Black on Maroon, 1958
150 x 105 in
John McEwen comments on Black on Maroon:
For half a year, Mark Rothko worked on a set of abstract paintings to decorate the swanky Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram building on Park Avenue, New York. It was a sign of his growing fame that he received such a showy commission; nonetheless, he accepted it grudgingly ‘with strictly malicious intentions’, taking welcome payment up front, but insisting on a break clause, because he privately despised everything the restaurant represented.
He wanted his individual but all maroon-based paintings to form a ‘single place’, the clientele of ‘rich bastards’ to feel trapped. To this end, he worked within a frame of the restaurant’s dimensions temporarily erected in his studio.
As the saying went, you can take a Jew out of the shtetl, but not the shtetl out of a Jew. Born Marcus Rothkovitz, Rothko knew shtetl life. In his Russian childhood, he had experienced the Tsar’s persecution, with a lifelong facial scar from a Cossack’s whip to prove it. Arriving in the USA at 10, without money or English, he had suffered a refugee’s humiliation; dependent on successful uncles, he felt the anger of a poor relation. His artistic struggle was long. In 1958, his studio was still in Manhattan’s rundown Bowery district. For work, he dressed like a tramp and thought it obscene to spend more than $5 on a meal.
One meal at the Four Seasons proved enough. He broke the contract. England’s foremost contemporary art collector, E. J. (‘Ted’) Power, alerted Sir Norman Reid, Tate director, to the pictures’ availability. Nine were eventually presented by the artist, of which this is one. They arrived at the Tate the day he committed suicide in New York; a fitting lamentation.
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