When looking at the span of 20th-century art history, the work of Mark Rothko and Joseph Cornell would seem to have little in common. Although born only three months apart, Rothko’s dark, brooding and expansive canvases seem at odds with the intimate, imaginative worlds created by Cornell. Yet, the two artists shared a belief that art has the capacity to evoke a transcendent experience in the viewer. It takes a collector with a farsighted and deep understanding of art history to bring together the works of such quality as those acquired by François and Susan de Menil. Rothko’s majestic Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum), and the four exemplary works by Joseph Cornell demonstrates the breadth of postwar American art, and also the deep connections, between these fascinating and highly influential artists.
Both born in 1903, Mark Rothko and Joseph Cornell would become two of the defining figures of 20th-century art. Rothko’s canvases would eventually come to define the gestural abstraction of the New York School, he was perhaps the most spiritually minded of all the abstract expressionist artists. Initially inspired by the surrealist movement, the artist’s early works featured mythical symbols and forms which he eventually abandoned in favor of an increasingly abstract style, and by 1946 he had begun the luminous fields of radiant color for which he became justly famous.
Like Rothko, the origins of Cornell’s work also lay in Surrealism. In the basement of his home at 3708 Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York, he assembled a vast collection of trinkets and ephemera—including postcards, clippings from books and magazines, postage stamps, clay pipes, small glass vessels, birds’ nests and other objects—organized into boxes and albums that all contained a vast array of pictorial delights. Playing to his natural talent for arranging unexpected items in intriguing combinations, Cornell at first merely sought to transform small palm-sized, lidded boxes as pill cases, jewelry boxes or cases that used to contain scientific instruments. Embellishing these containers with the contents of his basement, he soon progressed from the tiny relics to the large, altarpiece-like boxes that captured people’s imaginations.
Although working in two very different styles of artistic practice, both artists were highly respectful of each other’s work. They were both represented by Betty Parsons in the nascent days of her gallery in the 1940s, and their paths would cross as they attended openings, exhibitions and other art events throughout the city. Cornell visited Rothko’s studio, and after learning that he was an admirer of Fra Angelico, Cornell sent a book about the Early Renaissance painter as a gift to Rothko’s daughter Kate; in return, Rothko’s wife sent Cornell a delightful paper angel that Kate had made for their Christmas tree. In 1959, Rothko wrote to Cornell, saying, “I wish I could approach your genius for expressing to people how much you think about them and about what they do. […] I do want to tell you that I think of you and the uncanny magic of the things you make.” In return, Cornell had often expressed his admiration for Rothko, and when once asked who his favorite abstract painter was, Cornell replied “Rothko’s paintings are very beautiful.”
Despite their apparent differences, the works of Mark Rothko and Joseph Cornell are linked by a deep sense of spirituality. In her biography on Cornell, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, Deborah Solomon notes that both Rothko and Cornell shared this sense of unworldliness. “Rothko, though not observant,” she notes, “said he wanted his art to recapitulate the sense of awe that had once been associated with the human figure in art. Cornell, too, was after transcendence; for him the metal rings, old photos and other common discards in his boxes were sacred objects. In their desire to ascend to some purer realm, Rothko emptied his work of worldly references while Cornell loaded his work with worldly references.”
Silence as Accuracy
Certain artists have made it impossible to write the history of modernism without them. In the earlier 20th century such towering innovators as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and Marcel Duchamp spring to mind almost at random. Likewise, after 1945 their counterparts include Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon. Without a doubt, Mark Rothko stands firmly in this pantheon. Indeed, since Rothko’s death in 1970 his star has shone still brighter, especially as the full extent of this fecund painter’s achievement grows ever clearer with hindsight. Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum), dating from an important phase in its maker’s creative trajectory, epitomizes Rothko’s style at its mature zenith. The work is poised on the cusp between Rothko’s phenomenal 1950s corpus and the broodingly dramatic effects that began toward their close, evolved during the 1960s and culminated in the mural-scale canvases for the non-denominational Chapel in Houston that bears his name.
The sheer scope of Rothko’s influence itself attests to his enduring importance. In fine art it ranges from Sam Francis, Morris Louis and Agnes Martin to James Turrell, Brice Marden, Anish Kapoor, and many more besides. Elsewhere, suffice it to say that Rothko’s work and life story have attained a momentum of their own, the ripple effects spreading far and wide. Fittingly, in 2013 the Mark Rothko Art Centre opened where its dedicatee had been born 110 years earlier—Daugavpils, Latvia, formerly Dvinsk in the Russian Pale of Settlement—to celebrate his legacy and inspire contemporaries.
