cover image Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel

Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel

Annie Cohen-Solal. Yale Univ, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-300-18204-0

In this gripping biography, Cohen-Solal (Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli) examines the life and work of Rothko, an artist motivated by his spirituality and one of the most distinguished painters of the 20th century. The meticulous text begins with the artist’s birth as Marcus Rotkovitch in the Russian Empire in 1903, during a time of “tensions, persecutions, and latent hostility” toward Jews, followed by his emigration to Portland, Ore., at age 10. It goes on to catalogue the political, social, and religious forces that contributed to Rothko’s success and also caused him considerable setbacks throughout his career. Digging into archives and conducting interviews with scholars and the artist’s relatives, Cohen-Solal illuminates the lifelong impact Rothko’s time in Talmudic school, as well as the support he received from the immigrant Jewish community in Portland during his years as a minority student in high school. The author also traces Rothko’s struggles at Yale University, in New Haven, Conn., the “inaccessible club of young WASPs,” where he learned that “the Yale social system was based more on breeding than on merit.” The book richly illustrates a contentious period in the American art world, including the Armory Show, clashes between artists and institutions, and the growing influence of European artists such as Rodin, Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse in the United States. This novelistic account is a rewarding close-up of Rothko’s personal life and his experience as a Jewish immigrant. Photos. (Mar.)