Catalogue_2021_ROTHKO_v02_4x5-High Resolution — 300 dpi

The Friction In Between

by Eleanor Nairne

Published Wednesday, Oct 18, 2023

This text appears in a catalogue produced by Pace Publishing on the occasion of the exhibition Mark Rothko 1968: Clearing Away at Pace Gallery in London.

Absence turns thicker, muscled by its strain.

Denise Riley, "Hiding in plain sight"

What happens in the sliver of space between things? The scumbled edge of one mass of color as it hovers like a rain cloud over its sib- ling below? Or, if we were to drop into that haze of precipitation, the breath between the layers that Mark Rothko applied wet on wet: the egg-yolk glaze, the washes of paint thinned down with turpentine, the barely perceptible film of resin allowing each swatch of color to sing, the translucent sizing saturating the thick-toothed cotton canvas beneath? [1]

Marcel Duchamp called this liminal space the inframince or “infra-slim.” In his notes on the concept, published in View in March 1945, he gave a string of poetic examples, such as “the excess of pressure on an elec- tric switch” and “the music which corduroy trousers, like these, make when one moves.” [2] There is, in other words, a creative friction produced in the space where surfaces rub up against each other, which Duchamp recognized as a means to “pass from the second to the third dimension.” [3]

Both men might have described their artistic role as a cross between that of a prophet, a cook, and an alchemist: shifting dimensions was the Holy Grail. Duchamp translated his French term as “slim” because he liked how the English word had “human, affective connotations, and is not exactly a laboratory measure.” [4] Rothko—whose father was a pharmacist—must have stunned the students at Pratt Institute in November 1958 when he offered up his “recipe” for a work of art: they would need just seven simple items, beginning with “a clear preoccupation with death” and ending with a dose of ten percent hope, “to make the tragic concept more endurable.” [5]

In between, his listed ingredients included sensuality—“a lustful relationship to things that exist”—“wit and play,” and “the ephemeral and chance.” [6] The last two couplings he described as being “for the human element” in an unconscious echo of Duchamp’s vocabulary of amateur physics. When I look at Kay Bell Reynal’s photograph of Rothko leaning against his studio ladder in 1952, I think of the soft geometries of his paintings, but also the horizontal dashes running vertically up a measuring cup, as if the man has been framed by the carefully balanced recipe that he offered up to those students at Pratt.

Did Rothko still think of himself as Markus, the youngest Rothkowitz boy, who had made his way in 1913, at the age of ten, from Dvinsk in Russia (now Latvia) to Portland, Oregon? The early twentieth century was a great age for nominal reinvention—Vostanik Manoug Adoian became Arshile Gorky, Lena Krassner became Lee Krasner, and Phillip Goldstein became Philip Guston—and somehow they still championed it as the triumph of American painting. [7] As a child, Rothko spoke Yiddish and Russian, and since he was thirty-seven years old when he adopted his noir moniker (which has the ring of “Greta Garbo,” the chosen name of another rebranded émigré), there must have been a lurking sense of cultural dislocation. [8]

Or at the very least, a residual sensitivity to the dark culture of his new home: “The whole problem in art is how to establish human values in this specific civilization.” [9] Rothko had settled in New York in 1925, studied briefly with Max Weber at the Art Students League, played his part for the Works Progress Administration, transitioned through more figurative phases, but shrugged off these styles around 1949 when he finessed his luminous oblongs, suspended over carefully accented backgrounds. “My current pictures are involved,” he explained, “with the scale of human feelings the human drama as much of it as I can express” (emphasis the artist’s own). [10]

Yet Rothko also learned that his performance could be amplified by being carefully contained: “There is more power in telling little than in telling all.” [11] Sometimes the rich forms that emanate from his canvases feel like spaces to sink into, and other times they feel like boarded-up exits, creating a sense of claustrophobia. Perhaps he wanted to give both impressions simultaneously: a shallow alcove that would offer cover but not accommodation. When the painter Grace Hartigan saw the Rothko in Robert Meyerhoff’s collection, she declared: “And the aggressiveness of reticence.” [12] One source of inspiration had been the “blind” windows of Michelangelo’s vestibule in the Laurentian Library in Florence—a perfect symbol of frustration, these windows that could never open to the light and air of the world beyond.

