Rothko: “If I choose to commit suicide, everyone will be sure of it. There will be no doubts”.
In London’s Tate Modern gallery, is a room devoted to the work of the Russian born artist Mark Rothko. A room without windows, without a view, no portal to signs of outer space or the passage of outer time. On the walls are six large paintings, related in colour (mostly dark maroon, with red overlays and black … spilt wine, dried blood) each one the size of a domestic room’s wall. In such a smaller room, the experience of surrender to them would be interlaced with a deeper, darker foreboding, apprehension of entrapment, enforced containment. Framed spaces large enough to engulf you, an enforced embrace, yet at the same time seeming to en-courage (en-power) you to float out of time and space completely. Capitulate to the infinite. Le gout de l’infini. A tension between absence and presence that threatens, offering an aching insight into the anguish and pain of Rothko’s all-too tangibly bedevilled vision of the world within. Within these seductive spaces, the imagination is at its outer limits, soft-edged, floating, formless. shimmering. Some might say: colour and texture reduced to pure spirit.
This large room with its six paintings is probably the closest example of a Rothko chapel in Houston. A more than half-decent equivalent for we Londoners, in which to garner some faith in the face of a world of commodities, and dying hope. Sit in the room within the room, half close the eyes and the paintings become carpets, magic carpets, sacred spaces, images shored up against Osirian fragmentation, delineated by mere brush stokes, mostly rendered invisible in the sombre, imperturbable light. Spaces in which, on which, through which, the mind attempts to focus on infinity and yet, not unwillingly, accepts defeat; accepts the pleasure of the pure aesthetic, the subtle and tantalising beauty that reminds us of feeling, rekindles emotion, a sense of the flesh we only temporarily, vicariously inhabit; beyond sensations, the inner dream webs of Being, dying, cassation, the mind fading at the edges, losing memories, fearing dreams; dissolving the hard-edged frames that are the load-bearing structure of the prison house of reason. Each rectangular painting, a grave.
London has these six paintings, not by mere chance but by good fortune.
The paintings were originally commissioned in the late 50’s for the walls of the very fashionable Four Seasons Restaurant in the magnificent architectural masterpiece, the Seagram building on New York’s Park Avenue. Rothko built huge scaffold structures in his studio, from which he could paint the images, creating the exact dimensions of the restaurant, the whole project inspired, he said, by Michelangelo’s murals for the Laurentian Library in Florence, where the window spaces are deliberately blinded; the interior suffused with uneasy melancholy. Rothko said Michelangelo had achieved exactly the feeling he was looking for, which he hoped to recreate, making the viewers feel they were “trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall”. The word “forever” is more than ominous …
But something was calling Rothko from within, and rather than the bright and more colourful images of his earlier work, despite himself, the paintings demanded their own life and spirit, and came out darker than anything he had painted before. Reluctantly, he recognised the images were completely unsuitable for a classy, chic restaurant – people eating caviar and chatting stock market prices and worldly nonsense – and withdrew from the commission.
Rothko had always considered J M Turner to be a profound inspiration, especially in his own earlier work. He had almost certainly seen single, large gallery rooms devoted entirely to this one artist, to the later almost abstract Turner seascapes, as if they too had been painted as murals in a single inter-connected vision; so he presented the set of paintings to the Tate Gallery, to show his affection for England and its artists, and the first time they were hung together in the Tate, Rothko was there to supervise. The space was compact, the light reduced, so that the subtle layered surfaces, each relating to the other, presented a brooding ambience, demanding contemplation. Stillness. Uncertainty. Doubt …
The murals, painted with oil on canvas in 1958 or 1959, each with either black or red on maroon, bestow a variety of invitations to escape from the self. The largest painting seems to have a floating door in its centre, like an Egyptian temple door (always fake, painted to resemble a real door). The shape floating on the darkest of the taller paintings curiously seems to suggest the stone pillars of Stonehenge. Another has an inner shape that conjures up a double window, opening upon nothing … the faint hint of preternatural light, in wash of colour floating down. Each painting is an implied orifice, a call to the womb, to a highly seductive and yet threatening inner contained space and night … death and imminent birth in a terrible embrace.
