Today is the birthday (1903) of Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz (Ма́ркус Я́ковлевич Ротко́вич in Russian and Markuss Rotkovičs in Latvian), later Mark Rothko, Russian-Latvian-American artist born in Dvinsk, Vitebsk Governorate, in the Russian Empire (today Daugavpils in Latvia). His father, Jacob (Yakov) Rothkowitz, was a pharmacist and an intellectual who initially provided his children with a secular and political, rather than religious, upbringing. In an environment where Jews were often blamed for many of the evils that befell Russia, Rothko’s early childhood was plagued by fear. Fearing that his elder sons were about to be drafted into the Imperial Russian Army, Jacob Rothkowitz emigrated from Russia to the United States. Markus remained in Russia, with his mother and elder sister Sonia. They arrived as immigrants, at Ellis Island, in late 1913. From that point, they crossed the country, to join Jacob and the elder brothers, in Portland, Oregon. Jacob’s death, a few months later, from colon cancer, left the family without economic support. Sonia operated a cash register, while Markus worked in one of his uncle’s warehouses, selling newspapers to employees. His father’s death also led Rothko to sever his ties with religion. After he had mourned his father’s death for almost a year at a local synagogue, he vowed never to set foot in it again.
Markus started school in the United States in 1913, quickly accelerating from third to fifth grade. In June 1921, he completed the secondary level, with honors, at Lincoln High School in Portland, at the age of 17. Rothko received a scholarship to Yale. At the end of his freshman year in 1922, the scholarship was not renewed, and he worked as a waiter and delivery boy to support his studies. He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist, so he and a friend, Aaron Director, started a satirical magazine, The Yale Saturday Evening Pest, which lampooned the school’s stuffy, bourgeois tone. At the end of his sophomore year, Rothko dropped out, and did not return until he was awarded an honorary degree, forty-six years later.
In the autumn of 1923, Rothko found work in New York’s garment district. While visiting a friend at the Art Students League of New York, he saw students sketching a model. According to Rothko, this was the beginning of his life as an artist. He later enrolled in the Parsons New School for Design, where one of his instructors was the artist and class monitor Arshile Gorky. This was probably his first encounter with a member of the American avant-garde. However, the two men never became close, due to Gorky’s dominating nature. Rothko referred to Gorky’s leadership in the class as “overcharged with supervision.” That same autumn, he took courses at the Art Students League taught by Cubist artist Max Weber, a fellow Russian Jew. Weber had been a part of the French avant-garde movement. To his students, eager to know about Modernism, Weber was seen as a living repository of modern art history. Under Weber’s mentorship, Rothko began to view art as a tool of emotional and religious expression. Rothko’s paintings from this era reveal the influence of his instructor. Years later, when Weber attended a show of his former student’s work and expressed his admiration, Rothko was immensely pleased.
Rothko’s move to New York established him in a fertile artistic atmosphere. Modernist painters were having more shows in New York galleries all the time, and the city’s museums were an invaluable resource. Among the important early influences on Rothko were the works of the German Expressionists, the surrealist art of Paul Klee, and the paintings of Georges Rouault. In 1928, Rothko exhibited works, with a group of other young artists, at the appropriately named Opportunity Gallery. His paintings included dark, moody, expressionist interiors, as well as urban scenes, and were generally well accepted among critics and peers. Despite this modest success, Rothko still needed to supplement his income, and in 1929 he began giving classes, in painting and clay sculpture, at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. As it later turned out, he would remain active in teaching at that location for 22 years, until 1952.
During the early 1930s, he met Adolph Gottlieb, who, along with Barnett Newman, Joseph Solman, Louis Schanker, and John Graham, was part of a group of young artists surrounding the painter Milton Avery, who was 15 years older than Rothko. According to Elaine de Kooning, it was Avery who “gave Rothko the idea that [the life of a professional artist] was a possibility.” Avery’s stylized nature paintings, using his rich knowledge of form and color, would have a tremendous influence on Rothko. Soon, Rothko’s paintings took on subject matter and color similar to Avery’s, as seen in Bathers, or Beach Scene of 1933-1934.
Rothko, Gottlieb, Newman, Solman, Graham, and their mentor, Avery, spent considerable time together, vacationing at Lake George and Gloucester, Massachusetts. In the daytime they painted artworks, then discussed art in the evenings. During a 1932 visit to Lake George, Rothko met Edith Sachar, a jewelry designer, whom he married later that year. The following summer, his first one-person show was held at the Portland Art Museum, consisting mostly of drawings and aquarelles. For this exhibition, Rothko took the unusual step of displaying works done by his pre-adolescent students from the Center Academy, alongside his own. His family was unable to understand Rothko’s decision to be an artist, especially considering the dire economic situation of the Depression. Having suffered serious financial setbacks, the Rothkowitzes were mystified by Rothko’s seeming indifference to financial necessity. They felt he was doing his mother a disservice by not finding a more lucrative and realistic career.
