With a show of Mark Rothko’s dark paintings now on view at the Pace gallery in New York, we turn back to the December 1957 issue of ARTnews, in which the artist wrote a letter to the editor, complaining that Elaine de Kooning had mistakenly classified him as an “Action Painter.” Rothko’s letter, as well as the editor’s response, follows in full below.
Re Two Americans in Action [A.N. ANNUAL ’58]: I reject that aspect of the article which classifies my work as “Action Painting.” An artist herself, the author must know that to classify is to embalm. Real identity is incompatible with schools and categories, except by mutilation.
To allude to my work as Action Painting borders on the fantastic. No matter what modifications and adjustments are made to the meaning of the word action, Action Painting is antithetical to the very look and spirit of my work. The work must be the final arbiter.
New York, N.Y.
[Qualifying her use of a term which, like many others in contemporary criticism, is still flexible, Elaine de Kooning wrote that “except for the appearance of the large image—and the large image can appear in many forms—there is no exclusive “look” to Action Painting . . . The “action” is not necessarily the action of pushing paint around as many Europeans and Japanese apparently take it to be.”—Ed.]