Mark Rothko, Abstract Expressionism and the Decline of Western Art, Part 1

The life and career of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko is a prototypical Jewish story that encapsulates a range of themes discussed at The Occidental Observer. Central to Rothko’s story is the political radicalism of eastern European Jewish migrants arriving in the United States between 1880 and 1920; the reflexive hostility of these migrants and their descendents to the traditional people and culture of their new homeland, and how this hostility was reflected in the artistic and intellectual currents that dominated Western societies during the twentieth century. Rothko’s story also exemplifies other familiar themes including: the force of Jewish ethnic networking and nepotism in promoting Jewish interests, and the tendency for Jewish “genius” to be constructed by the Jewish intellectual establishment as self-appointed gatekeepers of Western culture.

With Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko has been accorded a leading place in the ranks of the Abstract Expressionists. If there is such a thing as a cult artist among the liberal Jewish intelligentsia, then Rothko is probably it. Important people stand in grave silence before his empty expanses with looks on their faces that bespeak lofty thoughts. As a critic for The Times noted:

Rothko evokes all that could be criticized as most pretentious, most clannish, most pseudish about his spectators. They stand there gravely perusing something that to the outsider probably looks more like a patch of half-stripped wallpaper than a picture and then declare themselves profoundly moved. And many outsiders will start to wonder if they are being duped, if this Modernist emperor actually has no clothes on and his fans are just the blind followers of some aesthetic faith.

For critics like Ottmann, Rothko’s genius is indisputable and he possessed an “extraordinary talent” that enabled him to transfer his metaphysical “impulses to the canvas with a power and magnetism that stuns viewers of his work… In fact Rothko’s skill in achieving this result – whether intentional or not – perhaps explains why he was once called “the melancholic rabbi.”“[i] For prominent Jewish art historian Simon Schama, Rothko’s “big vertical canvasses of contrasting bars of colour, panels of colour stacked up on top of each other” qualify Rothko as “a maker of paintings as powerful and complicated as anything by his two gods – Rembrandt and Turner.” For the ethnocentric Schama “these [Rothko’s] paintings are equivalent of these old masters… Can art ever be more complete, more powerful? I don’t think so.”[ii]

After experimenting with Expressionism and Surrealism, Rothko arrived in 1949 at the signature style that would typify his work until his death by suicide in 1970 at the age of 66. This consisted of two or three floating rectangles of colour painted against a monochrome background. A pioneer of “colour-field” painting, Rothko claimed that only abstract painting could express the “full gravity of religious yearnings and the angst of the human condition.” His final works became so minimalistic (large black canvasses) as to be almost void of any substance.

White Centre (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) by Mark Rothko (1960): Sold at auction in 2007 for $73 million

The Making of Mark Rothko

Born in 1903, Marcus Rothkowitz was the youngest child of pharmacist, Jacob Rothkowitz, and his wife, Anna Goldin Rothkowitz, in the Russian city of Dvinsk (today Daugavpils, Latvia). Dvinsk was located at the time within the Jewish Pale of Settlement. The Pale was then inhabited by five million Jews who were confined there by the Tsar at a time when thousands of Polish Jews came across the border into Russia seeking work. Rothko’s father was the stereotype of the leftwing Jewish intellectual, who presided over a family with an “intense commitment to politics and education.”[iii] He initially preferred secular education for his children, and political over religious involvement. According to Rothko, his father’s relation to formal religion was openly oppositional: “My father was a militant social democrat of the Jewish party, the Bund, which was the social democracy of that time. He was profoundly Marxist and violently anti-religious.”[iv]

That this was chiefly an anti-Christian rather than anti-religious impulse is revealed by the fact that he returned to the Orthodox Jewish fold after Marcus’s birth in response to the pogroms which followed the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. While no pogroms were visited on the Jews of Dvinsk, the town witnessed occasional incidents where Jews were targeted as sympathizers of the Social Democratic and other revolutionary parties.[v] In 1905, according to Rothko’s biographer, Jacob Baal-Teshuva, the young Rothko’s “hometown was under the blanket surveillance of the Tsarist secret police. Jews were the usual victims of reprisals whenever the Cossacks, the loyal followers of the Tsarist state, came into the town to break revolutionary uprisings. Other Jewish communities in the environs of Dvinsk also lived in constant terror of pogroms and massacres. The air was filled with slogans like “Kill the Jews to Save Russia.” This was the atmosphere in which Rothko grew up.”[vi]

While there were no pogroms or mass graves in Dvinsk, Rothko would later say that “as a child he could remember the local Cossacks indulging in their favourite activity – beating up Jews,” and later “claimed to recall dug-up pits in the forests around Dvinsk, where the Cossacks buried Jewish victims they had kidnapped and murdered. These images always plagued him mentally, and he says they exercised a certain influence on his painting.”[vii] Baal-Teshuva forgives Rothko these obvious untruths by pointing out that it is likely “that the child heard adults talking about the pogroms and massacres elsewhere, and in his memory ended up mixing up these stories with his own memories of the nearby woods.”[viii] Nevertheless, he acknowledges that some critics have willingly run with these falsehoods and have “gone so far as to say this explains his preference for rectangular forms in his late works, as a formal echo of the grave.”[ix]

In response to the economic insecurities and political dangers of life in the Pale, Marcus’s father migrated to the United States in 1910. Only in 1913, when Marcus was ten years old, did the rest of the family move to America.[x] Despite the apparent dangers of life for Jews in the Pale, Rothko “referred often to the ‘terrible experience’ of having been torn away from his homeland against his will.”[xi] It has been noted that it was certainly not American culture that attracted the waves of Jewish migrants from Central and Eastern Europe, but only the relatively advantageous conditions created by American economic growth. “They came to America’s shores” notes Muller, “motivated not by religion but in spite of it, their more orthodox leaders being inclined to warn them against the dangers of godless and goyish America.”[xii]

As an educated family and active Zionists, the Rothkowitz family spoke Hebrew in addition to Russian and Yiddish. Whereas the older siblings attended public schools along with many other Jewish children concentrated in one neighbourhood of Portland, father Rothkowitz decided that Marcus would receive a strict religious education. He was sent to a cheder, the religious school run by the synagogue, starting at the age of five, where he was subject to a strict and tiring routine: praying, reading and translation of Hebrew texts, and rote memorization of Talmudic law.[xiii]

Rothkowitz family portrait: Marcus second from the right

Rothko’s parents saw no contradiction in bringing up their son as an Orthodox Jew, a Zionist, and a Communist. This is quite in keeping with Kevin MacDonald’s observation that “within Russian Jewish communities, the acceptance of radical political ideology often coexisted with messianic forms of Zionism as well as intense commitment to Jewish nationalism and religious and cultural separatism, and many individuals held various and often rapidly changing combinations of these ideas.”[xiv]

Baal-Teshuva relates that “after the family had achieved a degree of economic security in Portland, they began to join local chapters of radical movements. The sensitive and rather nervous Marcus was similarly inclined, and increasingly participated in discussions on current affairs. He argued quite skilfully for the right of workers to strike, or for general access to contraception. His entire family was in favour of the Bolshevik Revolution, as Rothko later said.”[xv] This was, of course, very typical, with Jewish historian Norman Cantor noting that “in the first half of the twentieth century, Marxist-Leninist communism ran like an electromagnetic lightning flash through Jewish societies from Moscow to Western Europe, the United States and Canada, gaining the lifelong adherence of brilliant, passionately dedicated Jewish men and women.”[xvi]

Another “Jewish Genius” Gets Stung by the WASPS

Rothko was, according to Schama, very much one of these brilliant Jewish men, and despite his Orthodox Jewish education, was “no Jewish Trappist, but a much more recognizable type (at least to me): loquacious, exuberant, hot-tempered, deeply immersed in literature and history.” While the Orthodox Judaism in which Rothko was schooled was not directly expressed in his art, Schama insists that “once you”ve done cheder – Hebrew school – it never really goes away, however much you try to banish it; nor did it for Marcus. He was what everyone would call, with smiles, both admiring and pitying, a chocom – a know-it-all. And what do chochoms do if they weren’t going to be rabbis?[xvii] He was, Schama insists, “just your super-educated, ungainly, sentimental Jew. In the grip of mighty ideas, he was desperate to tell you all about them, fidgeting on the sofa and waving his arms all around. A big heart and a big mouth to match – you know the type.”[xviii]

Rothko excelled academically at Lincoln High School in Portland, and was a passionate debater for the radical cause, and “went to hear the firecracker orator “Red” Emma Goldman attack capitalism and sing the praises of the Bolshevik Revolution.”[xix]

A youthful influence: Emma Goldman

Schama tells us that Rothko was “scholarship material, and won a place at Yale before the Ivy League decided they were about to be inundated by clever Jews and imposed admission quotas. But, Rothko felt the sting of the WASPS all the same. If they couldn’t actually evict the talky-smart kikes, “those people,’ they could at least make it hard for them to stick around.”[xx] According to Baal-Teshuva, Rothko and his fellow Jewish students from Portland soon discovered the difficulties of gaining social acceptance in a setting where “the majority of generally affluent White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were contemptuous of the Jewish minority.”[xxi] Exactly how these WASP students were supposed (or even remotely likely) to embrace a group who feted Emma Goldman, were deeply hostile to their people and culture, and who longed for the day when a violent revolution would consign them and their kind to the dustbin of history, and elevate Jews like Rothko to their supposedly deserved high status is unclear.

At the end of a year spent studying mostly history of philosophy and psychology, Rothko’s scholarship was rescinded and replaced with a student loan – this event being held ever after as a prime example of the systematic anti-Semitism Rothko confronted at Yale. He lived off-campus with relatives in New Haven, and launched a radical underground newspaper called the Saturday Evening Post “which took aim at the college’s teaching methods and fetish for prestige.”[xxii] He dropped out of Yale after his second year, and moved to New York where he took further courses at the Art Students League in 1925 and took lessons in drawing from nature.

Soon thereafter, Rothko enrolled in the class of Max Weber, the Jewish American painter who taught a course in still-life. Weber and Rothko had both come to the United States as Russian-Jewish immigrants at the age of ten.[xxiii] Marcus also gathered experience in advertising, and was hired to draw maps and illustrations for the Graphic Bible by Lewis Browne, a retired rabbi from Portland who had become a best-selling author. When Rothko saw he was not credited as the creator of these works, he sued Browne for $20,000 in damages. In the end, he lost the trial.[xxiv]

When the Wall Street crash came in 1929, followed by the Great Depression, Rothko had little to show for his decade in New York. He was exhibited but not much sold, and when he did sell his work, it was not enough to make a living. “He was married to Edith Sachar, bright and Jewish, whom he had met at a progressive summer camp at Lake George in the Adirondacks: downing dialectical materialism, Freud and Cubism along with the weak coffee.”[xxv]

Living in a Jewish world— New York art scene branch.

Go to Part 2.


Baal-Teshuva, J. (2009) Rothko, Taschen, Cologne, Germany.

Breslin, J.E.B. (1998) Mark Rothko: A Biography, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Cantor, N.E. (1994) The Sacred Chain – The History of the Jews, HarperCollins, New York.

MacDonald, K. B. (1998/2001) The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth‑Century Intellectual and Political Movements, Westport, CT: Praeger. Revised Paperback edition, 2001, Bloomington, IN: 1stbooks Library.

Muller, J.Z. (2010) Capitalism and the Jews, Princeton University Press.

Ottmann, K. (2003) The Essential Mark Rothko, Harry N. Abrams, New York.

Schama, S. (2006) Simon Schama’s Power of Art, BBC Books, Great Britain.

Schama, S. (2006a) Simon Schama’s Power of Art, BBC TV Series, Great Britain.


[i] Ottmann p. 8

[ii] Schama 2006a

[iii] Breslin p. 14

[iv] Ibid. p. 15

[v] Baal-Teshuva p. 19

[vi] Ibid. p. 19-20

[vii] Schama 2006a

[viii] Baal-Teshuva p. 19-20

[ix] Ibid. p. 19-20

[x] Ibid. p. 20

[xi] Ottmann p. 17

[xii] Muller p. 96

[xiii] Baal-Teshuva p. 20

[xiv] MacDonald (1998/2001) p. 82

[xv] Baal-Teshuva p. 23

[xvi] Cantor p. 281

[xvii] Schama p. 401-402

[xviii] Schama 2006a

[xix] Schama p. 402

[xx] Ibid. p. 402

[xxi] Baal-Teshuva p. 23

[xxii] Ibid. p. 23

[xxiii] Ibid. p. 23

[xxiv] Ibid. p. 24

[xxv] Schama p. 405

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