You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting. (Daniel 5:27)

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In 1970, on the cold morning of 25 February, the body of the painter, Mark Rothko, was found in his cavernous Manhattan studio. He had overdosed on barbiturates, and cut an artery in his right arm with a razor blade. He was found in a pool of blood six by eight feet wide, wearing long johns and thick black socks. He left no note. He was 66.

Mark Rothko was born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in Dvinsk in the Russian Empire (current day Latvia), the youngest of four siblings. His parents vacillated between atheism and faith, eventually sending Markus to the cheder, a traditional Jewish school for children, from the age of five, where he learned to speak Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. English was his fourth language, which he learned after immigrating to America. Rothko excelled at academics and graduated from Portland's Lincoln High School in 1921. He attended Yale University, studying both the liberal arts and the sciences until he left without graduating in 1923. He then moved to New York City and studied briefly at the Art Students League. In 1929 Rothko started teaching at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center.

In the mid-20th century, he belonged to a circle of New York-based artists (also including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock) who became known as the Abstract Expressionists.

He reconciled Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas with Greek tragedy as the primary focus of his painting, believing that art must liberate the unconscious in the same manner as mythological symbols and rituals once had. “The exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art.”

Rothko was generally hostile to critics, and remained highly protective of his memory and paintings. His surrealist works received a negative review from the New York Times following their installation at Macy’s department store in New York City in 1942. With painter Adolph Gottlieb, Rothko issued a response to their criticism, “we favour the simple expression of the complex thought. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” He stated his work must “insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration.”

"The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point."

Beginning in 1943, Rothko shifted away from Surrealism, toward the abstracted colour landscape style of Clyfford Still, with whom he had begun a close friendship. He articulated the end of his surrealist experimentation with unconscious symbolism of form: “I insist upon the equal existence of the world engendered in the mind and the world engendered by God outside of it…I quarrel with surrealists and abstract art only as one quarrels with his father and mother; recognizing the inevitability and function of my roots, but insistent upon my dissent; I, being both they, and an integral completely independent of them.”

Rothko provided precise directions for viewing his late period paintings. He suggested that the viewer stand eighteen inches away from the canvas in order to encounter the intimacy, immediacy, authority of the individual, and a sense of the unknown. He explained that his works must be hung relatively low, so that they faced the viewer’s body completely; viewers were to occupy the room in which the paintings were hung only one or two persons at a time, to allow for complete immersion in the painting.

The artist grew increasingly protective of his paintings and of his methods as his career evolved. He even hid his techniques from his assistants in his studio. Using ultraviolet analysis, conservators have discovered egg, glue, formaldehyde, and acrylic resins mixed into his pigments.
With his financial success booming, “Fortune” magazine referred to a Rothko painting as a good investment in 1955. In response, friends Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still branded Rothko a sell-out, wounding him and sending him into a deep depression. He fell further into isolation and seclusion despite substantial commercial success and having become a father with his second wife, Mell Beistle.

In the 1960s, Rothko began to paint in darker colours, especially maroon, brown and black.

“There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend. One day the black will swallow the red” Mark Rothko at the height of his career lecturing Ken, his loyal assistant, in John Logan’s play “RED” foretelling his tragic end.

John Logan captured accurately the difficult character and the genius of Rothko portrayed by a formidable Dennis Kozeluh right up to sacrificing the hair on his crown so to emulate the bald plate of the artist. An uncanny similarity exists by the way between him and the actor J.K. Simmons, as I told him over a glass of sekt, whom he actually knows personally. What made me think about Simmons were the characters he, Kozeluh and Simmons respectively portrayed. There J.K. Simmons, the hard and sometimes cruel taskmaster Terence Fletcher in the movie “Whiplash” and here Dennis Kozeluh as the equally hard and sometimes cruel Mark Rothko. David Rodriguez-Yanez, who played Ken, receiving this often unpleasant treatment by Rothko, was incredible in his performance of the timid applicant for the post of assistant to this great master who transformed over time into a self-confident and assertive individual, standing his ground but finally was only ready to spread his wings of independence once his employer fired him.

Meeting the magnificent Dennis Kozeluh, David unfortunately could not stay, together with the Director, the ever effervescent Joanna Godwin-Seidl (I can’t count how often I have already called her that), was a privilege, who patiently answered the many questions put by our interested members as always expertly moderated by our Vice - President Dr Alexander Christiani.

This is already my seventh report from the Theater Drachengasse!. What shall I say to all those who have turned down last night’s invitation? You missed a superb performance and great theatre. On top of the excellent hospitality, a large variety of tasty canapés and plenty of Hochriegl sekt, all courtesy Café Ministerium!

I finish with a scene which was repeated twice, once at the beginning and once towards the end of the play. Ken was urged by Mark Rothko to move close and closer still towards a painting and was asked: “What do you see?” to which Ken replied “RED.”

Wolfgang Geissler


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