Annie Cohen-Solal on ‘Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel’

The art historian enlightened readers with her knowledge of the famous painter at the Chilmark library.

Right, painter Mark Rothko, the subject of Annie Cohen-Solal's recent book. – Photo courtesy

“What should I say about this place where the sky turned into a Rothko?”

That is how Annie Cohen-Solal ended her talk about the painter Mark Rothko at the Chilmark library on a recent Saturday afternoon, and where I will begin. The image on the screen was of an Island sunset, two blue rectangles of ocean and sky divided by a fiery orange line. Or a fiery orange space. The edges where the colors met shimmered and vibrated against one another, light-lit, the design reminiscent of Rothko’s most iconic canvases. Of course, you would have had to be outdoors in that all-encompassing color and light and space to experience the effect of Mark Rothko’s work.

By the end of his life in 1970, Rothko was able to carefully integrate his paintings to the place where they would hang and how they would be viewed. The canvases were huge, to envelop the viewer, to close out all but the painting in the viewer’s sight. Benches were placed in the center of the room to invite contemplation. The lights were dimmed to just the right brightness to allow the painted surface to glow from its own layers of thinly glazed color, one atop the next, a mixture of eggs and pigment and medium the artist devised. He invited the viewer to enter the world he created. The most famous is the de Menil Chapel referred to in the title of Ms. Cohen-Solal’s book.

I have always loved Mark Rothko’s paintings, introduced to them when I was in art school in New York City in the 1960s. I had never seen or imagined art like that. Indeed, most of the world hadn’t either. So it was with great excitement that I heard about this new biography of Rothko by Ms. Cohen-Solal. Even better was the news that the author would be speaking at the Chilmark library. I told all of my artist friends about it, and made plans to attend. Then I contacted the author and asked if we might meet. She agreed.

Ms. Cohen-Solal’s book was not at all what I expected. There are hardly any reproductions. It’s small, 8½ by 6 inches, standard book size. It’s not a coffee table art book, but truly a biographical study from the well-researched perspective of an historian. It is her third book in a trilogy that explores the migrant in society, how the personal history shapes the story. The other titles in the series are “Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli” and “Sartre: A Life.

Rothko was born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in 1903. His family, though secular, decided to educate young Marcus Rotkovich in the rigorous, traditional Talmud Torah. That time of Talmudic study, though brief, seemed to affect the way he lived and painted — the intellectual questioning and rigor with which he approached both his personal and his art lives. It was this quality of Rothko that attracted Ms. Cohen-Solal to write about him: “I had always loved his work. He represents a type of intellectual painter.”

Briefly, the family emigrated to America when Marcus was 10 years old. They ended up in Portland, Ore. He was admitted to Yale, where he and three friends from Portland all left early on, intimidated and excluded by the anti-Semitism they encountered. Rothko decided to become an artist, moved to New York City, studied briefly, but was mostly self-taught. He met and became friends with some of the most influential artists of the 1950s and ’60s. He wrote a book called “The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art” in the early 1940s. It remained a pile of handwritten pages until his children found and published it after his death. It is difficult reading at times, but exhilarating to read the words and thoughts of a brilliant artist and philosopher on the history of art, the development of his own theories, set in a period of great intellectual and artistic exploration.

But back to Ms. Cohen-Solal’s book. She describes her study of Rothko as “my way of exploring a cultural agent’s impact (be it a writer, an artist, an intellectual whose impact is a symbolic one) is to connect her/his ‘productions’ to the context in which her/his experiences are settled. Thus, in the case of Rothko, it slowly became evident to me that being a migrant and suffering rough times both in Russia and in the U.S. (pogroms, anti-Semitism, rejections, downward social mobility, Jewish anti-Semitism as well) prompted him to react as an activist by refusing to become a victim of the situation and rather by fighting, writing, expressing his own opinions. For an intellectual kid raised in the Talmud Torah with a high respect for education, the disappointment after leaving Yale drove him to look for other ways of finding an identity in U.S. society, and he decided that this other way would be art…. And for me, Rothko becomes one of those passeurs (“bridgers” in English) who can cross boundaries between cultures, genres, and societies. Besides, can’t we say that the blurred borders in his paintings (rectangles of colors floating on top of the other one) remind us of the blurred borders of the geographical territory where he was born?”

All very stimulating. I like using my mind. Reading and speaking and corresponding with Ms. Cohen-Solal provided me with not only a new perspective on the work of Mark Rothko, but ideas to expand my own thoughts about painting, art, artists in society. I think anyone reading this book will find it so.

I have a very vivid memory of the first time I saw Mark Rothko paintings. I am sitting in a room, dimly lit, surrounded by paintings of enormous size and power. It was 1967. I remember it as clearly as if it just happened. I remember it being a room at the Jewish Museum in New York. I have told people about this in the context of writing this story. But I can’t find any mention of a show at the Jewish Museum or even anything in New York at that time. Still, it remains in my mind. The size, combinations/juxtapositions of colors, the luminosity of the surfaces, the ambiguity of the image/nonimage, the unexpectedness of it all. I learned a lot about painting that afternoon, even as it remains a puzzlement of a memory.