When Rothko Was Rothkowitz

Mark Rothko at the Portland Art Museum

Mark Rothko, Iphigenia and the Sea/Horizontal Phantasy, 1943, oil on canvas, 353⁄4" x 48". Portland Art Museum.

©1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

Marcus Rothkowitz, who became “Mark Rothko” in 1940, was born in Russia in 1903 and grew up in Portland, Oregon. He took his first art classes at the Museum Art School before departing with a scholarship to Yale in 1921. In 1933 the artist and his wife hitchhiked from New York to Portland for the opening of his first museum show, mounted by the Portland Art Museum. Later in his career Rothko returned to the city for numerous visits with his extended family. Did his Portland years play a significant role in the evolution of his signature style?

Surveying the visual evidence in the city’s first retrospective of Rothko’s work, the answer seems to be “no.” The Portland Art Museum organized this unique and long overdue exhibition, which includes 44 paintings, dating from 1926 to 1969, the year before the painter’s death. Among the lenders are Seattle private collectors and the Rothko family. Several of the paintings have rarely, or never, been on public view.

Later in life Rothko claimed he “hated Portland” and felt he “didn’t belong” there, but the schism between his early and later artistic development probably has little to do with these grumpy assessments. David Anfam, author of the catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s paintings, expressed the inevitable frustration viewers and curators feel as they search for affinities between Rothko’s mature canvases and the early work of Marcus Rothkowitz. “Rothko’s abstractions insert themselves between us and everything that went before them,” Anfam points out. “Struck by their uniqueness, we seek clues to their origins. . . . [But] causal links seem to snap when we attempt to connect the artist’s beginnings to the degree of refinement that he subsequently attained.” And yet, Anfam correctly observes, the “shadowy corners of an imaginative horizon” revealed in Rothkowitz’s early works ensure their fascination.

The Portland exhibition offers an ideal opportunity to test Anfam’s observations. In paintings from the mid-1920s and early 1930s Rothkowitz emulates Cézanne, Rouault, and Milton Avery, but his sources become more obscure in one of his first urban scenes, City Phantasy (1934), a dour canvas never before on public view. Wedged in a V-shape between two corridors of tall buildings, figures with lumpy bodies and scowling masklike faces apparently watch a structure on fire. Both Freud and the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein distinguish “phantasy” from “fantasy,” an imagined unreality. For Klein “phantasy” is the means by which infants link feelings with objects and develop imagination: Rothko was a children’s art teacher in the 1930s and could have been referencing Klein with his title.

In the early 1940s, invoking Jungian conceptions of universal emotions embodied in myths, Rothko links feelings with fragments of human bodies, bones, claws, and antique statuary. By the mid-1940s, when he relies on automatism to conjure hybrid beings such as the ones in Hierarchical Birds (1944), we are clearly en route to the command of color and light we identify with the artist’s celebrated field paintings.

The exhibition includes two especially stunning and disparate examples of Rothko’s mature achievements: an eleven-foot-high dark-purple-and-gray 1963 canvas from the National Gallery of Art, rarely exhibited because of its size, and a 1969 brown-and-beige composition loaned by the artist’s son, Christopher Rothko, where colors are whipped horizontally across the bottom and vertically from the top. The Portland survey offers some evidence that the ancestry of these surfaces extends to sgraffiti effects in Rothkowitz’s late-1930s canvases, but a primary lesson here is that the critic Harold Rosenberg was probably right: the ultimate format Rothko developed for his painting was the framework of another self, a passionate anti-self, another state of being.

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