The pleasure principle he despised


Suddenly Rothko is everywhere, and it’s safe to say he would have liked that. In New York, everyone wants to see Red, John Logan’s play about the artist. In London, the play and Alfred Molina’s confrontational performance for the Donmar Warehouse predictably triggered an outbreak of eye-rolling among the Art Classes. The prospect of yet another melodrama featuring a heroically tormented painter trowelling on the angst in heavy pigment, and monologues about nailing the Tragic to the canvas, brought on an attack of sneering at romantic platitudes; much muttering about Sturm und Drang for the middlebrow. But on the other side of the Atlantic, Rothko’s own side, the play has been received as deep, dark and moving, much like the artist’s late works. As it happens, that’s the right response. Whether the myths make the man or vice-versa, there are some artists who actually do live with the old burden of the melancholy temperament, richly chronicled in Rudolf and Margot Wittkower’s wonderful 1963 anthology of artistic gloom, Born Under Saturn. Rothko’s humour had more than its fair share of black bile, and wherever his painterly impulse took him, it was, by his own account, always engaged in the struggle to register the sacrificial and destructive habits ingrained in the human condition.

more from Simon Schama at the FT here.