There was something increasingly visceral about Rothko’s palette, too. The evocation of the body could be literal, as in the maroon of oxidized blood or the tender purple of a bruised forearm; but often it was the glistening of the medium, as much as the pigment suspended within it, that seemed to insinuate human form. Viola Frey recalled how, when she was taught by Rothko at Tulane University in the summer of 1957, he spoke of painting “the sensation of a red apple against a red tablecloth.” [13] He may never have considered himself to be a colorist per se, but here was an artist with the power to conjure—using color alone—the texture of a fruit, with waxy skin and moist flesh, set against the fibers of a fabric dyed apple red.

That was the year when a cloud came over Rothko’s paintings and he felt drawn to making darker, brooding work. In spring 1958, he was commissioned to make a suite of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson to be the headquarters for the Seagram & Sons distillers. The architecture was a glittering trophy of the International Style: 515 feet (157 meters) of glass skyscraper, set within a pink granite plaza at 375 Park Avenue. Rothko began to think of the subversive possibilities of his work hanging in the heart of this plush “canteen.” In a note written around 1960, he describes how there had always been “the hope that I would paint something which they could not endure.” [14]

How could he have felt otherwise? The cool rationalism of this corporate spectacle was the antithesis of everything Rothko sought to achieve in his painting: a dark, romantic sublime. Looking around at his contemporaries, Robert Motherwell characterized his fellow “Irascibles” as “ill at ease” in the universe, which made them “rebellious, individualistic, unconventional, sensitive, irritable” and created a craving for “felt experience—intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid.” [15] How would all this formidable expression sit within a lavish restaurant cooed over by the New York Times food critic as “expensive and opulent”? [16]

The question would need no answer, as Rothko withdrew his murals and returned his fee—the friction was too much to endure. After dinner at the restaurant with his wife, Mell, he announced to his studio assistant that “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine” (oh, cruel posterity). [17] The setting for his works had always felt critical because the subject matter needed sympathetic conditions to emerge; these were paintings that could be injured by the wrong kind of company. Rothko was reluctant to lend his work to group shows and increasingly fastidious about their display in museums and galleries.

Several of the Seagram paintings were included in his retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in 1961. The curator Peter Selz described in his catalogue essay how visitors were confronted with the sheer scale of Rothko’s work: “We no longer look at a painting as we did in the nineteenth century; we are meant to enter it, to sink into its atmosphere of mist and light or to draw it around us like a coat— or a skin.” [18] To create this effect, Rothko specified that he wanted the paintings hung low, against white walls warmed considerably with umber, and cast in a dim light that would recreate the magic of the gloaming, when color seems to come into its own.

A curator might well consider these decisions within their remit, and the artist Herbert Ferber recalled how the two men had “a terrific fight . . . because Selz tried to light them strongly. And Rothko went around . . . lowering the wattage on the lamps.” [19] Even when the exhibition was open to the public, Rothko’s daughter, Kate, remembers her father visiting every day to lower the lights. [20] Perhaps that’s why a note accompanied the show’s journey to the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in October, with “suggestions” from Mr. Rothko regarding the installation. There was the wall color that must not be too white, or it would turn the works “greenish because of [their] predominance of red”; the injunction to hang the pictures no higher than six inches from the floor; and, perhaps most important, the proportions of the gallery for the Seagram murals, which he felt it would be “highly desirable” to recreate. [21]

These stipulations reveal Rothko’s acute awareness of how carefully he needed to handle the encounter between his artwork and the beholder. As early as 1947 he had written that “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky act to send it out into the world.” [22] Nothing short of the mortality of his artwork was at stake. Scale had also become a critical part of his equation for how to relate to the viewer. While some saw the larger format of the so-called Abstract Expressionists as bombastic, Rothko felt it was human. As Selz implied with his vocabulary of “the environment,” this was painting that immersed the viewer in the drama of the human condition.

