This is Mark Rothko's painting, "White Center."
It was bought by Southeby's, the global art auction house, for $72.8 million, a record price for a contemporary American painting. And right now, Rothko's life is being dramatized on Broadway, in a play called "Red."
I've stared at the "White Center" painting. I've looked at Rothko's other abstract paintings. I am an artist/writer/playwright choreographer (and paint as a hobby, but I don't paint boxes, stripes, or patterns, nor do I create abstract plays, novels, or choreography). Nothing that I've created relates to Mark Rothko.
He's been crowned by the art world as a master of abstract impressionism. People I know and admire, LOVE his work.
His paintings seem to be echoes of each other.
Here are three of them.
I have to say that I don't feel much of anything when I look at these pictures. But that's just me, Em the Artist, not in tune with popular opinion. My stuff has been praised by critics and also "bombed" by them. When I danced at the International Festival Du Cologne I was booed -- an experience that could have thoroughly discouraged me, but ... it didn't. Perhaps, because of those boos, I'm sort of fearless -- critics, reviews, award winners who get Grammy's, Oscars, Tony's, even Pulitzer Prizes don't impress me unless I am moved by what I see or feel.
Mark Rothko said, "The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point."
He sounds arrogant (but I don't think it's arrogance -- it's self belief). The years this man spent over each canvas, every single detail, every daub -- when you work on a canvas, (or a choreography, or book, for a year or two or ten) it is you -- heart, soul, bones, skin, blood.
Struggling with poverty all his life, Rothko, according to Art Critic Cathleen McGuigan, "... was the last in a line of angst-ridden soul-searching artists who had a love-hate relationship with success."
The last of the angst ridden? Let me name drop -- I've had friendly chats about this with Martha Graham, Alwin Nikolais, Hanya Holm, Valerie Bettis, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine -- yes, and also Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharpe and writers and playwrights. For me, it's a fact -- every artist, young and just starting out, or old, over-the-hill, has a love-hate relationship with success.
When Rothko finally got his first big, money-making commission, he agonized over it, but painted a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. Hating the sight of them hanging in those glamorous surroundings, he gave back the money and removed his murals saying, "I hope to ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who eats there." These words, an actual quote, are in the play, "Red," at Broadway's Golden theater.
Actor Alfred Molina may win the Tony for his portrayal of Rothko in "Red." The playwright, John Logan, has also been nominated. Altogether the play has been nominated for 14 awards.
Is it because of the terrific actor, the well-written play, or the powerful story of an artist who worked all his life for recognition -- fame and fortune -- and threw it away?
Probably, and perhaps, even more importantly, the play conveys the process of acquiring a craft, learning to DO your art -- which is learning to face yourself, confront why am I alive, what purpose does my life serve? (Asking and trying to answer those unanswerable questions is what I've been doing most of my life.)
Here's a picture of Mark Rothko.
In 1970 he killed himself,
cut open his wrists,
when he was sixty-six.
No. I am not moved by his paintings. They are not my cup of tea. But I'm moved, thinking about Rothko the man, the artist working, struggling, evolving, and succeeding -- yet overwhelmed by his drive to succeed -- ending his life.