Notes on Rothko's Surrealist Years

by Robert Rosenblum

Published Wednesday, Oct 18, 2023

This essay was originally published in Mark Rothko: The Surrealist Years (Pace Gallery), 1981.

In the beginning was the Big Bang theory of Abstract Expressionism. By the 1950's, everyone on both sides of the Atlantic knew that something so drastic and overwhelming had happened in New York in the late 1940's that "The New American Painting"—to use the Museum of Modern Art's title for its international traveling exhibition of 1958-59—seemed to have mythical origins, forged of thunder and lightning. The signature styles of the masters of this new art appeared so extreme in their distillations of primordial elements—energy, color, atmosphere, even the brink of nothingness—that they made one gasp in their willingness to jettison, so it seemed, the entire baggage of Western painting. But after absorbing the impact of what first looked like totally unfamiliar art, spectators and historians became more curious about how these heroic images of rockbottom purity came into being. For those who wished to support the stunning visual evidence that the grand tradition of European modernism had suddenly crossed the Atlantic, like an American Athena sprung full-grown from the head of a European Zeus, sweeping new genealogies could be constructed. For instance, the floating, expansive colors of Rothko, Newman, and Still might be seen as belonging to a dynasty founded by such ancestors as Matisse and the later Monet; and the crackling, dark-light structure of de Kooning, Kline, and Pollock might be read as an electrifying transmutation of the scaffoldings that underlay Analytic Cubism. Similarly, in broader cultural terms, the transcendental vistas and breast-beating individuality of many of the Abstract Expressionists could be located as the most recent manifestations of the legacy of Romanticism.

But what was amazingly slow in permeating our view of this new art was the fact that its origins were not the equivalent of a cosmic explosion, but the product rather of a long, slow generative process. So exciting was what looked like the swift emergence of a grand, mature American style that we ignored and were even embarrassed by what was thought of as an awkward incubation period. Checking birthdates alone, it was obvious that most of the major Abstract Expressionists were only a little younger than the century itself, and that in the late 1940's, when their art seemed to be born, they already were in their forties. But what on earth had they been doing before that? Occasionally, historical surveys would include illustrations of a few "premature" works, in order to fill quickly the gap of decades—the 1930's and the early 1940's—in our knowledge of these masters, but usually they raced ahead to 1947-50, when the action really began. The situation was comparable to the mid-20th-century view of Mondrian, whose pre-abstract work (which covered, in fact, a good two decades of his painting career) was usually swept under the carpet, only to be uncovered later as not only an indispensable means of understanding what his abstract art was about but as offering in itself a body of painting and drawing that is every bit as compelling as Mondrian's signature style work of the 1920's and 1930's.

Nowadays, our view of Abstract Expressionism is also shifting focus. A younger generation of incluisitive arthistorians and spectators has registered dissatisfaction with the traditional and patently censored legend that would consign to thc scrapheap what used to be considered tentative first steps that had better be left unseen. But was it really possible to understand the art of Rothko and his colleagues, if one entered thc unfolding drama of their art only at thc beginning of the great last act? So now, the lion's sharc of youthful energy, basic research, and fresh ideas is going into terra incognita of the 1930's and 1940's, in an effort to discern what passionate ambitions, what modern and ancient, Western and non-Western sources could produce eventually a pictorial art of such magisterial purity and grandeur that it seemed, indeed, to come from nowhere, to be the very first light cast upon a new era.