Returning to New York, Rothko had his first East Coast one-person show at the Contemporary Arts Gallery. He showed fifteen oil paintings, mostly portraits, along with some aquarelles and drawings. Among these works, the oil paintings especially captured the art critics’ eyes. Rothko’s use of rich fields of colors moved beyond Avery’s influence. In late 1935, Rothko joined with Ilya Bolotowsky, Ben-Zion, Adolph Gottlieb, Lou Harris, Ralph Rosenborg, Louis Schanker and Joseph Solman to form “The Ten” (Whitney Ten Dissenters). According to a gallery show catalog, the mission of the group was “to protest against the reputed equivalence of American painting and literal painting.”
Rothko was earning a growing reputation among his peers, particularly among the group that formed the Artists’ Union. The Artists’ Union, including Gottlieb and Solman, hoped to create a municipal art gallery, to show self-organized group exhibitions. In 1936, the group exhibited at the Galerie Bonaparte in France, which resulted in some positive critical attention. One reviewer remarked that Rothko’s paintings “display authentic coloristic values.” Later, in 1938, a show was held at the Mercury Gallery in New York, intended as a protest against the Whitney Museum of American Art, which the group regarded as having a provincial, regionalist agenda. Also during this period, Rothko, like Avery, Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, and many others, found employment with the Works Progress Administration.
In 1936, Rothko began writing a book, never completed, about similarities in the art of children and the work of modern painters. According to Rothko, the work of modernists, influenced by primitive art, could be compared to that of children in that “child art transforms itself into primitivism, which is only the child producing a mimicry of himself.” In this manuscript, he observed that “the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color.” Rothko was using fields of color in his aquarelles and city scenes. His style was already evolving in the direction of his renowned later works. Despite this newfound exploration of color, Rothko turned his attention to other formal and stylistic innovations, inaugurating a period of surrealist paintings influenced by mythological fables and symbols.
Rothko’s work later matured from representation and mythological subjects into rectangular fields of color and light, culminating in his final works for the Rothko Chapel. Between his early style of primitivist and playful urban scenes, and his later style of transcendent color fields, was a long period of transition. This development was marked by two important events in Rothko’s life: the onset of World War II, and his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche.
It always intrigues me to leaf through a well-known artist’s progression from early works that are in all manner of styles to the mature works that we all recognize. Here’s a sampler for you sort of in chronological order:
For Mondrian I showed images of Mondrian-inspired food. http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mondrian/ I can sort of do the same for Rothko although this stuff is not edible – as is. It’s rice in the shape of Rothko paintings. Go here for the full treatment: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/11/12/164964422/mark-rice-ko-a-flavorful-interpretation-mark-rothko-s-paintings I’ll just lift a bit of the text to give you the “flavor” (sorry!). Bad puns are a weakness. They started it with Rice-Ko !!!
Back in 1958, when Mark Rothko was commissioned to do a series of murals for The Four Seasons restaurant in New York — a place he believed was “where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off” — his acceptance of the assignment was subversive at best. He hoped his art would “ruin the appetite of every son of a [beep] who ever eats in that room,” according to a Harper’s magazine article, “Mark Rothko: Portrait Of The Artist As An Angry Man.”
His distaste for the social elite led to a series of paintings that continue to captivate art enthusiasts of different backgrounds, tastes and generations. His painting, Orange, Red, Yellow 1961, sold on May 8 this year for $86.9 million at Christie’s.
Rothko eventually abandoned The Four Seasons project. Instead, he gave some of the pieces to the Tate Modern museum in 1969, just before committing suicide.
But the murals that were meant to ruin the appetite of wealthy patrons inspired chef/stylist Caitlin Levin and photographer Henry Hargreaves to interpret Rothko’s collection using rice.
“We had been doing a project about gradient food dye using several kinds of food like bananas, bread and rice and we thought, how about using rice to recreate Rothko’s paintings?” says Levin. Although dyeing rice is time consuming, Levin said it is an easier medium to work with than other foods when recreating the depth of color found in Rothko’s pieces.
After coloring, styling and photographing the rice, chef and food stylist Caitlin Levin made coconut rice. “It tastes the same,” she says.
So . . . I’d say coconut rice is the order of the day. Here’s south Indian coconut rice (in Tamil). You’ll get the drift. Coconut rice is festive rice through south and southeast Asia with numerous variants.