Mark Rothko’s Garage
There’s a picture somewhere that shows an aging Mark Rothko, maybe somewhere around 50, sitting in his garage on a metallic chair, a brush in one hand and a painting in progress tilted in the other. Against the backdrop of shelves of junk and cluttered walls, he scrutinizes the painting he’s holding. The canvas is stained a deep blood red, and the outlines of a central lighter colored rectangle are just coming into focus.
The first time I saw the photo it stuck in my head for no good reason; only after a while did I realize what was bothering me about it. Mark Rothko was a painter of the ineffable, an artist that reached for a point in the infinite distance, his work attempting to find a pathway to spiritual utopia. He was proud of the fact that his paintings caused viewers to start weeping in museums.
So what was he doing painting in a garage?
Rothko, sitting in his garage, surrounded by the grey detritus of everyday life, looking suburban. And yet the painting he holds in his hand, roughly, by the canvas stretchers, is supposed to be a gateway to a plane above the human milieu, infinite calm. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right that this perfect object should be made by someone sitting on a rusty chair gazing critically at the thing like it was a disobedient dog. Don’t paintings like this get excreted unbidden from the walls of MoMA, pre-canonized? Mark Rothko in his garage. It was just too messy.
This is a problem about the innate humanity of art, the grit versus the glossy sheen that gets slopped on by the pedestal of modernism, the aura of a lot of money and the white box chapels that we keep our art in. Where do the dirty hands of the artist meet the finished product, prepped for viewers and critics and onlookers? Where are the blood and guts?
Art has to get made. The unexplainable, the floating-in-the-air, has to get processed down by some enormous act of will, fueled by pressure and insecurity and fallibility, into a thing that, in Rothko’s case, has the look of the infallible. No umbilical cord left, no blood and mucus-spattered squalling infant. Where do we make the jump from something made in someone’s sun-baked, dusty garage to the infinitely clean pinnacle of modernism that Rothko’s paintings make on a white wall? The artist was fond of calling his ethereal paintings “facades”; the term seems most appropriate describing this dichotomy of process and product.
Maybe gazing at the surface of a Mark Rothko painting for long enough will elevate you to the kind of spiritual state the artist had in mind. But then there’s the back side, the artist sitting in his garage. I tend to think that the garage is just as important for a viewer to see as the surface. Unfortunately, most museums don’t make it easy. The work looks resolved on the walls, set up into some unknowable cosmic order.
Every painting in MoMA’s modern galleries is a lady on the street but a freak between the sheets. Gauguin died of syphilis in Tahiti after leaving his wife and children and desk job in Europe for the myriad freedoms of more “primitive” nations. Mark Rothko died in a pool of his own blood slumped over his kitchen sink after he slit his wrists at the elbows, unable to sustain his pursuit of the ineffable. So much for infallibility. Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were alcoholics. We all know van Gogh cut his ear off and sent it to a prostitute and Picasso had mistresses till he died in his 90s. All this begs the question, how can these artists’ work possibly look pure and resolved when it’s on the walls? How does so much life end up dry? Dig a little bit and there’s always a garage that’s worth looking for. The pile of stuff in the background, the psychic detritus that art distills, is what makes the end result interesting. Go into a museum and look for the blood and the guts and the conflicts, because the infallible surface is never all there is.
*all pictures here are Rothko paintings culled from various sources on the internet, their titles aren't very descriptive, and I think looking should be enough anyway.