In thinking about such matters, one of the key words is regression, and in the case of Rothko's art, the leap from the present to the past, from a contemporary urban environment to a remote mythic world, from 20th century man to squiggling protoplasm was made with jarring abruptness. In 1938, Rothko could still paint the prosaic facts of a Brooklyn subway station, complete with turnstiles, the identifying monogram N (Newkirk Avenue? Nevins Street?), and passengers in contemporary clothing who descend to the tracks below. We know we are in New York in the 1930's every bit as clearly as we do before a Depression painting by Reginald Marsh or Raphael Soyer. But in the same year, 1938, Rothko decided to close his eyes to these facts of modern urban life, and plunged back into time, back into the unconscious, back into biological origins to an art from which it is impossible to deduce explicitly that he lived in any historic time and place, Ìeast of all New York City in the mid-2Oth century. Between 1938 and 1946, Rothko invented a strange Babel of primitive tongues. We find rude fragments of birds, heads, hands, eyes that, like the pictographs of Gottlieb, might have been uncovered during archeological expeditions anywhere from Mesopotamia and Greece to Mexico and the Northwest Pacific. We find, with the help of the titles, allusions to archetypal legends that equate Greek and Christian tragedy, whether it be the SACRIFICE OF IPHIGENIA or the ENTOMBMENT OF CHRIST. And on quite another level of the primitive, we find wriggling, microscopic creatures that evoke a biology student's composite fantasy of the pulsating origins of life. Indeed, in one of these works, an untitled watercolor of 1944, these regressions reach an astonishing point of near-zero. In the lower righthand corner, Rothko has actually signed his name inside the rounded, throbbing contour of a primitive cell that seems to be dividing before our eyes, as if the artist had projected himself back to the beginning of not only his own biological life, but of all of life in this cosmos. To be sure, many Surrealists had already tried to recreate the mythic and biological origins of the universe—one thinks of Miró's BIRTH OF THE WORLD of 1925—but Rothko's empathy into this science-fiction journey reaches a uniquely personal extreme.

Younger scholars like Robert Carleton Hobbs, Stephen Polcari, and Ann Gibson have recently published many important revelations about the specific cultural and artistic milieu that nurtured Rothko and his colleagues. They have told us, for instance, of the importance of Rothko's undergraduate studies in the natural sciences at Yale (I92I-23) of the way in which textbook diagrams of geological stratification or cell development might have planted images that could be transformed, two decades later, as an artist's poetic excursions into natural history (a transformation also achieved in the I940's by Baziotes, who we now know haunted the American Museum of Natural History and one which goes back not only to Ernst, but to that l9th-century world where museums of art and of natural history were often housed harmoniously under the same roof in their common display of truth and beauty). They have also emphasized the importance of thinkers like Nietzsche, Jung, and Frazer in establishing the mythmaking components and tragic goals of Rothko's art, not to mention the personal, inward search for archetypes. Moreover they have indicated the inspiration of primitive art, especially that indigenous to America as displayed in many exhibitions held in the 1930's and 1940's at the Museum of Modern Art.

But focusing anew on Rothko's Surrealist work of the I940's, there are still many questions to be asked and sometimes answered. For one, there is the big issue of the timing of these works, which, it turns out, coincide grimly—1938-46—with the immediate eve and apocalyptic aftermath of the Second World War. To live in New York at that time was a strange amalgam of the mythical and the contemporary. The daily chronicle of evil reported in newspapers and on the radio, the living presence in the United States of growing numbers of refugees from hell were ample testimony to the actuality of the Nazis, of the war, of the atom bomb; yet the remoteness and monstrosity of these events in Europe and the Pacific could also give them an unreal, almost symbolic character that only an eye-witness observer could force into contemporary fact.

For artists like Rothko, the impulse during those years of dread must have been a familiar one in times of unthink­able terror: an eyes-shut flight to primitive beginnings, to the vital sources of life, art, myth. It was a path already taken by Marc and Kandinsky on the eve of the First World War in their blanket rejection of the unbearable present of modern history in favor of a prehistoric world where all might begin again. In Rothko's case, these impulses would continue still further. If ever there was an image of the world after Hiroshima, when all of matter, all of man, all of history might be annihilated, it was to be found in the pictorial format of a numbing, atmospheric void that he began to define fully in 1947.

