Rothko and the Sculls

Here’s a short passage from James Breslin’s marvelous biography of Mark Rothko (p. 422) that gives a clear indication of the transfer of paintings meaning from that of a spiritual form of expression to a debased materialistic one. It gives us a clear sense of Rothko’s moral integrity. :

Robert and Ethel Scull, in short represented everything about the evolving New York art world of the 1960s, everything about life, that Rothko abhorred. Ethel remembered an East Hampton party, where, after being introduced to Rothko, she began the conversation by saying “What a great pleasure it was to meet him.

Rothko: “That no big deal… a lot of people are glad to meet me.”
Ethel (to herself): “I own a Rothko and he’s so mean to me.” She asked if she could come to his studio and see his pictures.
Rothko: “I don’t just let anybody up to my loft.”
Ethel: “Well, I’m not just anybody. I’m collecting art and I love your work and I would love to see it.”
Rothko: “No, you can’t come up.”

Another quote from page 433:

The shift from Abstract Expressionism to Pop involved more than just another of the generational battles that have characterized movements in all the arts for the past two centuries. One boundary that Rothko and his contemporaries drew very firmly was the line separating high art from popular art.

The Sculls were the primary financiers of Pop art. Robert Scull wanted to buy out the Johns’ entire first show. But Castelli remarked that would be “vulgar.” Just imagine associating Pop art with vulgarity!

In 1968, in a lecture at MOMA, Leo Steinberg prophetically observed, although the writing was clearly on the wall since Leo himself was the guy who smoothed Johns into high culture celebrity with the kind of specious nonsense that passes for art criticism:

Avant-garde art, lately Americanized, is for the first time associated with big money. And this is because its occult aims and uncertain future have been successfully translated into homely terms. For far-out modernism, we can now read “speculative growth stock”; for apparent quality, “market attractiveness”; and for an adverse change of taste, “technical obsolescence.” A feat of language to absolve a change of attitude. Art is not, after all, what we thought it was; in the broadest sense it is hard cash. The whole of art, its growing tip included, is assimilated to familiar values. Another decade, and we shall have mutual funds based on securities in the form of pictures held in bank vaults.

At this point, presumably, Steinberg was perhaps regretting his participation in the debacle of painting. Who knows? At any rate he went back to lecturing on art history. I saw one of his lectures on “The Sexuality of Christ” focused on the adornments on Christ’s genitalia throughout art history. From one form of dementia to another. Great religious art psychoanalyzed by Leo Steinberg. An example of the nihilism in art criticism. Chapter 29 is titled “Images of self-touch and of Infant erection.” Hasn’t Leo got anything better to do with his time. Well, that’s the kind of stuff that you get paid for in art history these days, so who can blame him? Everyone’s got to make a living.

At any rate, the Sculls sealed the deal with their big auction in 1974 where they dumped the lot of their pop collection for the most astronomical investment returns imaginable at the time. The financial sharks saw the blood in the water and the rest is history. Casino capitalism took over. Artists made overnight from half-assed grad school work and fortunes distributed out among the players (investors). It began small time with artists like Frank Stella were hustled into MoMA out of Princeton making pinstriped paintings. Peddled with enough pseudo-intellectual gibberish to put anybody to sleep in minutes, most of it supplied by Frank himself. Stella is another great performer and entertainer. Are we really supposed to believe that people get transported by looking in wonder at a row of pinstripes? Or are they hallucinating dollar signs? Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Charles Saatchi turned it into a form of sheer financial genius…. 7 million dollar sharks and sperm spattered bedsheets and whatnot. Saatchi had managed Maggie Thatcher’s advertising campaign that put her in charge in Britain, while we had Michael Deaver dump Reagan on us. The results were the same in both countries. In the US we’re experiencing the full-blown end results of their institution of Free Market fundamentalism. The artists that were made during this insane bubble will collapse along with it in the near future.

We’ve experienced a series of collapses. But the mega bust hasn’t hit yet. Obama and his Republican handmaidens are tuning it up as I type. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, are throwing off decades of military dictatorship.

Back in the 70s the Last Poets sung “The Revolution will not be televised.” But apparently it will be.

The most wonderful part of this Divine Comedy is the name of the financial speculators that set this thing aflame. The Skulls.

Duchamp=Thanatos=Freud’s death instinct

PS. Who says that these pop artists don’t evolve? Stella started out with simple pinstripes and now he’s turned into Caravaggio. It’s quite amazing, really. Caravaggio couldn’t figure you out that you had to haphazardly stick metal projections out from the canvas  to get real “Working Space”. That’s how space works in painting, you see, according to Clement Greenberg by way of Frank Stella. First it’s all flat. Then you scribble with oil sticks all over metal junk. Caravaggio was handicapped because aluminum hadn’t been invented yet. So one has to forgive him his primitive spatial illusions.

