the centre of a fascinating new play, Red, recently opened at the Donmar Warehouse. It’s a bravura two-hander – all the action revolving around increasingly adversarial conversations between Rothko (Alfred Molina) and his assistant (Eddie Redmayne) during a two year period at the end of the 1950s when Rothko was working on a highly-paid commission to provide a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building.  This last decade of Rothko’s life saw his palette reduce dramatically – the refulgent primaries, the glowing oranges and yellows, of his first colour-field paintings giving way to a predominance of increasingly sombre shades of red and black: bruised plum, tarnished magenta, deep scarlet. At the end of his life he effectively reduced his paintings to a few stygian shades – bluey-purple on sooty greys or simply black and dirty white.  As with all of Rothko’s work post-1949 (when he hit upon his abstract blueprint) the canvasses were large – well over six feet high – and, typically, consisted of blurred, frayed rectangles of two or more contrasting multi-layered colours stacked one on top of the other.

Rothko’s paintings display, in the jargon of the art world, ‘frontality’. There is no attempt to violate the two-dimensional plane – no depth, no perspective; any semi-figurative explanation is robustly prohibited (no empty beach and sky, no cloudscape, here). All evaluation of this type of pure abstract art is reduced to one’s reaction and appreciation – or not — of the colour tones and relationships and the compositional balance or imbalance of the respective blocks of colour.  There is nothing wrong with this: pure abstraction, if it is to be appreciated correctly, has to be judged on the strict terms it offers the viewer. To say ‘that was the colour of the wall in my bedroom when I was a sick child’, or ‘to me blue equals misery’ or ‘that reminds me of a sunset in Crete’ is redundant. But in Rothko’s case that was never enough. A bombastic, opinionated intellectual, Rothko wanted his simple, extremely beautiful paintings to be freighted with mythic, portentous significance – to be about the despair at the heart of the human condition, doom, entropy, the void and oblivion.

Undertaking the Four Season’s restaurant commission, he famously declared that he wanted to put all the rich bastards dining there off their food.  The discord between his pretentious high-mindedness and the banal destination of his haunting canvasses is at the centre of the play.  Increasingly troubled by this conflict, Rothko decided to give back the $35,000 he was paid and refused to have his paintings hung there.

As time has gone by, the example of Rothko’s generation of American artists is both fascinating and salutary.  Jackson Pollock and his hectic, belligerent, drink-fuelled self-loathing, his sudden rise and fall (a suicidal car-crash) is exemplary but to a significant degree many of the artists associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement were tormented in one way or another and met early deaths either by their own hand or out-of-control self-indulgence.  This is where Keith Vaughan’s observation seems to me particularly germane: ‘Not surprising he killed himself if that was all there was to do’.  Pollock’s enduring fame, for instance, rests on his few years of Action Painting in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s — the huge dribbled and drip paintings that are now the legendary touchstones of gestural, impetuous art-making, the triumphant symbol of New York’s usurpation of Paris as the world capital of Modern Art.  But the inescapable fact is that the work Pollock did before and after the drip-paintings is embarrassingly bad.  Pollock had found his ‘formula’ and it made him the most celebrated painter in the world – and a celebrity. But he couldn’t sustain it. When he stopped the drip paintings and tried to work in a different way it drove him crazier and to eventual and inevitable self-destruction.

Around the late 1940s Mark Rothko abandoned his uninspired, biomorphic, quasi-surrealist style and started to produce his soon-to-be signature canvasses.  The format was established early and only the colour varied (the same could be said of Kline, Newman and Still).  Nothing really changed in the way the canvasses were painted – the modus operandi in the studio was soon fixed and unalterable (something the play makes visually and vivaciously real).  There is a problem for any artist if a particular style becomes instantly recognisable and overwhelmingly in-demand – you branch out, redefine yourself at your peril – but for the purely abstract painter this dilemma seems to me particularly acute.  Rothko is the perfect case in point: he effectively painted ‘Rothkos’ for the rest of his life. 

One might argue that Lucien Freud has been painting ‘Lucien Freuds’ for decades also. But Freud is a figurative painter, his subject is the infinitely mutable human form and therein lies his salvation and his timeless motivation as an artist.  It doesn’t take a huge thought-experiment to try to imagine the growing hell of being a colour-field abstract painter condemned to lay on those huge swathes of colour on canvas — however beautiful, however lambent — month after month, year after year, decade after decade.  I suspect this was why Rothko surrounded his work with a penumbra of intellectual pontification as if the sheer density of arid academic commentary made the simple act of painting these colour-fields a more worthy endeavour.  The art critic Clement Greenberg — the great elucidator of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, the man who ‘made’ Jackson Pollock — described Rothko as ‘a clinical paranoid… pompous and dumb.’  Greenberg’s ego was as big as the artists’ he championed and he did seem to exhibit a parasitical relish in the fame he made for his chosen few.  There was something of a Faustian pact in being given the Greenberg seal of approval: you became famous, patrons sought you out, you hung in the best galleries, you made lots of money but you weren’t allowed to change unless Clement OK-ed it.

