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Book Review: Rothko, by Jacob Baal-Teshuva

September 22, 2009

rothko1As some of you know, I’m a big fan of Abstract Expressionism and when I saw Rothko, by Jacob Baal-Teshuva, I was instantly drawn to the bright, glossy cover. I was a little bit skeptical, only because books like these often don’t offer anything besides reproductions and a simple biography. They are usually a shallow survey of an artist’s life and usually leave you wishing for a more in depth look at the artwork. A quick flip through the pages revealed that there was at least as much writing as pictures and one look at the price ($16.95) sealed the deal!


At that price, this book would have been well worth it for the reproductions alone! You will find over 80 images of Rothko’s (and other’s) work, all in full colour and many full page reproductions. While I can’t attest to the accuracy of the colour (having not seen all of Rothko’s work in person) I can say that the images were bright and luminous, the colours vibrant and sumptuous.


This book covers Rothko’s life and career from his childhood in Russia to his suicide in 1970. The biographical parts of the text tended to be a little dull, and often unnecessary. I was left wondering why I needed to know what Rothko’s father did for a living, or what name his brother took upon moving to America. At times, the biographical info was plunked into the middle of an explanation of the artwork, with no indication of how the two were related besides the fact that they occurred at the same time. Interestingly, while Rothko’s father is talked about in some detail, his mother is hardly mentioned at all!


It was during discussions of Rothko’s work and the art world of the time that the writing came to life. The author does an excellent job at setting the stage for Abstract Expressionism. It’s fascinating to read about the interactions Rothko had with other artists. He was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Clifford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. Rothko’s relationships with these artists, and the profound effect they had on his work, are described in detail. It sounds like it would have been a wonderful time to be alive! These artists were all working towards a new form of art, painting together by day and philosophizing together by night.


rothko2The best part of this book is that it is full of first-hand quotes from Rothko and those around him. Some of these quotes are confusing and take some time to wade through: “I will say without reservation that from my view there can be no abstractions, any shape or area which [lacks] the pulsating concreteness of real flesh and bones. Its vulnerability to pleasure of pain is nothing at all” (pg 45). Others, though, are direct and to the point, profound in their simplicity: “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity” (pg 38). These serve to illustrate the man behind the paintings: intellectual and thoughtful, but often defensive and misunderstood.


The book chronicles Rothko’s rise and fall. It begins with his early surrealist work, then to the transitional multiform paintings (which I’d never seen before and was hugely impressed by!), to the colour field paintings he’s known for and finally the darker versions of these in his late career. As he became more successful, it seemed that Rothko became less happy. His work became dark and gloomy, lacking the luminosity in his earlier work. Towards the end of his career, Abstract Expressionism was already going out of style and Pop Art was on its way up. Of Pop Art, Rothko said, “Are these young artists plotting to kill us all?” (pg 67) which seems to sum up his negative attitude prior to the time of his death.


I usually skim through art books, looking at the pictures and reading captions, but this was one of the few that I’ve read cover to cover. It’s a relatively short and easy read, but full of information on Mark Rothko that goes beyond basic biography. Rothko, by Jacob Baal-Teshuva, is both a good read and a good reference.


From → Book Reviews

  1. Thank you for your insights about this book. You are right, often these bios leave a lot to be desired. I recently completed reading “de Kooning” which I loved (see my blog) and would love to see the writers of that book write one on Rothko (whom I adore). I think one of the challenges with Rothko is his estate is controlled very tightly by his two children. His color field work is so very appealing, yet it seemed it truly was the struggles with that work which sent him over the edge. I often wonder if it is the conflict between painting what sells and painting what you are called to paint which pushes some artists over the edge??? It is/can be amazing pressure. If this interests you I recommend you watch this presentation by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of “Eat, Pray, Love”) on
    She is not only inspirational, but expresses herself beautifully.

    Anyway, I could talk on and on with you here about this. Rothko was an amazing artist and finding out what made him tick is wonderful. Thankfully, he left a lot of writing which gives some insight into his intellect (you are right, the intellect was amazing) and work. Of course, those images in the book sound wonderful. Was it a Taschen publication? They do some nice things and the cover looked like one of their books.

    Thanks again! You have again shared a beautiful post here!

    • I have one book about Mondrian that has a very short (maybe three page) bio and then pages after pages of reproductions. The images are great as references, but it’s also nice to have a discussion about the ideas and motivations behind the work.

      Yes, it is a Taschen book! I was quite impressed with the quality for that price, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy another!

      I had a look at your article about that book, it sounds great. I’m going to have to try and track a copy down! I love reading about the New York art scene during the 50s/60s/70s! It would have been amazing to have been alive then, taking part in the revolutionary work and ideas. They truly were doing something completely new. Although, like you mentioned, they all seemed to have burned out rather quickly!

  2. I think they not only burned out, but many of them went up in flames. NYC was not the best place, personally, for artists to survive during that time.

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