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4 Responses to Rothko and the Sculls

  1. Steve says:

    Rothko’s integrity is what hums from his paintings for me, a dark, musical, serious soul vibration. But the New York school of art is sketchy for me, one of those periods in art history that I never fully explored. It just didn’t take. My first real art teacher in college was an avant guard guy who thought that the only place to be for any artist was on the cutting edge. What was being painted ‘now’ was what mattered, old masters, recent masters, history,…it was all retrograde for him. There I was, fresh out of high school, hand never even held a paint brush, didn’t know anything about art except drawing faces in photographs. I learned most of what I know about the New York school from him, and later read a few books, from which I cherry-picked my favorite painters, those who spoke to me: Rothko, Pollock, DeKooning, Guston, but the rest just fell away from my attention. In fact because my instructor shoved Op and Pop painting down our throats so much, it almost turned me off to being a painter. It was European art and painting that saved me. I fell in love with certain painters and periods of art history there. So I’ve always been a little alienated from American art, just making side explorations into it, like with Charles Burchfield, or more recently Dieberkorn. It’s odd being ‘unwelcome’ in or ‘outside’ of my own country and culture. It has caused gaps in my learning. So it will be fun to re-visit such painters as Guston , with his bold outlines and big solid forms, and to get a fresh perspective on artists like Resnick. We Americans are a rebellious people and that makes for some very contrary art, a quality which I very much appreciate.

  2. trueoutsider says:

    Sounds like we were in art school around the same time. All that stuff was being shoved at me as well by most of the instructors, by which I mean the ambitious ones. I selected a single older painter who I got my main instruction from. The ambitious guys I just ignored. I rejected “abstract expressionism” from the get go because I thought “What does any of this stuff have to do with me, my life, how I grew up, what I was thinking. ” Most students just aped the style. I had one class where everybody showed up with different personalities. At the end of the class almost every single one of them was making large paintings that looked like David Daio’s, if you remember him. Two large full color rectangles side by side. Other guys (and gals) were imitation Al Helds, so on and so forth. I went off into seclusion and started making work that is completely related to what I’m doing now. I’ve had my vision from way early on, long before I went to art school. I never fit in at art school whatsoever. I even got arrested once and nearly thrown in jail for defacing a drawing classroom. I’d made a 360 degree action painting with enamel paint across all four walls. I considered it my conceptual/expressionist contribution to the contemporary dialogue. The school and painting department considered it pure vandalism. If I hadn’t already been shunned that put me in high relief.

    Anyway, everything changed when I met Resnick. I still didn’t paint abstract paintings or want anything to do with how he painted. But he was 100 percent real, whereas the whole faculty was fake. Except for Milo Russell, who was my main guy and taught me a ton about painting.

    I never felt at all interested in American art except for the Chicago painters. Golub was painting massive Vietnam War paintings which I thought were pretty stunning. There was a big show at the Cultural Center in NYC. I used to go up to NYC regularly to take in the Soho action. My girlfriend’s dad had an apartment there that we stayed in. I was more interested in the avant garde jazz scene than the art scene, though. It was all down in Soho back then.

    I always liked Guston. I’m content driven. There has to be some kind of subject in the work. Formalism I rejected out of hand. I used to rail against Clem Greenberg to anyone who would listen, that meant nobody.

    As with copying the Piero di Cosimo, I was completely into Old Master art. But that was well before art school. It was like my eye had been developed by the Old Masters and Cezanne and the post-impressionists when I grew up outside Washington, DC. I romanticized finally going to art school when I could go to college. But when I got there I hated the place. My roommate was the campus drug dealer. I wonder what he’s up to these days. Then I lived in a commune type situation with a bunch of avant garde jazz musicians. Then another nuthouse with various schizophrenics trooping through. We’d all sit around playing chess. Some English gals stayed there, one a descendant of George Cruikshank. If I start getting into the stories of the various characters that were running around I won’t be able to stop. Let’s just call them all rebellious people.

    No TV. So I had time to read all the great Russian novelists, existentialist philosophers, Pynchon, Borges, Barthelme, etc. Authors/poets like Mailer, John Barth, Robert Coover, Galway Kinnell showed up regularly. The Biograph theatre was playing Kurosawa, Kubrick, Bunuel, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard, Antonioni. Each week was a cinematic revelation. All that was far more influential on my painting than anything going on in the art world. Photo-realism? Spare me. Minimalism? Oh, brother. Like I say the rest of the arts were in full out creative splendor.. music, film, literature, etc.