The words of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Sirens … “Death my bride, I’m as puzzled as the new born babe … ” would seem an ideal caption. As the murals would also be an appropriate setting for Mozart’s The Magic Flute … the Temple devoted to Isis and her dismembered lover, Osiris. Or the grottos in which Gerard de Nerval imagined he too had soared and fallen with the sirens: “J’ai revé les grottes ou nagent les sirènes … “
How could a man, a once poor man now rich and clebrated around the world, who could create such sublime minimalist beauty, die such a savage bloody death at his own hand? But as Sylvia Plath foresaw and foretold – a warning no artist can ignore – that dying is an art, just as art is a permanent, untiring, relentless adversary, whose hidden agenda is always a continuous practice at dying, continuous fraught initiations into the mysteries of the Angel of Death. She is the muse … Rothko dared to warn us of such enigmas, the conflict between sensuality and spirit, in all his work, but then gave us the revelation of its deepest anguish, the proof beyond any denial, in his death, at his own hand. As a solace, he offered us moments of peace on the Way. Go to the Tate Rothko temple and dare to imagine your own death, as you recall Rothko’s final ritual in the sensual arms of his imagined siren bride.
Take a train south from St. Petersburg and you arrive in Dvinsk. It is now called Daugavpils. Once, its people were largely Jews. Its heart was devoted to commerce. And Les Fleurs du Mal. Many of the poorer pretty young Jewish girls were forced to choose prostitution to survive. It was not difficult to perceive many valid reasons, under savage Russian military oppression, for families of the better-off Jews to dream of immigration. Rothko’s mother was sixteen when she married. Her son, Marcus Rothkowitz was a late child, the youngest of four, enveloped from birth in the seductive dream of ultimate, if not infinite, freedom; by means of the escape to England: or America.
Rothko was eleven when his father died. Freud would write that the death of the father inflicts a terrible psychic burden on a son – the most dangerous age for the death to occur is around the age of eleven. At the age of nine, though, Rothko had (vicariously as it would turnout) denounced his father’s traditional ways, announced that he would no longer attend the family’s local Jewish temple; with the family. You might say he had killed his father a couple of years before his father really died; ultimately assuming within himself a supreme sense of power, albeit forever undermined by guilt. The youngest son (eight years younger than his brother), the sensitive and hypochondriac favourite of his mother, he had been blessed (and cursed) by achieving his unconscious incestuous goal … through the death of the father, full possession of her. Thus his doomed passion for the oceanic, le mer, la mère, had begun …
Rotho’s paintings are screens in which liquid (oil colour) floats, temporarily arrested in time, restless, moon- and tide-driven seascapes; crystalline structures (and non-structures) trapped on the verge of lattice formulation or dissolution, poised at the tantalising threshold of melting or crystallising as witnessed on a translucent glass microscope slide; ideally, under polarising light.
Hard at the edges (he had killed his father) and soft at the centre (he had won his mother), this Oedipal son would live all his life with the sphinx’s smile taunting his dreams, a tortured painter who wanted most of all to escape the pain of light, the father’s domain, light as power, sexual power, the permanent predicament of seeing, or being seen; omnipotence or dismemberment; the project of becoming blind, but gifted with clairvoyance and insight, like Tiresias: always the adversary and yet redeemer of Oedipus. In his work, Rothko seems to be desperately trying to deny the very existence of that real, sun-lit father’s world; he would see nothing of that real world but everything in a lunar mindscape reminiscent of a fellow Russians vision, Tarkovsky – as in Solaris, or Stalker. It would not have been a surprise if Rothko had painted all his work as variations on the theme of the colour violet …
And so it was that Rothko, despite every success and all the recognition he might have imagined he needed, after creating temples in which his murdered father’s spirit might be deemed to promise him forgiveness, he was finally forced to give up the struggle to maintain harmony over his inner chaos (denied in his harmonious musical paintings). At the violet hour he murdered himself – murdered the father in himself (at a late age he had fathered a child with a much younger wife, much to his own and everyone’s surprise) – as brutally as he was capable.
His paintings are an evolving, meandering record of his perpetual confrontation with a death desired, at the arterial heart’s crossroads. Murder of his other, guilty self; the self that had could only see, eventually, as false, fake, inauthentic. There was no going back to innocence; there never is, after the father is murdered at the crossroads.
It seems almost churlish to mention it: mere names resonating oddly, but Borges would surely celebrate the parallels. In Edgar Allen Poe’s most prestigious short story(many say his most profound expression of the inward windings and secret aspects of his own creative process). The writer of fictions which are nevertheless true; and yet are also not true? In the story entitled “The Purloined Letter” the principle character is the Detective Dupin. It is Dupin who toils at the mystery and finally, with weird Tiresian insight, reveals the esoteric truth behind a somewhat symbolic theft of a letter, a theft which enables the commitment of a number of more serious crimes, summed up in the phrase: “The ascendency depended on the robber’s knowledge of the loser’s knowledge of the robber.”
The detective brought in to investigate the death and apparent paradoxes of Rothko’s suicide, was a certain Detective Lappin.
