Mark Rothko and Selling Out in the Art World

When Mark Rothko committed suicide in 1970, he left behind hundreds of unsold paintings. Partly, he didn't want to flood the market, but he also found it hard to part with them. Rothko considered his artworks to be his children, and he didn't like to send them off to live with just anybody. So he auditioned his patrons. In the early '60s, when Jean Kennedy Smith, a sister of President Kennedy, asked to take one or two paintings home "on approval," he refused: "It is not a matter of my pictures fitting in with something else," he huffed. When a woman wanted to exchange a dark canvas she'd bought—it depressed her, she said—for one with bright colors, he gave back her money. One collector who did pass muster was David Rockefeller. In 1960, he bought, for less than $10,000, White Center, a painting of shimmery white and yellow bands on a luscious pink field. It hung in his office until 2007, when he sold it at Sotheby's for $72.8 million—still the auction record for a contemporary American painting. We can only imagine how Rothko would feel about holding the high-water mark in today's bloated art market, but it would probably drive him right up the wall.

Rothko was the last in a line of angst-ridden, soul-searching artists who had a love-hate relationship with his own success. For him, selling art was secondary to making it—in sharp contrast to the 21st-century art world, where dealers scramble to sign up the next hot young painter, fresh out of grad school, and where money is the only marker of success. Rothko couldn't have handled that kind of career; even as a mature artist, he wrestled anew with every raw canvas. In the late 1950s, he began agonizing over his biggest commission to date: a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in Manhattan. His struggle to make those paintings forms the backdrop for Red, a 90-minute whirlwind of a play by John Logan that opens on Broadway this week. Starring Alfred Molina as the volcanic artist, the character comes off as darkly comic, cranky, arrogant, angry, self-doubting, brilliant, and monstrous—his rainbow of emotions splattering across the stage. With Mozart on his studio hi-fi, Rothko gets ready to paint, dueling with his psyche over what the commission means. The project fulfills his desire to create an entire environment that will surround viewers with a suite of brooding paintings. Yet he fears the pictures could become mere décor at a fancy feeding trough for the ultra-rich. How could a Russian-born, left-wing immigrant artist—who, for the sake of his art, had spent most of his career in poverty—reconcile such a pact with the devil? At one point, he explodes (and this is an actual Rothko quote): "I hope to ruin the appetite of every sonofabitch who eats there!"

Rothko waged many internal battles—especially out of his fears over the approach of the next generation of artists. The freshly minted pop painters were staging a takeover of abstract expressionism in the early '60s—just as Rothko and his peers had once "stomped cubism to death," as his youthful assistant and sparring partner (Eddie Redmayne) reminds him in Red. "These young artists are out to murder me," growls the Rothko character, after seeing a pop-art show. Rothko did, in fact, refuse to shake Andy Warhol's hand when Ruth Kligman—the Jackson Pollock girlfriend who'd survived Pollock's fatal car crash—tried to introduce the two artists one day in Greenwich Village. The pop-sters' clever appropriation of cultural icons—Jasper Johns's American flags, Warhol's Brillo boxes—reflected the zeitgeist with deadpan irony. Their work was accessible, even if it required a certain knowingness on the part of the viewer, who could feel hip for being in on the joke. Abstract expressionism was esoteric but, in the case of painters like Pollock and Rothko, begged for an intense and personal response. It wasn't art of the moment: Rothko believed what he was creating was timeless, meant to exist as a solemn communion between a painting and a viewer. It was hot where pop was cool. "I am here to stop your heart," he insists in Red.

After Rothko took his wife to dinner at the just-opened Four Seasons, he couldn't stomach the thought of his paintings hanging in that glamorous setting—"that kind of food for those kinds of prices!"—and canceled the commission. Still, his success continued to grow. In 1961, he had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, which, naturally, filled him with anxiety (Rothko routinely threw up before his openings). Prices for his paintings escalated, and he finally did get the chance to create two suites of murals: one set for Harvard (later damaged by exposure to sunlight and removed) and 14 paintings for the nondenominational Rothko Chapel in Houston, commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil. Rothko gave eight of the paintings he'd done for the Four Seasons to the Tate Gallery in Britain, to be exhibited together. The panels arrived in London on the same bleak February day in 1970 that he cut open his arms in his New York studio and died at the age of 66.

In the years after Rothko's death, as the cultural rebellions of the '60s waned, pop's once radical agenda began to reflect contemporary values in more ominous ways. Warhol's artistic ingenuity gave way to the enterprise of being Warhol, which blurred the lines between art, celebrity, branding, and commerce. Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami are among Warhol's direct descendants: for these artists and others, creating the shock of the new isn't getting easier—just think of Hirst's pointlessly outrageous diamond-studded skull, For the Love of God, from 2007. The arbiter of artistic value is no longer an independent critic or a museum curator or ordinary art lovers, as Isabelle Graw points out in her book High Price—it's the vastly well-oiled industry of art fairs, auctions, and gallery deals, even in the current global recession. Which is not to say there aren't good artists out there making serious work: some of them are even struggling, though that's no longer the standard career model.

Of course, "Rothko" is now a brand, too. It may be a bit romantic to indulge in the notion of the heroic lion raging against a changing world; on a good day, Rothko liked money and fame as much as the next guy. But whether or not you love his paintings, it's impossible to doubt the sincerity of his struggle to make them, to express the world as he saw it. Those luminous pictures have an authenticity, a lack of cynicism, that seems to belong to a distant time. How often nowadays do you encounter a new work of art that stops your heart, instead of your checkbook?