Rothko's weighty variation upon the comic themes of regression existed, to be sure, on an exalted level of 20th-century cultural history; yet it could not be forgot­ten that there was at least one immensely popular adven­ture in this primitivist realm which had vast audiences in the 1940's. I'm referring to Walt Disney's Fantasia of 1940, which, seen again in a post-Abstract Expressionist world, seems to herald almost every primeval image attained so arduously by Rothko, Still, Newman, or Pollock. Most particularly, the Stravinsky Rite of Spring episode provided a spectacular anthology of biological and ecological ul­timates, in which primeval landscapes, where water, sky, and earth seem interchangeable, were gradually animated by a quivering, microscopic life that unforgettably meta­ morphosed the biology textbook illustrations of our dis­tant school memories to the territory of myth and art. There, within the huge dimensions of a movie screen, the role of modern men and women in a manmade environ­ment was usurped by oozing, unicellular creatures that throbbed, fed, and reproduced in a life-giving aqueous element, a Darwinian fantasy that, in 1940, coincided precisely with Rothko's first efforts, as in a watercolor of that year, to visualize a primitive universe of protozoic beings that, millenium later, would tak on human configurations.

Disney aside, there are, of course, legions of high-art sources for Rothko's explorations of the 1940's, and many have been pinpointed in general and specific ways. But I should like to add a few which strike me as having been unusually fertile. Miró, naturally, has been often enough singled out a a major inspiration for Rothko's surrealist period, but one work in particular, THE FAMILY of 1924—a work included in the Museum of Modern Art's Miró retrospective of 1941—cast an especially long shadow. Not only does its lucid format—a wide field clearly divided by a horizon line—recur throughout many of Rothko's works, but so, too, does the perpendicular trio of spindly near translucent creatures who shuttle back and forth in biological and historical time from modern pipe-smoking or bejeweled hominids to ciliated protozoan in urgent need of the life support of food and sex. And Miró's central figure of Mother Nature, with her huge, treetrunk genitals and her paramecium head, provided Rothko with a prehistoric deity who often presided over the mythic lands he conjured up for a swarm of images which usually went untitled but which, when named, might turn out to be the Jewish female demon, Lilith. Rothko's own penchant for a hazy, Northern ambiance, where blurred, frail shapes at once coalesce and evaporate, was at opposite poles from Miró's Mediterranean clarity of light, shadow, and contour; but this one drawing, at least, could meet Rothko halfway, if only by accident. The incomplete product of many changing ideas at a critical moment in Miró's evolution, THE FAMILY is atypically clouded by visible ghosts of earlier, partly erased drawings that hover like X-rays in the background. For Rothko, this shadowy sense of after-image and atmosphere must have been compatible with his own evocations of a filmy, submarine environment whose dimly discernible inhabitants might vanish in the strong sunlight which customarily floõds Miró's art.

I shouid aiso like to point out another particular Surrealist source, a book which, published in New York in 1943 by Curt Valentin (whose gallery was central to the New York art world's beaten path), must have generated many of the humanoid fantasies of Rothko and his colleagues. This was André Masson's Anatomy of My Universe, an illustrated encycopedia of mythic beings who race across history and prehistory to create hybrid imaginary species, within human molds, of everything from plants, trees, insets, and reptiles to demons, astrolabes, and architecture. These metamorphic images, teemingly abundant in their variations, seem to reverberate in many of Rothko's totemic figures of 1944-46, and most fruitfully in one of the most ambitious and successful of these works, SLOW SWIRL AT THE EDGE OF THE SEA of 1944. As Diane Waldman suggested in her Rothko catalogue, this large oil painting may be a symbolic portrait of the artist and his wife-to-be, but the male-female couple on the water's edge is so potently mythologized that it can evoke, like Masson's inventions endless duos of universal Adams and Eves, or biological diagrams describing sexual differentiation, or even awesome nature deities from some primitive culture, like the large Navaho sand painting of the Sky Father and the Earth Mother recreated in l941 for the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition, "Indian Art of the United States." But for all its suggestions of Masson and Miró, of tribal totems and even of American colleagues like Gorky, Gottlieb, and Pollack (whose MALE AND FEMALE of 1942 precedes and parallels Rothko's image), SLOW SWIRL AT THE EDGE OF THE SEA seems now fully to repay its debts, creating a personal world of mysterious fixity and solemnity in which we feel the subliminal ripples of timeless nature—the trinity of sand, sea, sky—as a setting for the magnetic forces of coupling and sexuality that echo light-years backward from a pair of modern human beings to deep and terrifying roots in biology, myth, magic. Figure and landscape, anatomy and pictograph, substance and atmosphere fuse and plummet, with science-fiction speed, towards a veiled, primordial world. Everything, from the muted evasive colors of the shimmering spiderweb of gossamer angled and rounded lines, conjures up a Book of Genesis universe of as yet unformed images. In its stark confrontation, its ritualistic symmetry, and its exquisitely changing nuances of vibrant shape, tone, and feeling, SLOW SWIRL offers the fullest synthesis of Rothko's ambitions up to 1944, as well as the richest prophecy of the abstract work to come.