From a different angle, Rothko’s image has lent itself to the cinema in both documentary and fiction films, such as Neil Burger’s Limitless (2011), in which a somber red “Rothko” is glimpsed in the background of Robert de Niro’s office, a thought-balloon of sorts; at least one award-winning play, John Logan’s Red (2009); a massive 700-page biography (1993); an ongoing plethora of scholarly publications; and even a popular yet sophisticated television series, Mad Men (2007–2015). In the last, a Madison Avenue advertising firm’s boss owns a Rothko that baffles and fascinates his employees. One character insists, “I’m an artist; it must mean something!” Another speculates, “Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you’re just supposed to experience it.” This repartee is cleverer than it might ostensibly appear. After all, Rothko himself insisted he was “interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions” (S. Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York, p. 93). Previously he had also stated that “no possible set of notes can explain our paintings [by himself and Adolph Gottlieb]. Their explanation must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker” (M. Rothko, A. Gottlieb and B. Newman, Letter to E. A. Jewell, The New York Times, June 13, 1943). By stressing the beholder’s role, Rothko shrewdly placed the onus on our imaginative grasp of what he wished to articulate. He thus facilitated thoughts and feelings as multifarious as our senses and imagination can encompass.
Just as Rothko’s preoccupation with the figure began early, so it prevailed until the end. To overlook this continuity misses the crux of his quest. Simply put, what changed—vastly—was the stylistic means to communicate the fixed goal. During the 1930s Rothko had not only chosen people (including portraits) as his central focus, he also juxtaposed them with architectural elements such as walls, doors, windows, and so forth. The point was to intensify the contrast between life’s sentience versus a bleak world that alienates or threatens it. That is, he already strove to portray the angst-laden human condition. As he subsequently recalled the existential dilemma at stake, “the solitary figure could not raise its limbs in a single gesture that might indicate its concern with the fact of mortality and an insatiable appetite for ubiquitous experience… Nor could the solitude be overcome. It could gather on beaches and streets and in parks only through coincidence, and, with its companions, form a tableau vivant of human incommunicability” (M. Rothko, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” Possibilities 1, Winter 1947/1948, p. 84). Human communication, speech, of course requires sound. The corollary to such a standpoint is that at the time Rothko was lending form to silence. Manifold, lengthy implications arose. Some quarter of a century afterwards, compositions typified by Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) seem hushed, though not mute in any conventional manner, due to their implacable frontality, poise and crepuscular tones. This Mozart aficionado understood brilliantly how to play sotto voce.
A related iconographic thread ties Rothko’s youthful output to his later oeuvre. We see it in the New York subway set pieces (he lived fairly near the Nostrand Avenue stop in Brooklyn) from the second half of the 1930s. There, flattened protagonists are either dwarfed or trapped by their surroundings. In the best-known of the series, Entrance to Subway (1938)—the single example from the period that Rothko chose for his Museum of Modern Art, New York, retrospective held the very year before the painting at auction now—they take the stairs to a lower platform akin to some descent into an underworld, while faint travelers in the background are silhouetted within a dark rectangular entrance-cum-enclosure. Given that loud noise is a constant in the subway, this and related scenes come across as surprisingly quiescent. Here, personal memories or anxieties may be at issue. Firstly, Rothko in adulthood claimed to remember from his Russian childhood a rectangular pit in which Jews had been buried during a pogrom (it may have been a fantasy, if nevertheless heartfelt). Secondly, he was obsessed with Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library vestibule, “which achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after—he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall” (J. Fischer, “The Easy Chair, Mark Rothko: Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Man,” Harper’s Magazine 241, July 1970, p. 16). Rothko made this observation in 1959 and the following year explained that “the dark pictures began in 1957 and have continued almost compulsively to this day” (M. Rothko, quoted in R. Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery, London, 1981, p. 657). In addition, Interior (1936) directly quotes Michelangelo’s tiered, rectilinear architectural framework. Since Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) belongs within the broad category of “the dark pictures,” it demonstrates how Rothko wove diverse strands, as it were, from his recent and distant past into its deceptively straightforward façade. The term “façade” was his own. It blends the architectonic with overtones of revelation and concealment—a façade rises upfront in a building or a face while simultaneously covering what lies behind—alike states associated with how we may talk to one another, openly or tersely. And, remember, art is nothing if not a language.
