I have never seen his early, mythic, figurative work outside the pages of catalogues and art coffee table books. The Rothko I and thousands of others ‘know’ are those extraordinarily massive slabs of darkness, through which float almost untraceable hues of tone, texture and colour, the Late Series.
As he intended, I was overwhelmed, in awe, when I walked into the Tate a decade ago. And I thought of Dylan ten years earlier acknowledging that “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”.
It was clear that, for Rothko, it had already got there. He was re-working over and over again this sense of imminent tragedy, which we may infer or deduce, was to end in his future suicide.
I have known three suicides: a writer, a painter, a scientist. Each was, in their own way, brilliant: clever, intelligent, funny even. I cannot know, no-one can know, what despair drove them to believe that they were better off dead.
I have also known many more people left behind by the suicide of someone close to them; left behind with the guilt that they should have seen it coming, that they somehow failed their lover or friend. Suicide is not painless.
Rothko spoke often of suicide apparently, particularly that of Jackson Pollock – suicide by alcohol and a car crash. He told his assistant that “if I choose to commit suicide, everyone will be sure of it. There will be no doubts …”.
There wasn’t. He over-dosed on anti-depressants. And slashed his wrists with a razor blade.
This was no cry for help. This was no psychosis. This was not even a philosophical desire to die and take control over a life which was failing physically and intellectually.
I don't get it.
Half an hour ago, I had no intention of writing this or anything like it. But first thing this morning, I found myself staring at a Rothko print on our kitchen wall as I waited for the coffee machine to fire up. It is not one of the final pieces. In this one, it is not dark yet, but it’s getting there. I have looked at this many, many times but today, as I sipped my coffee, I was reminded of one of those quotes which I collect in my commonplace book.
It’s from Rothko. And it is this:
“There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend: One day, the black will swallow the red.’
Now that I understand.
Today from the everysmith vaults: A family illness has caused the cancellation of the Atrium String Quartet’s appearance in Leamington a week tonight. Their place is being taken by the Brodsky who will perform the Shostakovich #12 which was to be the centrepiece of the Atrium gig. I was looking forward immensely to seeing the Atrium again, but listening now to #7 is more than fine.
A brief addendum: Back in 2010, when this blog was conceived, I split the posts into Lettres d'Uzès (my hommage to Racine) for those written in France and, thus, Leamington Letters for those written in the UK. Lifestyle changes make this distinction inappropriate, so all posts will now come under the (highly appropriate) Not Dark Yet banner. Numbering of the posts henceforth is as if both were in fact one. The blog itself will now be titled MS for reasons which should be self-evident. The new profile picture was photo-shopped by my late great friend Bill Keningale for my 50th birthday. Er, that's it.