Rothko’s Surreal Killer May Have Been Greenberg

In the first room of the Mark Rothko retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the paintings all date from the 1930’s. They are not the paintings of a young artist-Rothko, who was still using the name Marcus Rothkowitz, was 33 when he painted his Self-Portrait of 1936-yet they remain the work of an unformed talent. The most pronounced influence to be discerned in these paintings of the 1930’s is that of Milton Avery, Rothko’s principal artist-mentor at the time.

Avery was an important factor in Rothko’s early development in several respects. First and foremost, it was Avery’s concentration on color-or, as Clement Greenberg once put it, his gift for evoking “a world in which reality is solely optical”-that provided Rothko with a viable alternative to the prevailing pictorial styles of American painting in the 1930’s. It was not simply that Avery was a modernist in a period when established opinion favored painting of a regionalist or social realist persuasion. Even among the aspiring American modernists of the 1930’s, Avery was unusual in his rejection of Cubism and its influence. His own source of inspiration was Matisse. Thus, while Avery’s own paintings remained representational, they nonetheless provided a paradigm of esthetic affinities that would prove to be essential to Rothko when, a decade or so later, he made his historic leap into abstraction.

What provided a bridge to that development, however, was Rothko’s interim immersion in the ideas of a movement entirely alien to Avery’s esthetic: Surrealism. It is the paintings Rothko produced under that influence in the early 1940’s to which the second room in this retrospective is devoted. With titles like Primeval Landscape (1944), Rites of Lilith (1945), Tentacles of Memory (1945-46) and Vessels of Magic (1946), these pictures are a series of variations on hermetic symbols of a kind favored by the Surrealists and given a semiabstract form: in other words, Abstract Surrealism. They represent a distinct improvement on the paintings of the 1930’s, yet they, too, remain derivative and uncompelling.

It wasn’t until the winter of 1946-47 that Rothko finally produced something of his own as an Abstract Expressionist. Exactly what precipitated this breakthrough, which yielded the artist a truly original abstract pictorial style for the first time and ushered in the period of his finest achievements, has been the subject of much speculation-much of it, it hardly needs saying, very foolish speculation. This was partly the fault of Rothko himself, whose spoken and written mystifications about his own work have inspired a succession of critics, curators and academics to engage in even more prodigious feats of mystagogy in attempting to explain his large-scale color abstractions.

For myself, anyway, the mystery of Rothko’s breakthrough was definitively solved last year in the exhibition called Bonnard/Rothko: Color and Light at the Pace Wildenstein gallery, and in the accompanying catalogue written by Bernice Rose. This is the key passage from Ms. Rose’s essay: “Bonnard’s last exhibition in New York opened in December 1946 and ran through January 1947, the month of his death. It was a small exhibition, with 15 paintings, shown in a gallery that was well known at the time, but has since closed, the Bignou Gallery on Madison Avenue. Rothko may well have looked at Bonnard earlier with his friend, the painter Milton Avery, but this time there seems to have been an immediate reaction: the leap into color. In the paintings he began in that winter of 1946-47, now called Multiforms, Rothko’s color patches appear to take up details of Bonnard’s paintings and enlarge them, transforming Bonnard’s tendency to free the colored paint gesture from object description into a kind of abstraction.… This selection of ‘abstract’ areas from Bonnard was one aspect of what Rothko took away with him from that exhibition. He also took away the sensation of brilliant color as the source of light.”

Another way of putting this might be to say that Rothko’s encounter with Bonnard at that crucial moment in his development gave him the means of making significant use of what he had learned about color from Avery without relapsing into imitations of Avery himself. In the Abstract Surrealist pictures of the early 1940’s, color is assigned a very low priority. These pictures are so drab in that respect that Rothko might even be suspected of deliberately rejecting color in order to concentrate on the depiction of Surrealist-type symbols. In the paintings of Bonnard he would thus have been reawakened to what he had admired so much in Avery.

My own guess-and I offer it only as a guess-is that there was another, unacknowledged factor that contributed to Rothko’s sudden rejection of Surrealism in favor of abstraction based on color, and that is the criticism of Clement Greenberg. In August 1944, Greenberg published a blistering attack on Surrealism that ran through two consecutive issues of The Nation and was reprinted in 1945 in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon in London. It caused a great sensation in the New York art world, where Surrealism was then enjoying immense prestige and patronage. This was not something that could easily have been ignored by an artist as ambitious-but also as insecure in his goals-as Rothko then was.

Then in January 1947 came Greenberg’s review of the Bonnard show that was engaging Rothko’s intense interest. Greenberg had some very hostile things to say about Bonnard’s art-“its concentration on gentle pleasures, and the fact that it smells permanently of the fashions of 1900-14,” etc.-yet his description of what he found to admire in Bonnard sounds an awful lot like a prescription for the kind of painting Rothko was then embarking upon in his “Multiform” abstractions. For example: “he simplifies shapes into flat areas of unbroken color modulated by nothing more than the brushstroke, and arranges these areas into patchwork patterns in which all planes merge into one, with no single color or shape receding or advancing too far or too dramatically.…” This, too, was not something that Rothko could easily have ignored.

I hasten to add that none of this is meant to diminish the originality of Rothko’s color abstractions. On the contrary, it enhances our respect for Rothko’s inspired response to Bonnard. In the avant-garde circles that Rothko frequented in the mid-1940’s, Bonnard was not an admired figure. It may be for this reason that Rothko seems never to have acknowledged his own debt to the artist, and Rothko’s own silence probably accounts for the fact that no one woke up to its importance before Bernice Rose. In his otherwise excellent Mark Rothko: A Biography (1993), the late James E.B. Breslin missed it entirely, and in the 376-page catalogue for the current retrospective in Washington there is no reference to it, either. Which means, among much else, that John Gage’s essay for the catalogue, “Rothko: Color as Subject,” was already out-of-date before it was printed.

By a happy accident of circumstance, however, New Yorkers will be able to test the importance of the Bonnard-Rothko connection with their own eyes this fall when the Rothko retrospective comes to the Whitney Museum of American Art (Sept. 17 through Nov. 29) while the Bonnard exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (June 21 through Oct. 13) is still on.

The exhibition remains on view at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., through Aug. 16.