Rothko, a Cigar and Strong Black Coffee

Cigar Chomper

Hub City Bookstore is a great independently run bookstore in Spartanburg, SC. On a rainy Saturday morning not long ago, I sat in a sheltered area outside, smoking a cigar and drinking strong black coffee from Little River Roasting Company next-door.

I was reading James Breslin’s biography of the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko, whose life story and work I’ve been very interested in lately:  born in Dvinsk, Russia (now part of Latvia) to a Jewish family, emigrated to the United States, attended Yale University, whose students were overtly anti-semitic in the 1920s, on a scholarship before dropping out and moving to New York City.

Rothko lived in near poverty for many years, devoting himself to his art, before gaining recognition as one of the most important and well-paid painters of the 20th Century.  In the 1950s, he was commissioned for a series of large works for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in Manhattan.  The $30,000 commission was the largest of its kind ever offered at that point and would be the equivalent of $2,000,000 today.  Rothko completed the work and then, always the prickly, argumentative personality and prone to depression, refused to sell it on the grounds that the restaurant’s bourgeois clientele would not be able to comprehend it.  He was probably right about that.

I love Rothko’s story.  He had very little when he arrived in America, although there was a support network of family.  He defied career expectations and didn’t choose safe and financially lucrative work.  He chose something that was incredibly difficult, cultivating an artistic talent, developing his skills and his vision and forging them into a successful aesthetic, while also contending against class prejudice, anti-immigrant attitudes and anti-semitism.  Although his life had a tragic end in suicide, his art transcends his life and moves us today.  He will always be remembered.  Bravo!

James Breslin - Mark Rothko

For more about Rothko, check out the excellent BBC documentary from The Power of Art series:

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