Rothko killed himself in the early morning of February 25th, 1970; alone in his 69th street studio. His assistant found him and ran to a neighbour to say: “I think Mr. Rothko is very sick.” A terrible understatement, as the artist was lying spread-eagled on his back as if crucified in a huge pool of dried blood. Another assistant, Frank Ventgen was called and saw immediately that Rothko was dead. Two policeman assumed a suicide, but called on Detective Lappin to verify the facts. At the time, the fabled detective was being accompanied in his work by a newspaper reporter, Paul Wilkes, writing a story with the odd working title: “Why so many Real-Life Detective Stories End with a Rubber Stamp”. Lappin at the time was reading Puzo’s The Godfather.
The first description of Rothko’s suicide, taken from the detective’s brash account, turned out to be wrong in important details. He described the body lying in a pool of blood, the water in the sink still running. To save the people who found the body the trouble of cleaning up! Lappin sees the razor blade with kleenex tissue attached to it and comments, somewhat laconically, that suicides invariably try not to cut their fingers when cutting their wrists. Rothko’s trousers were neatly folded over the back of a chair. Lappin decides he didn’t want to get blood on them: cutting his wrists at the sink, he fell back to the floor when the blood levels got too low. Lappin seemed full of certainty, even noticing a number of small “hesitant cuts” on the forearm, declaring them as trials of the sharpness of the blade.
Lappin calls the artist’s doctor who confirms he was depressed after a recent operation, his health generally bad. Lappin declares with the certainty of one who was there at the time: ”An open-and-shut suicide”.
But the story of Rothko’s death was already metamorphosing into fiction. He had not had a recent operation and there was only one hesitation cut. The journalistic account (Wilkes wasn’t there when the body was found) became more than current gossip but the gospel truth, so much so that the artist Robert Motherwell pronounced he was surprised, on hearing the story, that the suicide had been so ritualistic. The story people heard and later read, was purloined by an opportunist journalist from the Detective Lappin’s fanciful pulp-fiction version of the events, mostly speculations of his own invention; especially as he had never heard of Rothko, and must have surveyed the huge abstract paintings around the studio as proof of the poor man’s unbalanced mind.
The police examiners decided that Rothko had taken a huge dose of barbiturates before killing himself. Later official autopsy found that Rothko had a “marked senile emphysema” and advanced heart disease, and did not have long to live. There were two cuts that caused the death, one 2½and a half inches long and a half inch deep on the left arm, and one 2″ long and 1″ deep on his right arm, deep enough to almost sever the brachial artery. The report misspelt his name as Rothknow; and the corpse was numbered #1867. Official police versions, taped and never transcribed, depended mostly on Lappin’s street-cred assumptions.
Rothko had taken a large dose of a drug, Sinequan, prescribed to him by his psychiatrist Dr. Klein, presumably to numb some of the pain, but mostly, his perceptions of his actions. He took off his shoes and suit, laying his trousers over the back of the chair. He made the cut in his left arm first, and the deeper one in the right. He was lying on his back, when found, in a pool of blood six foot by eight foot; with his “arms outstretched”.
Rothko had often talked of suicide and written about it. He’d told his assistant Ahearn, “If I choose to commit suicide, everyone will be sure of it. There will be no doubts … “ He often referred to the “accidental deaths” of Jackson Pollock and David Smith, both drunk and killed by crashing their cars. Clearly forms of suicide. And despite the severity of his own illnesses, he continued to smoke and drink, aware that he was hastening his own death.
Recent separation from his wife and very young son, together with the knowledge of the imminence of a natural death from his failing health, Rothko chose the death that he could be utterly sure of, a theft of what time remained of his life. He wanted a death framed in his own space and time, his own hands, determined to make it conscious, utterly tangible and known, every detail under his control, robbed it of its uncertainty. Made it his own creation. He defeated God as he had defeated his own father. A solitary death, a singular vision, unseen, which now can only be imagined by us.
One of Rothko’s friends wanted to take a photograph of the body lying in its pool of congealed blood, but he was persuaded not to, and so we are fortunately spared the theft of this painfully real image, which would surely have always clouded our perceptions of his paintings … would we not see his body, crucified, hovering on the surface of every canvas? Unsullied by the pagan facts of his self-murder, we are left with blameless images of his paintings, striving towards transcendence of the real, the body, the flesh, the
callous impersonality and decay of the material world: each painting a tentative, barely perceptible step towards the final blood-letting, in which his congealed blood, bone-dry on the concrete harsh floor, would surely have suggested the surfaces and colourings of the red and black on maroon canvasses hanging, forever, for us, in the Tate Modern.
this article first appeared on peter whitehead’s website