What to do then when an aortic aneurism in the spring of 1968 forced Rothko’s doctors to insist that he make nothing larger than forty inches in height? He had just returned from a miserable period in Berkeley, California, which accentuated his feeling adrift; as Brian O’Doherty has written, the swinging West Coast scene could hardly have been less hospitable, this world in which “a somewhat bemused eccentricity was prized. If you wanted to paint with jam that would be fine.” [23] Reaching for a new direction, Rothko decided to experiment with works on paper, many of which were then adhered to Masonite panels. “The hollow in . . . between the front and back of a thin sheet of paper,” Duchamp declared in his inframince notes: “to be studied!” [24]

Paper has an inherently skin-like quality borne of its vulnerability; an artist is all too aware of the risk that it might tear or buckle or fox or mottle or simply fall apart. Rothko had worked with the medium throughout his career: during the 1920s and 1930s alone, he made more than fifteen hundred figurative works in sketchbooks and on loose sheets. He made diaphanous, biomorphic scenes in the 1940s and occasional studies in the following two decades for his radiant rectangles: the beauty is startling in a drawing such as Untitled (1961), the simple line laced into a knowing form, stained with wet ink. When Rothko was negotiating with Norman Reid about several of the Seagram murals going to the Tate Gallery, he made miniature versions on construction paper and arranged them to achieve “the greatest eloquence and poignancy” in the museum’s gallery 18. [25] But by 1968, he was working almost exclusively on paper, which was a different kind of business.

There is a temptation, of course, to view these later works through the pallid light of Rothko’s imminent suicide in February 1970. Look at the bleak regression of blue black into black, or the sobriety of some of his earthen colors. We have to encourage ourselves to remember that Rothko had always devoted himself to “expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions.” [26] The colors tell a more complex story, too. There is the cherry pink of Untitled (1968) for example, with its band of ghostly white hovering on the horizon line; or the chalky lavender of Untitled (1969) with its emotive scuffed edges, skirting the untouched paper surround.

This painterly quality was unusual for Rothko. Earlier on, when he was using thick decorators’ brushes, he worked hard to ensure all traces of himself and his tools were erased. He did not want the theater of the experience to be ruptured by an awareness of how he had constructed the scene. Any remnant of his efforts—a fingerprint, say, or a stray hair from a brush—risked returning his viewer to the “circle of things” (as Kazimir Malevich so memorably called our Capitalist clutter) from which Rothko wanted to withdraw his painting and, by extension, those lost in it. Increasingly the artist—once so verbose—drew quiet too, perhaps wanting to sweep vocabulary away from the ineffable qualities of his work. Robert Goldwater describes their last exchanges as “fragmentary, brief, punctuated with long and heavy silences.” [27]

It was around this time that the artist Jacob Kainen recalls bumping into Rothko and noticing “a fleck of blue acrylic on his forehead. It was very faint but I knew it was acrylic and I said ‘oh, you’re using acrylic.’ He said, ‘I’m using everything.’” [28] The curt response reflects how jealously Rothko guarded the secrets of his studio, but also perhaps his self-consciousness about working with a material that distanced him from the oils of his beloved forebears—from Rembrandt to Turner—and aligned him with younger artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, who were using the acrylics that had recently appeared on the market to achieve greater brilliance of hue.

What did it mean to use a “synthetic” material when Rothko was so committed to the idea of authentic expression? Lee Krasner abhorred the new quick-drying paints for exactly that reason, damning them as “opaque, dense, dead as a doornail,” especially when compared to the sensuousness of oil paint. [29] Perhaps that was precisely the point for Rothko. However much they were thinned, acrylics would sit proudly on the surface of the paper, rather than recede into an illusory depth. These works, especially given their more intimate scale, give the impression of something precious offered up for meditation, rather than an immersion into the space of meditation itself.