    And the New York art world was celebrating lead thrown into an elevator, bricks lined up on the floor, a guy jerking off under a built platform (Acconci was a great entertainer, I’ll give him that). But that stuff struck me as boring compared to the other things. I loved the Abstract Expressionist painters. They were exciting as could be but there was nothing that could be done with it. So I was looking primarily at Chicago art influenced by Dubuffet and surrealism, Old Master painters, Picasso and the Europeans. Some San Francisco stuff. But no formalist critic prescribed at all.

    At any rate, that’s one version of the story. I could come up with a few others. Crumb and the Zap artists were obviously a big influence. That stuff was far more powerful and of the moment than the grad school hokey stuff of Stella and Frankenthaler. Not to mention the lousy Greenberg picks like Olitski and company. That stuff was just sterile and pretentious. No guts. No story. No nothing.

  3. johnk823 says:

    Wow! That was a take 5 for me. I guess one has to experience many things in life to evaluate not only his own condition, but that which surrounds us all in the everyday hussel and bussel of life. Although I have been drawing and painting since childhood, I never delved in the insanity that goes on in this wonderful world of art.

    I remember being in an art class in 6th grade and a visiter painter that the teacher knew came to our class to give a demonstration. He did a copy of Monet, can’t recall which one, but it was a lake scene, and looking at the picture he had there and his painting, I couldn’t tell the difference. The one thing it did was intrigue me to the point I went home and drew and painted for days, engulfed in the asperation of being as good as the visiting artist was.

    Every school year I took art and studied hard to learn various techniques and styles. I was the first one when asked “Does anyone have any questions”? My hand went right up into the air. I had this need to know more and couldn’t seem to get enough. Although I have forgotten most of it, art has always been for me and inspiring vessel to communicate my frustrations and stateof mind. It didn’t mean that I did anything wild or crazy with my art, but that just the painting or drawing seemed to bring me back to a good and safe place.

    I believe alot of artists express in their work their individual tramas and experiences. Imagine, by just listening to the news on television, you could paint the most unpleasant things that life has to offer. Or, you can take all the unpleasant things in life and turn it all around and paint the beautiful things in life. Each artist(or even non-artits trying to draw or paint) has a choice of direction. It is their choice and some go so far astray that it seems unreal, unapproiate, uncommon, nonsensible and the like to a point sometimes of madness, hatred, grief and dispair.

    Art, in my opinion, has been taken down just about every road and path possible and then been expounded on by many. For some it is a verbal form of expression on canvas, paper or board, because they don’t know how to communicate well with words or fear of speaking out and so the palette and brushes become their voice and so we now have what is seen. And those that call it art, because they feel they can capitalize on such insanities of expression, run with it, spending little to make much bigger bucks.

    I remember reading in one of Harold Speeds books where he talked about just this same subject matter. How today it was about the money and not really the artist. It was about what is selling and that was what the artist was expected to draw or paint. At least if you wanted to work and sell your art you hadto conform to what was selling.

    Look now though at Turner for instance. I don’t think he really cared one way or another if he ever sold his art. He had most of it with him when he died. I don’t think he wanted to waste his time and energy trying to explain his work and then get kicked in the face and knocked down for what he was doing. He wasn’t an educated man and mostlikely didn’t know how to verbally express it to others anyway.

    Now, we have teachers today that teach art classes and really aren’t artist, but have a teaching degree and it is just a job, As a student of art, you would hope your teacher would be well versed in all the art styles, technique and materials, so you can learn something about all if it and then choose the direction and path of art that fits best for ones talants. Artist shouldn’t copy someone elses art, but create their own art through the life living experiences and thoughts that they own from within themself. Their own vision and feelings that propell them through lifes everyday encounters. Oh, its nice to use styles and techniques in your own form as how you have learned them, but to incorporate self into the different style and technique is, to me, what is the most important of all for an artist to work on in their endeavours.

    Just a thought!

    Blessings, John

  4. trueoutsider says:

    Now what does anyone think Turner would have said after Ethel Scull told him she wasn’t just anybody, but was collecting art and loved his work and would love to see it?