And yet, for all the one-trick-pony aspect of Rothko’s style, to be confronted by a Rothko painting, or several, in a museum or a gallery, is a palpable delight on a visceral, unconscious level.  We respond to these shimmering, blurry, layered hues in a very direct manner, I would suggest, and at a simple but deep emotional level that is hard to classify or elucidate in any truly meaningful way. I can remember, in the early 1970s, going into the Rothko ‘room’ at the Tate and being profoundly affected by abstract art for the first time – both rapt and obscurely moved.  However, we recognise the inarticulate delight, acknowledge the frisson and move on. The artist has to keep painting.  

And there’s the rub, especially if you’re a not-very-talented artist.  Once again the ancient adage that Archilochus evolved (later popularised by Isaiah Berlin) seems particularly apposite in Rothko’s case: ‘The fox knows many things — the hedgehog knows one big thing.’  It’s an interesting binary exercise to divide artists into hedgehogs or foxes and the New York School of Abstract Expressionists (with the exception of Willem de Kooning) can only be described as a pack, a flock of hedgehogs.  It’s a matter of temperament, sheer gift and inclination if you find yourself a hedgehog or a fox. Da Vinci is a fox genius, Vermeer a hedgehog.  Lucien Freud is a hedgehog, David Hockney is a fox. Graham Sutherland is a fox, Francis Bacon is a hedgehog – and so on.  Certain artists know ‘one big thing’ – they can do ‘one big thing’ — and it shapes the art they make.  The trouble with the artists of the New York School, it seems to me, is that they had ‘hedgehog’ status thrust upon them – by the critics, by the dealers, by Life magazine – it didn’t evolve naturally.  There is a story that Clement Greenberg came across some pages from a Manhattan phone book that Franz Kline had used to wipe his brushes on. Greenberg held them up and told him that was how he should paint and so ‘Franz Kline’ as we know him today was born. But, once a style made the artists of the New York School famous they were stuck with it.  

One can observe a similar procedure happening today with the Young British Artists group. The sudden huge public renown of the YBAs in the 1990s and their subsequent financial rewards echo something of the experience that the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s went through.  By this token, Damien Hirst’s new ‘blue’ paintings, for example — constituting a dramatic swerve in artistic direction from the School of Manufacturism that he is associated with — could arguably be described as a very courageous effort to escape the monstrously successful hedgehog-status that his patrons and his public fame and wealth have imposed on him. Sliced animals in formaldehyde, vitrines, coffee-bar Existentialism — it works, why change? But Hirst, to his credit, clearly doesn’t want to remain a hedgehog artist, he wants to be a fox.  

So too, I think, did Rothko but he knew it was beyond him – his modest artistic talent would not allow him to move away from the one big thing he was manifestly good at.  I suspect that this played a significant role in his mounting depression and bitterness.  Time and again one witnesses artists trapped into making art that the art-market wants and the more modest the inherent talent the more terrifying that prospect can be. Part of the thesis behind the play Red is that by accepting the Four Seasons restaurant commission Rothko found himself tacitly admitting to and confronting the limits of his abilities.  To provide paintings for the walls of most expensive restaurant in New York was a form of unignorable self-abnegation, of selling out — big-time — but his intellectual vanity couldn’t remain at ease with that fact, even when he banked the cheque. He realised that his great, mythic art was actually going to make terrific interior decoration.  

Rothko had the integrity, at the last moment, to prevent this fate arriving but the paintings became, over the next few years, progressively darker and darker. His last series of canvasses, painted for a non-denominational church in Houston, Texas, are virtually monochrome: deep purples, smirched maroons and lots of black. They hang there today – impressive, brooding, minatory achievements – and an awful premonition.  Mark Rothko had found, after the shame of the Four Season’s restaurant fiasco, the ideal space in which his art could be appreciated and in which its mordant, eschatological message could sing but he never lived to see his Rothko Chapel. He committed suicide on 25th February 1970, a year before his paintings were installed.

William Boyd is the author of Nat Tate: an American Artist 1928-1960.