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Paintings That Pray

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MOCA’S Mark Rothkos

Through January 21, 2007

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA

Pacific Design Center,

8687 Melrose Avenue, W. Hollywood, CA

(310) 289-5223,



         In a 1934 article, titled “New Training for Future Artists and Art Lovers,” Mark Rothko drew upon his experience teaching at the Brooklyn Jewish Academy to explore a new model of art instruction. In the article, which was published in the Brooklyn Jewish Center Review 14 (February-March 1934), Rothko argued that although many think of painting as a complicated process with many rules of engagement, it is in fact a natural language, which children often know innately. Although children and adults alike employ the “common medium” of speech in narrating stories and events, and indulging in correspondence – “sometimes with great feeling and artistry” – Rothko felt that “we do not feel that our expression in this medium is dependent on our knowledge of grammar, syntax or the rules of rhetoric.”


         But Rothko noted that although we allow for fluid speech without allowing ourselves to get bogged down by grammar, we often try to hold painting to a higher standard. “Painting is just as natural a language as singing or speaking,” he wrote. “It is a method of making a visible record of our experience, visual or imaginative, colored by our own feelings and reactions and indicated with the same simplicity and directness as singing or speaking.”


         To prove his somewhat controversial point, Rothko instructed his readers not to trust his eyes, but to observe for themselves. “If you do not believe this, watch these children work, and you will see them put forms, figures and views into pictorial arrangements, employing of necessity most of the rules of optical perspective and geometry, but without the knowledge that they are employing them. They do so in the same manner as they speak, unconscious that they are using the rules of grammar.”


         I discovered a similar innate ability in young children to arrange compositions and colors in my experience teaching in an arts immersion program at PS 173 in Washington Heights for three years. Many students who were struggling with their writing and reading skills managed to find their voice in puppet making, printmaking or drawing. This theory of child rearing dates at least as far back as Socrates, who argued in Meno that his ability to demonstrate that a slave boy – illiterate to be sure – grasps higher geometry suggests that people innately know everything. To Socrates, some people forget, and they simply need to be helped to remember.


Mark Rothko. “No. 9 (Dark over light Earth/violet and yellow in Rose)”, 1954 Oil on Canvas, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, The Panza Collection © 1998. Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.



         Midrashic texts account for this phenomenon by explaining that an angel teaches the entire body of ritual texts to an infant in utero and then strikes the infant beneath the nose (thus the indentation), causing the infant to forget. The Midrashic position, then, is that we spend our lives reacquainting ourselves with knowledge lost rather than gathering new knowledge.


         This model of seeing and apprehending the world is the model with which Rothko hoped viewers would not only appreciate his students’ work, but also his own. The current Rothko show at MOCA contains eight major paintings drawn from different stages of Rothko’s career.


         Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz (1903-1970), was born in Latvia to secular Jews, but his father Jacob – a pharmacist by trade – reconnected with his religious roots and became a practicing Orthodox Jew in response to Russian pogroms that targeted Jews. Some unsubstantiated accounts suggest that Rothko’s later work was based in part upon his memories of mass graves and executions of Jews that surfaced in his later paintings as large rectangular forms. Jacob – who spoke Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew – sent his son Marcus to cheder (or to a private tutor, or both), where he would have learnt Gemara. He affiliated with the Jewish artist group, “The Ten”, and also taught at another Jewish school in Far Rockaway.


         In an article in these pages on December 19, 2003, Richard McBee cited Rabbi Chaim Brovender, who referred to Rothko’s work in Jewish terms: “He poured his neshamah into these pictures.” Matthew Baigell (2006) sees references to Jewish burial rites, the Holocaust and Merkaba mysticism in Rothko’s work, and he addressed Rothko’s painting, Street Scene, which shows children protected by a figure whose beard turns into a talit.


Mark Rothko. “No. 61 (Rust and Blue)”, 1953 Oil on Canvas, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, The Panza Collection © 1998. Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.



         According to Baigell, Rothko would often paint small chapels for free, although he refused to exhibit in Germany, which he held forever tainted by the Holocaust. Indeed, Baigell quotes the wife of one of Rothko’s friends, who recalls that Rothko broke a friendship with her husband over the German-Soviet Pact of 1939. “Rothko feared the persecution of Jews wherever it might be, and I think that was very paramount in his political attitudes – how the Jews were being treated,” she wrote.


         Rothko’s Jewish experience surfaces in his works, which Ori Soltes suggests engender a “distinctly meditative, spiritual ambiance” (2005). The pieces in the MOCA show are expertly arranged so as to engage in dialogue with each other from across the room. “No. 9 (Dark over light Earth/violet and yellow in Rose)” (1954) shows two rectangles floating on an orange/brown background. Although black-colored objects often look like heavy weights that are prone to sink to the bottom of the canvas, Rothko’s black rectangle atop the canvas seems to float upwards (like Chagall’s figures which fly), while a yellow rectangle in the bottom region of the canvas anchors the higher rectangle so that it does not soar too high.


         Close inspection of “No. 9,” and the other paintings in the exhibit, yields no literal Jewish content. For this reason, Rothko is always the specter lurking about any discussion of Jewish art. Critics and historians always want to talk about Rothko, but it is hard to admit him into discussions without finding some literal or metaphorical content in his work.


         Yet, viewers who take the time to stand in front of Rothko’s paintings and observe them will find that the paintings carry very powerful meditative components. It would be hard to ascribe a color and a form to ones prayers (kavanah), but Rothko’s work attempts to achieve that spiritual awareness. Instead of referring to Jewish content or themes, Rothko’s paintings aspire to be Jewish paintings. They always remind me of the story of the young boy who could not read the Yom Kippur prayer book, so he instead whistled (or played a flute). Inspecting Rothko’s paintings will not fulfill the obligation of praying, but like the boy who used his own manner of prayer, Rothko used painting to create works that derived from introspection and meditation.


         Note: All quotes from “New Training” derive from Miguel Lopez-Remiro’s Writings on Art: Mark Rothko (Yale UP: 2006). For much of the biographical information, I am indebted to American Artists, Jewish Images by Matthew Baigell (Syracuse UP, 2006), Seeing Rothko: Issues & Debates by Glenn Phillips and Thomas Crow (Getty, 2005), and Ori Z. Soltes’ Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century (Brandeis UP, 2003).


        Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com 

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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