Retrospective

From the Archives: Mark Rothko’s 1957 Letter to the Editor About Being Called an ‘Action Painter’

Mark Rothko, Black in Deep Red, 1957, oil on canvas. ©1998 KATE ROTHKO PRIZEL & CHRISTOPHER ROTHKO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/COURTESY THE MARK ROTHKO FOUNDATION

Mark Rothko, Black in Deep Red, 1957, oil on canvas.

©1998 KATE ROTHKO PRIZEL & CHRISTOPHER ROTHKO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/COURTESY THE MARK ROTHKO FOUNDATION

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.

“Editor’s letters”
December 1957

Sir:

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.

Mark Rothko
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.]

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