This week marks the final week of rehearsal for Red—John Logan’s account of two years in the life of artist Mark Rothko—which starts performances this Saturday, September 17. These last few weeks we’ve explored all manner of things Red—from the artists who influenced Rothko, to the restaurant at the heart of the play's plot—but today we’ll take a closer look at the artist himself, and examine how he went from being Marcus Rothkowitz, Russian intellectual, to Mark Rothko, the tormented Abstract Expressionist at the heart of an artistic movement.
Marcus Rothkowitz, born, September 1903.
Marcus, born in Dvinsk, Russia, migrated to the United States along with his family in 1913. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, the young boy was an intellectual to the utmost degree with a fervent passion for social, economic and political movements, much like his father. Based on his distinguished academic performance as a youth, Rothkowitz was accepted to Yale University in 1921 and seemingly had set up a life for himself of promise and fortune.
Mark Rothko, dead, February 1970.
Mark committed suicide on the kitchen floor of his home in New York City. He drank and smoked heavily, he lived through two tumultuous marriages, dealt with bouts of depression and he reviled modernism and all social aspects of the current and future culture. In a sense, Mark Rothko was just, red.
Somewhere along the way, Marcus Rothkowitz transformed into Mark Rothko.
* * *
Marcus Rothkowitz pulled himself from Yale after just a year. He moved on from studying political strategy to engaging in art, a decision purely based on his personal interests. Within that, also came Marcus’ decision to move to New York City.
Rothkowitz married in 1932 and divorced his first wife just five years later. He fell into repeated financial struggles and battled various spells of depression. In 1940 he unofficially changed both his first and last name out of a growing fear of anti-Semitic values mounting in the United States at the onset of the Second World War. So now, the former Yale intellectual would be known as a beleaguered artist and unsettled soul named Mark Rothko.
Shortly thereafter, Mark Rothko would indeed experience success. As the 1940s progressed, his art began to gain notoriety not only around New York City but also around the entire country. But as this sense of early fame struck Rothko he simply wanted nothing to do with it.
It can be argued that Rothko began to seclude himself from the public eye at this point. His greatest fear as an artist was that the modern culture would buy his art simply because it was produced by him. Because it was a “Rothko.” Not because of the colors, the meaning or the expression in which was laid out on the canvas.
Publicly, Rothko feared this sense of change it depressed him endlessly. He despised this idea of modernism, he felt misunderstood as an artist, and he began to take every single measure he could to distance himself from normalcy. He continued to smoke cigarettes. He drank continuously. Much later on he would develop an aneurysm in the main artery of his heart. This compound of despair, drugs and alcohol harassed his body for years I’m sure, but Rothko just did not seem to care.
He would continue to paint. And Rothko began to blatantly paint emotion. He was remarkably unafraid to showcase that. Into the late 1940s and early 1950s he began his creation of what became known as "multiform" artwork.
To the public eye, Rothko’s multiform works were elongated rectangles in vibrant and purposeful colors stacked atop one another. To Rothko, these pieces were his attempt to grasp the opacity of the human spirit, and quite possibly, his own. As Rothko’s aura, personally imposed quarantine and depression worsened, the colors that were eminent in his multiforms became rooted and darker. Reds, deep blacks and browns, dark blues,grays and greens.
He confined himself to his art studio; his personal contact with this modern culture was nonexistent. And his multiforms showed this mindset, this mood he maintained.
And one day, it happened. Just like. That. Mark Rothko took his own life.
It took the man 66 years to discover that no one else would ever understand his artwork, but himself. And when he realized that, he left, without a trace, seemingly without a care.
* * *
But, it should be well noted that Mark Rothko was not solely a painter or an artist. Mark Rothko was a philosopher, and painted, in my eyes, for amusement. Mark Rothko overtook Marcus Rothkowitz for one simple reason. And that answer, to me, is quite basic. Marcus Rothkowitz’s goal was to conceptualize promise and affluence among the modern culture.
Mark Rothko was just Red.