Happy birthday, Mark Rothko

Tomorrow’s podcast will intersect with the shiploads of European immigrants arriving into New York harbor, many as anxious to seek fortunes in the new world as they were to escape the drear misfortunes of the lands they just left.

A 10 year old boy named Marcus Rothkovich was aboard a ship docking at Ellis Island in the winter of 1913. He was there with his mother and sister Sonia, Latvian Jews escaping the oppressive Cossack regime and pograms targeting its Jewish citizens. He was arriving with a rigid Jewish education and great knowledge of the Talmud, something that would not only make him even more of a stranger in America, but even occasionally to his family. His father Jacob had already made the voyage over to get a job, however with a few months of his family’s arrival, he would be dead.

Flash just twenty years in the future. Marcus had spent most of his life in Portland, Ore., but as an serious educated young man, he worked his way to Yale, then to New York to study downtown at New School of Design and uptown at the Art Students League of New York (still at 215 West 57th Street). In 1933, almost 20 years after stepping foot at Ellis Island, Mark Rothko had his first one-man show in New York City, at the Contemporary Arts Gallery.

The paintings displayed were not what we would consider ‘typical’ Rothko. It would take his circle of friends gleaned from the fertile New York art scene to help shape Rothko’s concepts of abstractions and color.

Now flash ahead 74 years, to May 2007. A Rothko painting “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)” sells big at Sotheby’s in New York. Huge. $72.8 million. The highest price ever for a post-war painting, which actually smashed the prior record of $27.1 million (for a painting by one of Rothko’s friends Willem de Kooning), and before that of $22.5 million which, by chance, was also for a Rothko painting.

Why exactly it sold so much might have had as much to do with its former owner as the painter itself — it was a prized possession of one David Rockefeller, who was personally there in the room to see it pass hands. (Rockefeller donated the entire amount to charity.) He had originally purchased it in 1960 for $8,500.00 — pocket change for a Rockefeller — and it had hung up in his Chase Manhattan office in the financial district.

Rothko had died in 1970; facing a separation from his wife and a heart aneurysm from years of unhealthy behavior, he sliced his wrists and, I guess to be safe, took an overdose of anti-depressants.

But today is his birthday. Born 104 years ago today, his life is a dramatic example of the bittersweet expectations of Ellis Island’s new Americans, with ups and downs sometimes as surreal as his paintings.

Where to find Rothko in New York (outside of private owners, naturally), four at the Guggenheim, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — No. 13 (White, Red, on Yellow) pictured on top — and an impressive 13 at MoMa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *