Creating a new “American” Art
Before the rise of Abstract Expressionism, the American art scene after World War I was defined by two main currents. The first were what one might call the Regionalists (e.g. Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry) who used their own signature styles to portray the virtues of the hard-working rural American population. In the second group were the artists of Social Realism (e.g. Ben Shahn and Diego Rivera), whose work reflected urban life during the Great Depression, and reflected a preoccupation with international socialism.
Neither of these two schools was interested in abstract art. Despite the leftwing view of the social realists, both groups held rather conservative attitudes on figurative representation. Yet, even as these two styles dominated, the artists of the nascent New York School “met frequently at the legendary Cedar Bar, where they discussed their radical theses. They argued endlessly about the problems of art, about how to effect a total break with the art of the past, about the mission of creating an abstract art that no longer had anything to do with conventional techniques and motifs.”[i]
The Museum of Modern Art did not yet exist; the Metropolitan Museum tended to “look down its WASP patrician nose at modernism”; and the Whitney favoured exactly the kind of American painting young Rothko most despised: scenic, provincial, anecdotal, and conservative.[ii] For a Jewish outsider like Rothko, who in 1970 declared that he would never feel entirely at home in a land to which he had been transplanted against his will, urban America was his America.
But what was on the mid-town gallery walls was, for the most part, another America altogether: Big Skies, fruited plain, purple mountain majesty, the light of providence shining on the prairie. About that America Rothko knew little and cared less. Early on, he had the sense that America ought to offer an art that was as new and vital as its history; but he also wanted that art to play for high stakes, to be hooked up somehow to the universal ideas he was chain-smoking his way through. Just what such an art might look like, however, he had as yet not the slightest idea.[iii]
Terry Cooney points out how the New York Intellectuals associated rural America with “nativism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and fascism as well as with anti-intellectualism and provincialism.” By contrast the urban was associated “with ethnic and cultural tolerance, with internationalism, and with advanced ideas.” A basic assumption of the New York Intellectuals was that rural America “with which they associated much of American tradition and most of the territory beyond New York – had little to contribute to a cosmopolitan culture” and could accordingly be dismissed by writers who, by examining all issues through this lens, could “mask assertions of superiority and expressions of anti-democratic sentiments as the judgements of an objective expertise.”[iv]
Rothko’s skill in rendering the human form was poor, as is evident in early works like Bathers of Beach Scene (Untitled) (1933/4). Schama admits as much, noting that: “When he [Rothko] stood in the Brooklyn classroom it all seemed so easy. He would tell the children not to mind the rules – painting, he said, was as natural as singing. It should be like music, but when he tried it came out as a croak. It’s the work of a painfully knotted imagination… No not very good.”[v]
Drawing on his boyhood training as Talmudic scholar, Rothko, in a speech in the mid-thirties on art education delivered at the Jewish Education Center in Brooklyn (where he began teaching in 1929) offered a quasi-philosophical rationale for the unimportance of technical skill by stressing “the difference between sheer skill, and skill that is linked to spirit, expressiveness and personality. … The result is a constant creative activity in which the child creates an entire child-like cosmology, which expresses the infinitely varied and exciting world of a child’s fancies and experience.” Rothko believed that one’s means of artistic expression was “unrelated to manual ability or painterly technique, that it is drawn from an inborn feeling for form; the ideal lies in the spontaneity, simplicity and directness of children.”[vi] Such grandiloquent pronouncements from Rothko were not unusual, with Matthew Collings noting that “Rothko was outrageously over-fruity and grandiose in his statements about art and religion and the solemn importance of his own art.”[vii]
This tendency on the part of Rothko prompted one writer to declare: “What I find amazing … is how a painting which is two rectangles of different colors can somehow prompt thousands upon thousands of words on the human condition, Marxist dialectics, and social construction.” He suggests that a good rule of thumb is “that the more obtuse terms an artist and his supporters use to describe a work, the less worth the painting has. By this definition Rothko may be the most worthless artist in the history of humanity.” Another critic humorously observed that:
Rothko needed to be fluent in rationalizing his existence and validating himself as a relevant artist to the average idiot who spent tens of thousands of dollars on paintings which could be easily reproduced by anyone with a pulse and a paint brush. Rothko… learned to garner attention to his paintings by getting into a frenzied drama-queen state and hysterically claiming that his works were deep, profound statements and not just indiscriminate blobs of color. They were expressions that rejected society’s expectation of technical expertise, actual talent and an artist’s evolution over time.
Lasha Darkmoon has noted the tendency of Jewish artists to set about redefining the very nature of artistic excellence to allow for their own technical inadequacies. She observes that: “Whatever Jewish artists were good at, that would be the art of the future. If Jews were no good at drawing, good drawing would no longer be necessary.” She cites Israel Shamir who notes that the “Preparation of these items [of non-figurative art] places no demand on artistic abilities. They can be done by anybody,” and that “such art is perfectly within Jewish capabilities.” Darkmoon elaborates:
In order to succeed in this difficult profession, the visually challenged Jews had to “bend art to fit their abilities.” It is as if, unable to excel at athletic prowess, the Jews had somehow managed to gain control over the Olympic Games and decreed that, from now on, sprinting and marathon running were no longer important. What really mattered was winning the sack race or the Spitting Competition — accomplishments, possibly, which Jews were particularly good at!
“The Jews were extremely ill equipped for their conquest of Olympus,” Shamir instructs us. “For many generations, Jews never entered churches and hardly ever saw paintings. They were conditioned to reject image as part of their rejection of idols.” In short, the Jews were visually handicapped. Trained in Talmudic dialectics, they were marvelous with words. They had a verbal IQ of 130. Their IQ for patterns and pictures, however, was dismally low: only 75.The Jews of course don’t wish to acknowledge this. To suggest that they tend to make lousy artists is anti-Semitic.
If Jews didn’t make more of a splash as artists in past ages, it is argued, it was because they were “held back” by their Christian oppressors. Unfortunately for the Jews, the great [Jewish art critic] Berenson will have none of this argument. “The Jews have displayed little talent for the visual,” he states tersely, “and almost none for the figure arts.” How, then, you might wish to know, are there so many Jewish artists around nowadays? To what can we attribute this fantastic efflorescence of sudden Jewish pictorial genius? The answer, we are told, lies in Jewish networking and hustling, Jewish predominance in the mass media, Jewish economic dominance of the art world, Jewish power, Jewish money.
Roger Scruton has observed how the presence of significant financial incentives served to hasten the death of traditional painting by “devaluing the fund of artistic knowledge and encouraging minor talents to dispense with the humility which might otherwise have caused them to study and emulate the masters.”[viii]
As well as self-interestedly seeking to redefine the nature of great art, Rothko often spoke out for the importance of “artistic freedom,” which in practice meant artistic freedom for those on the Left. He became involved in the famed 1934 incident between John D. Rockefeller and the socialist painter, Diego Rivera. This began when Rivera was hired to paint a huge mural in the lobby of the main building of Rockefeller Center, the newly completed showcase of the oil baron’s ideals. Shortly before Rivera completed his work, Rockefeller dropped in and saw that the mural had a defiantly socialist message based on a heroic depiction of Lenin. He ordered the removal of the mural, resulting in its destruction. After this incident, a group of 200 New York artists gathered to protest against Rockefeller, and Rothko marched with them.[ix]
In 1934 Rothko was one of the original 200 founding members of the Art Union and started the Gallery Secession, which was devoted to the newest artistic tendencies. A year later he became a member of the group who called themselves “The Ten” (the minimum number of Jews that can pray together). This unashamed exercise in Jewish ethnic networking was an opportunity for Rothko and his colleagues to engage in mutual admiration and promotion, and agitate in favour of “experimentation” and against conservatism in museums, schools and galleries.[x] Among “The Ten” were Ben Zion, Adolph Gottlieb, Louis Harris, Yankel Kufeld, Louis Schanker, Joseph Solman, Nahum Chazbazov, Ilya Bolotovsky and Marcus Rothkowitz. Gottlieb, in describing the group, later recalled: “We were outcasts, roughly expressionist painters. We were not acceptable to most dealers and collectors. We banded together for the purpose of mutual support.” The Ten acted as an alliance against the promotion of regionalist art by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which to them was simply too “provincial” for words.[xi]
For Rothko, “the whole problem of art was to establish human values in this specific [American] civilization.”[xii] The pronounced ingroup-outgroup mentality of “The Ten” was consistent with that existing within the Jewish intellectual movements reviewed by Kevin MacDonald in Culture of Critique, where he observes how Norman Podhoretz described the group of Jewish intellectuals centred around Partisan Review as a “family” that derived from “the feeling of beleaguered isolation shared with masters of the modernist movement themselves, elitism – the conviction that others are not worth taking into consideration except to attack, and need not be addressed in one’s writing; out of the feeling as well as a sense of hopelessness as to the fate of American culture at large and the correlative conviction that integrity and standards were only possible among ‘us.’”[xiii]
MacDonald notes, moreover, that within these alienated and marginalised Jewish groups was “an atmosphere of social support that undoubtedly functioned as had traditional Jewish ingroup solidarity arrayed against a morally and intellectually inferior outside world.”[xiv] Nonetheless, despite the ethnic superglue, there was tension within the Jewish milieu of “The Ten”, with Schama noting that: “Amidst the usual Talmudic bickering of leftist factions, the denunciations and walk-outs, Rothkowitz and his comrades were all burning to make an art that would say something about the alienation, as they saw it, of modern American life.”[xv]
Since the triumph of the culture of critique and the Jewish seizure of the commanding heights of Western high culture in the sixties and seventies, this pattern of Jewish ethnic networking has become an entrenched feature of the modern art establishment. Scruton observes how “the new impresario surrounds himself with others of his kind, promoting them to all committees which are relevant to his status, and expecting to be promoted in his turn. Thus arises the modernist establishment, which has dominated the official culture of Europe for the last three decades, and which shows no sign of loosening its grip.”[xvi]
For Rothko, like for most American Jews, the Second World War was a moment of universal moral crisis. He had only become an American citizen in 1938 and Baal-Teshuva notes that: “Like many Jews, he was worried about the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the possibility of a revival of anti-Semitism in America, and U.S. Citizenship came to signify security.” American entry into the war was exactly what Rothko wanted, claiming that it represented “an escape from narrow-minded isolation, a reconnection with the destinies of modern history.” Schama observes that
now Rothko and his painter friends – so many of them originally European Jews – wanted American art to go the same way. With European civilization annihilated by fascism, it was up to the United States to take the torch and save human culture from a new Dark Ages. It was not just a matter of offering safe haven to the likes of Piet Mondrian or [Picasso’s] Guernica, but rather the authentic American way – doing something bold and fresh, taking the fight to the enemy which had classified modernism as “degenerate” and had done its best to destroy its partisans. … The Nazis had art (as well as everything else) entirely the wrong way round. The modernism they demonized as “degenerate” was in fact the seed of new growth, and what they glorified as “regenerate” was the stale leavings of neo-classicism. Their mistake was America’s – and particularly New York’s – good fortune [!].[xvii]
This was a time when many American Jews were modifying their names to sound less Jewish. In January 1940 Marcus Rothkowitz became Mark Rothko. During the war years Rothko’s art changed too as he produced a series of surrealistic pictures inspired by Freud’s interpretations of dreams, C.G. Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, and ancient Greek mythology. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy was an important influence at this time.[xviii]
Towards the end of 1943, all of the ethnic networking finally began to bear tangible fruit for Rothko. He befriended Peggy Guggenheim, “the most voracious patroness of American avant-garde art”, who had migrated to New York in 1941. Guggenheim’s artistic consultant, Howard Putzel, “convinced her to show Rothko in her Art of This Century gallery, where she had opened in 1942, during the low point of the war.”[xix] In January 1945, Guggenheim decided to put on Rothko’s first one-man exhibition at her gallery.[xx] In 1948 Rothko invited a coterie of mainly Jewish friends and acquaintances to view his new ‘multiforms’. The art critic and historian Harold Rosenberg “remembers finding these works “fantastic,” and called his experience “the most impressive visit to an artist” in his life.”[xxi] Dempsey notes that “both the critics and the artists themselves gave the works heroic, noble interpretations.”[xxii]
Rothko’s financial situation improved significantly in the early 1950s, by which time he had arrived at the style that defined his art until his death in 1970. The highly successful Jewish art dealer Sidney Janis signed up Rothko in 1954 and showed 12 of his works at his gallery in 1955. According to Baal-Teshuva, “this settled Rothko’s status as a protagonist of international importance in the postwar art scene.” This is ascribed to the fact that “Sidney Janis marketed Rothko’s paintings much more effectively. … and even during the recession of 1958 he was able to sell 13 paintings for more than 20 thousand dollars”—likely to other Jews. After this, Rothko’s art was declared a good investment by Fortune magazine, which led to his relationship with his now resentful colleagues Clifford Still and Barnet Newman deteriorating to the point where “they accused Rothko of harbouring an unhealthy yearning for a bourgeois existence, and finally stamped him as a traitor.”[xxiii]
In 1958 Rothko received a contract to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram’s Building in New York. The man who approved the commission was Seagram’s American subsidiary head Edgar Bronfman Sr – who was to become President of the World Jewish Congress in 1981. The fee offered was $35,000 (a huge sum at the time). Rothko was, however, uncomfortable with the commission and the damage it might do to his bohemian reputation. Later he returned the money and asked for the completed murals to be returned. Nine of the “Seagram Murals” were permanently installed in a room at London’s prestigious Tate Gallery in 1970. These paintings are widely considered to be Rothko’s greatest achievement.
Opinions vary widely about Rothko’s work and legacy. While many within the Jewish-dominated art establishment hail him as a genius, others cannot believe that any sane person would pay tens of millions of dollars for what amounts to nothing more than a large, empty canvas occupied by two colors divided into separate rectangles by a third color. What is clear, however, is that Rothko’s career and posthumous reputation as an artistic giant have been, to a very great extent, the result of hyping on the part of the Jewish cultural establishment. Jewish role models play a very important role in fostering Jewish pride and group cohesion, and it has been a standard feature of Jewish intellectual life to actively construct Jewish geniuses by wildly exaggerating the artistic or intellectual significance of their work. This ethnocentric Jewish self-puffery is an important way to shape social categorization processes in a way that benefits Jews in two ways: by undermining traditional notions of the importance of painterly ability as a bedrock of the traditional culture of the West; and by undermining specific schools of art, such as Thomas Hart Benton and the Regionalists, that promoted positive and uplifting images of America for popular and elite consumption. This places Rothko firmly in the culture of the left that has been vastly predominant among Jewish intellectuals at least since the beginning of the 2oth century. Mark Rothko stands out as an egregious example of a figure who has been utilized by Jewish art critics and historians for these purposes.
Baal-Teshuva, J. (2009) Rothko, Taschen, Cologne, Germany.
Collings, M. (1999) This is Modern Art, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London.
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.
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. View at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJ8AIIAgYpg
Scruton, R. (2005) Modern Culture, Continuum, London.
Scruton, R. (2007) Culture Counts – Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, Encounter Books, New York.
[i] Baal-Teshuva, p. 10
[ii] Schama 2006, p. 403
[iv] In MacDonald, p. 217
[v] Schama 2006a
[vi] Baal-Teshuva, p 24
[vii] Collings, p. 169
[viii] Scruton 2007, p. 89
[ix] Baal-Teshuva, p. 26
[x] Schama 2006, p. 405
[xi] Baal-Teshuva, p. 26
[xii] Schama 2006a
[xiii] In MacDonald, p. 217
[xiv] Ibid. p. 218
[xv] Schama 2006, p. 406
[xvi] Scruton 2007, p. 87
[xvii] Schama 2006, pp. 408 & 411-412
[xviii] Baal-Teshuva, p. 33
[xix] Ibid. p. 38
[xx] Ibid. p. 39
[xxi] Ibid. p. 45
[xxii] Dempsey, p. 190
[xxiii] Baal-Teshuva, p. 50