Then, through the 1940s everything began to change as Rothko shifted from observation, albeit always tinged with an inward eye, to themes stemming from ancient Greek mythology (myths rely heavily upon oral traditions), next fantastical tableaux that reflect his dialogue with the European avant-garde—such as Picasso in his late 1920s “Surrealist” mode, Joan Miró, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí—and finally during 1946–1949 the breakthrough into the so-called “multiforms.” These pulverize the former personages into chromatic hazes. Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea remains a key canvas from around the middle of the decade. Already conspicuous are the horizontal tiers hinting at demarcations between water and land or sky. So is a biomorphic calligraphy that tempers their rigor. Together, this duality yields a new schema built from old factors. In short, life (to revert to Greek etymology, “bio”/life + “morpho”/form) and its antitheses—whether landscape's inherent abstract qualities of light, color and horizontals versus verticality or intimations of mortality (the phrase “rigor mortis” is self-explanatory). Overall, Rothko had now established his canny spatial architectonics. They became the matrix for his indelibly memorable “classic” or signature style from 1950 onwards. Lastly, note the “slow” in the title. It too would persist, yet revised beyond recognition, through the 1960s. How? The answer lies in the way Rothko’s abstract icons manipulate time. On the one hand, the three rectangular expanses of Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) catch our attention immediately because they are large, striking in their deep sonorous hues and vertically symmetrical. On the other hand, the scrims, fine as gauze, cast a veil before our gaze: veils delay recognition of whatever they cover. Similarly, the two darkest mass are not quite pure black. Rather, each inclines subliminally to another color—brown in the largest one and an indefinable perhaps nocturnal terre verte shade in the lowest. It takes time to reckon with these differentials, as it does with the subtlest shifts in the pigment’s reflectivity, the feather-light brushy scumbles and the borders to the shapes that Rothko teased out with infinite care. Muffling the erstwhile rectangular pseudo-geometries, these are “the edgings and inchings of final form”—to borrow from verse with which Rothko was doubtless familiar (W. Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, New York, 1999, p. 488). Insofar as Wallace Stevens wrote this line in a poem set in the evening, the allusion serendipitously adverts to the artist’s real-life habit of contemplating his pictures as the light faded at dusk. In the process, their coloristic harmonies and contrasts can only have modulated with the same tempo that eventide can take to fall. A “fast” perceptual experience at first glance has turned, upon reflection, into an adagio.
In the Rothko literature, two major touchstones for the classic paintings have been much, and rightly, discussed. Pierre Bonnard and Matisse. In particular, Rothko cannot have missed the former’s memorial retrospective at MoMA in summer 1948, while it is a matter of record that the latter’s Red Studio (1911) in the same museum counted among his favorite artworks for its totalizing command of a single hue. Less explored is the relationship with Claude Monet and Symbolism, which requires further scrutiny.
On his 1950 trip to Paris, Rothko could well have visited the Musée de l’Orangerie with Monet’s eight great Nymphéas (“Water Lilies”) panels, though no hard evidence exists for it. More surely, he must have been attentive when five years later Alfred Barr purchased another of the panels for MoMA. The vital links between the two artists include the engulfing quality to their vaporous tinted fields, time’s suspension as the eye fathoms the layered textures and mistiness, the aquatic subject (Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea ranks among several 1940s titles that allude to oceanic deeps) and the fundamental urge to capture a mood and moment (a word repeatedly cited in Rothko’s unpublished notebooks). Should this sound far-fetched, we need only recall remarks made to David Sylvester: “Often, towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration—all of these at once. I would like my painting to have the quality of such moments” (D. Sylvester, “The Ugly Duckling,” in M. Auping, ed., Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Developments, New York & London, 1987, p. 140). The premonitory, lowering atmosphere applies a fortiori to Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) and in general the dark pictures. The Nymphéas share the Symbolist aesthetic that prized such suggestiveness as well as its apotheosis of the nuance. Rothko’s singular touch—sometimes using relatively small brushes to inflect large, gossamer, tinctured fields and their internal haloes—orchestrated the nuance par excellence. Above all, both Monet and Rothko sought to enfold the spectator in an almost hallucinatory state of consciousness, midway between reverie and rapt emotionalism. Keying their palettes to a specific note, whether a noontide brightness (Rothko’s frequent yellow/orange/red pitch during the 1950s) or a twilit afterglow (his preferred blue/brown/maroon gamut during the 1960s), each artist established an equilibrium between radiance and darkness. In fact, only an oxymoron will describe the indescribable refulgence with which Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) smolders: illuminated shadow.
In closing, the marvel is that Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) manages to condense such complexity—echoes from Rothko’s past, an interaction with the great European masters plus a balance between the easel picture’s intimate dimensions and the magnitude of the murals already done for Harvard University (1961) and those, grander still, that Dominique de Menil would soon commission for Houston (1964), which bookend it chronologically—within its ostensible simplicity. Rothko once famously uttered the pithy dictum, “Silence is so accurate” (M. Rothko, in E. de Kooning, “Two Americans in Action”, Art News Annual 27, 1958, p. 174). François and Susan de Menil’s Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) raises silence to the highest pictorial eloquence, making it speak louder than words.