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Mark Rothko: A Biography Paperback – 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

"I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry." Born Marcus Rothkowitz in a small Russian town, Mark Rothko immigrated to Portland, Oregon, in 1913, when he was 10 years old. "You don't know what it is to be a Jewish kid dressed in a suit that is a Dvinsk, not an American, idea of a suit traveling across America and not able to speak English," he later told fellow abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell. Rothko was a weak child, an abandoned son (his father had gone to America in 1910 and died of cancer just seven months after the family was reunited), a Jew excluded from high school clubs, a Yale freshman on scholarship, and a college dropout determined to become an Artist with a capital A. James Breslin has written an exhaustive biography of the painter. He pulled together all the facts of Rothko's life and carefully examined all the strata of the artist's personality--Rothko's sensitivity, his sense of displacement, his pride and his diffidence, his combativeness, his love for his children, his hatred for Marlborough Gallery director Frank Lloyd, and his difficulties with money. The book is flawed only by Breslin's ticlike use of italics, which give the sense of the author tugging at our sleeve in an unnecessary effort to persuade: "Rothko's last and most severe renunciations were made not to remove obstacles between the observer and the idea but in a gesture of personal withdrawal." But this is a relatively minor trifle that does not unduly detract from this large--and large-spirited--book about a tormented, brilliant Artist. --Peggy Moorman

From Publishers Weekly

A hefty, bear-like man with voracious appetites, an alcoholic who withdrew into isolation and took his own life, Mark Rothko (1903-1970) made paintings that transformed despair into transcendent beauty. Breslin's biography, a splendid achievement, exorcises Rothko's private demons and explores how he invented a modern art which enacted his inner drama. Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia, raised in Portland, Oregon, from age 10, the painter launched an iconoclastic underground newspaper at Yale, became a "self-made proletarian" in the Depression, and progressed from expressionist urban moodscapes to surreal mythic pictures to the free-floating stacked rectangles that are his trademark. A melancholy man who never felt fully at home in his adopted country, Rothko festered with indignation as an outsider, but once he achieved fame and insider status, he felt corrupted and doomed by it, according to Breslin, a UC-Berkeley Enlgish professor and biographer of William Carlos Williams. Illustrated.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 764 pages
  • Publisher: The University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226074064
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226074061
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.8 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #227,037 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Paul Laub on July 6, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
No book can do Mark Rothko justice. He painted on large
canvases. To know him is to confront his original work
on the wall before you. Find your distance, 10, 15,
maybe 30 feet back. Yet to make sense of his
colored rectangles tearing themselves apart in fission,
as well as his earlier, quite different work, some
background helps.
Breslin's book will become the standard reference, but
not perhaps the starting point. He writes engrossingly,
but the 558 pages of text, I fear, will discourage the
casual reader (who might do well to read Robert
Hughes's paragraphs in American Visions).
Still, for the motivated reader, James Breslin's bio is
awesome. The Latvian Jew, charity student at
antisemitic Yale in the early 20s, uncomfortable and
smarter than most there, comes alive, as does his love
for children and their art, as well as his tormented
first marriage to a wife commercially successful during
the Great Depression making jewelry that sold. Rothko
had higher ambitions: fine art spelled with a capital
"A". As Breslin relates, discomfort never disappeared.
Success and recognition did not go over well with
this self-described anarchist who, as a Portland
teenager, enthusiastically took in lectures by Emma
Goldman. Overall, Breslin provides a biographical and
historical foundation with which to understand Mark
Rothko's painting. I am grateful for that.
Finally, of the many biographies I've read, James EB
Breslin's stands out for another reason: in his
Afterword, he turns from Rothko to himself and
addresses his own motivations and challenges in writing
the biography.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By G. Snowden on August 2, 2007
Format: Paperback
I am a painter, an art professor, and a reader of biographies. I couldnt put this book down. Breslin did a magnificent job of getting inside the psyche of Rothko as a man, and as an artist. The paragraphs that describe the way in which Rothko created one of his paintings is absolutely inspired....I had goose-bumps reading it, because it seemed as if Breslin,unlike many writers who say they have observed artists, actually understood the process of creation and the passion behind it. I have never written a fan letter to a writer, but I began one to Mr.Breslin. Imagine my distress and sorrow when I read the next day in the paper that he had passed away! But this book lives as a testament to his thorough research and love of the subject. Get this book and read it....if you love art, artists, or scholarship,you will not be disappointed.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Mcmanus on June 22, 2009
Format: Paperback
Only a few biographies of artists are any good. A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord and Picasso by John Richardson and Jackson Pollock by Steven Naifeh come to mind. After reading this excellent biography I must place it with these great books. I am tired of reading art critics who obscure great art rather than illuminate it. This work opens up to the layman in simple and clear writing the beauty and complexity of this modern artist in his struggle to create meaningful and profound art. In this post modernist world such ambitions are scoffed at. Irony is easy but to be profound is the most dangerous thing an artist can attempt. He risks being pompous and bombastic. But Rothko avoids these pitfalls and in the process has become one of our greatest artists. I hope you have as much fun reading this as I did. Books like this are rare. Get it.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Wilson Trivino on February 15, 2012
Format: Paperback
The father of modern impressionism Mark Rothko was a complex figure in the art world. James Breslin has done a thorough analysis of this complex figure.
Delving to his roots in Russia to immigrating to the United States at an early age, Rothko turn the art world upside down with his impressionist paintings. These bold colors were a peek inside the world of an artist who felt he could change the world from within.
In the 1950s, he was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Seagrams building new fancy restaurant Four Seasons. The largest commission at the time, Rothko saw it as an opportunity for the patrons to have a transformational experience. He worked tirelessly to create the ultimate master piece. However, ultimately he gave the money back and believed that he was selling out rather to be true to himself.
The book also goes into painful details of the final days, as Rothko took his own life.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the afterwards at the end when Breslin explains his journey in completing this book. How he went to Russia, traveled the path of Rothko, all in the hopes to gain insight into this man. Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E. B. Breslin is an insightful look into an artistic life.
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Format: Paperback
If you already like or love Rothko, you'll love this book. If you'd just like to get in up to your ankles, try Simon Schama's chapter on the man in THE POWER OF ART. That's is what got me started.

All these reviews are right, except for the idea Rothko is an impressionist. Crazy. (Repeated in one of the reviews of the Dore Ashton book!) Also Rothko himself recommended viewing his paintings from up very close rather than at a distance as someone else says here.

There's a LOT of analysis of Rothko's psychology and his work here. One reviewer calls this "mumbo jumbo." I found it often very revealing. "Small pictures place us back in the world of separate objects and distanced relations. Large pictures sweep us up and place us INSIDE a fluid space of shifting, indefinite boundaries." (Page 280 of the paperback. Rothko's recommendation--"in his provocateur mode"--to view his paintings from a distance of "eighteen inches" is on the next page.)

I read my share of biographies, and this has its own voice. It's personal. (I don't just mean the Afterword, which is a nice mix of concrete details and abstract rumination on the craft of biography.) For example, there may be a couple of dozen instances in the book where Breslin inserts an aside in quotes, often quoting himself--a quip made earlier in the book. If there's an emoticon for eye-rolling, it would go here. It's sort of cute and intimate, and--what is the word I'm looking for? Amateurish? But in a very winning way.

Once in awhile I found my self thinking Breslin's editor could have cut this volume back by a large percentage. But it's the same with Caro's LBJ, at least the 1958-64 book (which is the only one I've read).
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