The quality of touch recalls Rothko’s tribute to his mentor Milton Avery: he spoke of his friend’s “sheer loveliness” and tipped his cap to the courage that it had required in “a generation which felt that it could be heard only through clamor.” Avery, he noted, “had that inner power in which gentleness and silence proved more audible and poignant.” [30] The opacity of acrylic carries its own silence, a resistance to being any- thing other than what it is. Perhaps, then, what Rothko holds out to us in the palm of these late paintings is not so much the power of transubstantiation as the reach toward it; this is work muscled by its strain. We look at neither paint nor reverie—not quite the material or the immaterial—but the shimmering half-light in the seam between the two.


  1. Rothko guarded the secrets of his materials and techniques, which, of course, differed from work to work and across the years. Those described here are based on the conservation analysis of the Seagram murals now in the collection of Tate Modern, London. See Rachel Barker and Bronwyn Ormsby, “Conserving Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon 1958: The Construction of a ‘Representative Sample’ and the Removal of Graffiti Ink,” Tate Papers, no. 23 (Spring 2015), (opens in a new window)
  2. Marcel Duchamp, “Notes on the Infra-Slim,” View 5, no. 1, (March 1945), np.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Mark Rothko, “Address to Pratt Institute” (November 1958), reproduced in Miguel-López-Remiro, ed., Writings on Art: Mark Rothko (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 125–26.
  6. Ibid.
  7. One of the first histories of Abstract Expressionism to be written was Irving Sandler’s The Triumph of American Painting (New York: Harper and Row, 1970).
  8. Markus Rothkowitz changed his name to Mark Rothko for a group exhibition at Neumann Willard Gallery in 1940; he legally registered the change in 1959.
  9. Rothko, “Address to Pratt Institute,” 126.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Oral history interview with Robert E. Meyerhoff, 11–12 December 2014. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  13. Oral history interview with Viola Frey, 27 February–19 June 1995. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  14. Mark Rothko, untitled manuscript reproduced in Achim Borchardt-Hume, ed., Rothko, exh. cat. (London: Tate Modern, 2008), 95.
  15. Robert Motherwell, “Symposium: What Abstract Art Means to Me,” Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18, no. 3 (Spring, 1951), 12.
  16. Craig Claiborne, “Food News: Dining in Elegant Manner; Four Seasons Termed Spectacular Both in Décor and Menu,” New York Times, October 2, 1959.
  17. Quoted in “Dan Rice Interviewed by Arne Glimcher” (September 22, 1978), in Mark Rothko, The 1958–1959 Murals: Second Series, exh. cat. (New York: Pace Gallery, 1978), np.
  18. Peter Selz, “Mark Rothko,” in Mark Rothko, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1961), 10.
  19. Oral history interview with Herbert Ferber, 2 June 1981. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  20. Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel, “Artist Mark Rothko,” October 2019, American Masters Podcast, episode 37, (opens in a new window)
  21. Mark Rothko, “Instructions for Exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1961, Suggestions from Mr. Mark Rothko Regarding Installation of His Paintings,” archive, Whitechapel Gallery, London.
  22. Mark Rothko, in “The Idea of Art: The Attitudes of Ten Artists on Their Art and Contemporaneousness,” Tiger’s Eye, no. 2 (December 1947), 44.
  23. Brian O’Doherty, “Chamber Music in the Next Room,” in Mark Rothko: The Last Paintings, exh. cat. (New York: PaceWildenstein, 1994), np.
  24. Duchamp, “Notes on the Infra-Slim,” np.
  25. Mark Rothko, letter to Normal Reid, September 4, 1966, archive, Tate Gallery, London.
  26. Mark Rothko, in “Notes from a Conversation with Selden Rodman,” (1956), reproduced in López-Remiro, Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, 119.
  27. Robert Goldwater, “Rothko’s Black Paintings,” Art in America, no. 59 (March–April 1971), 58–63.
  28. Oral history interview with Jacob Kainen, 10 August–22 September 1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  29. Quoted in Eleanor Nairne, ed., Lee Krasner: Living Colour, exh. cat. (London: Thames & Hudson and Barbican Art Gallery, 2019), 83.
  30. Mark Rothko, Tribute to Milton Avery (handwritten speech), 1965. Milton Avery papers, 1926–1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Essays — The Friction In Between, by Eleanor Nairne, Oct 18, 2023