Mark Rothko: Towards the Light in the Chapel

Little more light needed


By Annie Cohen-Solal
Yale University Press, £18.99

The adjectives "spiritual", "ethical", "religious" - and indeed the word "Jewish" - make frequent appearances in this new biography (part of Yale's Jewish Lives series) of one of the acknowledged giants of post-war American art. At one point, the author even claims that the Jews' "complex relationship to the Talmud is in fact a key to understanding the life and work of Mark Rothko." Elsewhere, she quotes Irving Howe's claim that, "to become an avant-garde painter means to become an avant-garde Jew".

Yet, frustratingly, Cohen-Solal makes no concerted attempt to pursue such sweeping statements, or to analyse the precise nature of the artist's sense of Jewishness and - most importantly - how it might or might not manifest itself in his art. Indeed, the art itself often seems sidelined, given short shrift compared with Cohen-Solal's interest in placing Rothko's life in a wider (but often already familiar) context.

Even here, she spends too little time, I think, probing such fascinating cultural issues as the tendency of so many modern Jewish artists to see art as a deeply moral activity; the possible links between abstraction and Jewishness; or the utterly disproportionate number of Jews - not only artists, but dealers, critics, collectors and curators - active in the New York art world.

Not everyone will be aware, for example, that Rothko was born Marcus Rotkovitch in Dvinsk in 1903 and, after attending Talmud Torah there, emigrated to the US at the age of 10; but the educated reader will surely know enough about the general background to Jewish lives in Tsarist Russia for it not to warrant as much attention as Cohen-Solal gives it.

While her descriptions of the social difficulties Rothko experienced, not only at Yale but even in his later, commercially successful years as a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, feed into the overall picture presented of a conflicted, perennial outsider, little new light is shed on Rothko the man.

Indeed, although the book claims to draw on hitherto unpublished archival material and on frank discussions with the artist's children, it remains extraordinarily reticent on matters pertaining to Rothko's private life. His first wife is barely mentioned; his second wife remains a shadowy figure; and his suicide is treated in just one, brief paragraph. Ultimately, the subject of this interesting but tantalising biography remains an enigma, just as his haunting abstract paintings elude rational analysis - which is, I suspect, exactly what Rothko himself would have wanted.

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