    This kind of self-protective instinct naturally earned Rothko the reputation of being arrogant or an elitist or what have you. The gradual demolishing of his ability to protect himself and his studio were in fact what led to his decision to take his own life. After his suicide they stole his paintings and had them trucked to a warehouse in Canada where they were locked up and hidden from his heirs. It took years of lawsuits before his two children who were orphaned (Kate, 20 years old and Christopher, just eight) were able to retrieve some of what was theirs. Marlborough was able to get away with this by buying off his executors with various enticements. One of them, the artist Theodoros Stamos, was bought off by Marlborough for the cheap price of an exhibition and a coffee table book as I recall. I’m recalling this from memory but I think the facts are basically accurate. I’m not writing for the New York Review of Books with a team of fact checkers.

    Here’s a list from the New York Review of Books of what Marlborough (Frank Lloyd to put a name at the helm) did when it stole Rothko’s paintings: Lloy’ds fraudulent bulk sales of more than 100 Rothkos after the lawsuit began which were parked with his European friends until after it ended; Lloyd’s laundering of art through myriad unaccountable Liechtenstein holding companies; Lloyd’s selling of many consigned Rothkos through shell companies, so that while the estate received paltry sums, Marlborough received millions of dollars; Lloyd’s violation of the court’s injunction by shipping Rothko’s out of the US, and his secretive shipping of Marlborough’s stock of [Rothko’s] art to Canadian warehouses in order to escape paying the court’s judgement.

    Unbelievably, the critic Robert Hughes, defends Lloyd and Marlborough as par for the course. Hughes could apparently care less that Rothko’s work and the estate of his two children were robbed by a pack of cronies like his executors in collusion with Lloyd.

    Below is the article of an exchange between Lee Seldes who wrote the book on Rothko’s death and the critic Robert Hughes. In my judgement Hughes resorts to cheap insults of Seldes rather than any substantive defense. When someone resorts to ad hominem attacks I consider it a near certainty they’re trying to avoid true charges. He’s also parsing words. He says that Seldes states that Hughes says Lloyd was “no more culpable than others.” Hughes replies that what he in fact said that Lloyd was not the only toad. Big different, right? It’s like defending political corruption. Nixon wasn’t the only toad. There was no bigger toad than Nixon. And no bigger toad than Frank Lloyd. I consider Hughes himself in the running for biggest art critic toad after looking at his article.

    I can’t even stand to read Hughes’ original essay, where he thinks the tragedy of Rothko calls for what he presumably thinks is his wittiness. It strikes me as grotesque insensitivity and cynicism. But Hughes isn’t the only toad. Those are characteristics most critics necessarily possess nowadays. To a morally stunted blowhard like Robert Hughes Rothko’s death isn’t tragic, it’s comic opera. Instead of referring to Kate and Christopher throughout by their names the become the Orphans. Rothko is the Great Artist. Ha ha.

    Hughes describes Rothko as “gulping down an overdose of barbiturates and then hacking through his elbow veins with a razor. He lay, fat and exsanguinated,… etc.

    Hughes is more than likely fatter than Rothko if anyone has seen his picture. What kind of sickness is being exhibited by Hughes here?

    Who would describe any kind of suicide by telling us the unfortunate person was fat?

    It seems to take a certain kind of repugnant and vile kind of hatred that would describe an artist who had taken his own life in such a callous manner.

    That speaks volumes about how much some of our current art critics care about artists and their work. Simon Schama, another of our “great” art critics intones his hollow and phony verbiage about Rothko in a PBS special, The Power of Art, where Rothko is played by a stand in gobbling down food with it dribbling all over him. The artist as fat slob.

    It’s par for the course for how some of our greatest American artists have been treated, not just when they lived but continue to be treated after their deaths. Rothko is a fat slob gulping down barbiturates. Notice the image. A non-fat person would swallow barbiturates. A gluttonous fat slob would be gulping them down.

    Who else would be described with such disrespect in a foremost “intellectual” journal? I don’t think even politicians would come in for this kind of sickening disrespect.

    But an artist? They deserve it.

    What else but complete hatred could animate those choices of words? Rothko had the effrontery to refuse art collectors and critics into his studio. His self-protective instincts were finally overcome by Marlborough. Rothko committed suicide on the day Marlborough was scheduled to force their way into his studio and take whatever paintings they wanted. He had no more way to protect himself. Marlborough were thieves. They stole paintings they had no right to. Lloyd is still a fugitive from justice living in Nassau. Hughes thinks it all comic.

    There you have the glorious New York Art World. Of course, Lee Seldes, who wrote the book meticulously researching this barbarism is described by Hughes as writing “like a child banging a toy on a bedpost.” Anyone reading Hughes original essay would find that a perfect description of himself.

    Here’s the exchange between Hughes and Seldes:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1979/feb/08/mark-rothko-an-exchange/

    Here’s the beginning of the Hughes article: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1978/dec/21/blue-chip-sublime/

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