For it is inevitable that many of these works will intrigue us as prefigurations of the later Rothko. For instance, one may trace here, via the motif of a "primeval landscape"—to use Rothko's own title for a painting of 1945—the evolution toward that elemental format of floating horizontal strata that make us feel we are facing something akin to this planet on the day of its creation or perhaps on the day after its apocalyptic obliteration. Or one may follow the gradual mastery of fluid and translucent pictorial techniques, whether in oil or watercolor, that make us sense that the very nature of organic process has been seized, as if the image were somehow changing quietly before our eyes, reforming its shapes and altering its colors against a deeper, concealed structure that conveys a total, ultimate stillness. And if one is concerned with the covert religious drama of the late works, especially in the Houston Chapel, there are many overt glimpses here of these preoccupations with Christian tragedy, as in CETHSEMANE of 1945 or a version of THE ENTOMBMENT, a theme essayed with several variations in 1946. And in the same solemn domain, there are surprising adumbrations of the monastic, grisaille tonalities we tend to attribute too exclusively to the penultimate works. For instance, an untitled oil of 1945, aheady establishes the funereal tiers of black and grey that will recur with an even greater sense of renunciation in many works of 1969-70. And if there are hints here of the total darkness and asceticism to come, there are equal celebrations of Rothko's opposing impulse toward an almost Epicurean sensibility of color, in which unnamable, fragile hues blossom and waft away within a steamy hothouse atmosphere. Rothko, the monk, versus Rothko, the voluptuary, are already at odds here, as they will continue to be throughout the 1950's and 1960's.

But if we are tempted mainly to read these works as evolutionary, embryonic previews of the great Rothkos we know so much better, they are also beginning to look backwards to traditions of modern art much older than the Surrealist movement, which may be claimed as their most immediate source. I am thinking particularly of their many affinities with the Symbolist aesthetic and goals of the late 19th century, which so often attempted to conjure up, as in a seance, the most elusive, mysterious states of feeling through a vocabulary of evanescent shapes, colors, and tones, and which equally eschewed any contact with the vulgar realities of the contemporary world and its material contents. Even the iconography of many maior and minor artists of the Symbolist school foreshadows Rothko's own concerns, whether we consider Redon's Darwinian dreams of submarine or botanical mutations from which human heads may blossom; Gauguin's anthropological speculations about the common universe of myth and mysticism shared by all distant faiths, whether Christian, Maori, or Buddhist; or Munch's terrifying sense of conflict between the human race in the modern world and the overpowering forces of eternal nature, often symbolized as a sperm cell, an image that Rothko himself, a half-century later, would amplify in his own meditations upon the unicellular origins of life, But doubtless Rothko's Surrealist period will go on disclosing a complex network of connections with its past and its future. Its high seriousness, its search for forms and symbols that could awaken a sense of awe and tragedy not only assured the emotional gravity of the abstract art that, after 1947 , absorbed these mysterious hieroglyphs, but also revealed Rothko's place in a long tradition of modern artists who grappled with an encyclopedic repertory of symbols culled from biology and anthropology in a heroic effort to convey the ultimates of life, death, and faith.

  • Essays — Notes on Rothko's Surrealist Years, by Robert Rosenblum, Oct 18, 2023