Painting the Nada
III. The Children of Jacob Rothkowitz and Anna Goldin
The photograph was taken in 1912, perhaps to commemorate a birthday, a marriage proposal, or the simple joy of being alive. The five in the portrait pose before a faux tapestry that gives a generous nod to Hans Memling for both its considerable naiveté and the poor quality of its design.
The background suggests a hill with trees, probably during springtime in Tuscany. The gentle slope with its murmur of living things invites reflection, a comforting sense of peace. We contemplate the landscape from a crumbling walkway open to the calm of such a panorama: a graceful balcony, deteriorating a little, above quiet nature. Imagine a society of nightingales or dare envision the less innocent intimacy of lovers down below where shadows are soft as a caress. We taste ancient names: Aldobrando, Beatrice, Edoardo, Vanadia, Gioachino, Dorotea.
Return to the studio of the photographer, an anteroom with its humble trompe l’oeil of heavy curtains used a thousand times, which has little or no connection with the lightness of the landscape, an ornate table with inlaid stones and V-shaped legs reminiscent of a nineteenth-century Ottoman reception hall, a floral carpet that crushes completely any hope of balance between the photographer’s atelier and the suggested view, and two wooden chairs that resemble those from early filmmakers Griffith and Vertov, who have been celebrated and criticized by legions of directors, perhaps without their being aware of the indelible grooves they were carving in the living rock of the future.
Going from left to right, first is Albert, the oldest, then Sonia, the only daughter in the family, a cousin whose name we have lost, and the two younger brothers, Markus, the baby of the family, and Moise. First, our eyes go to the cousin with his good looks, a beautiful young man who reminds us of Robert de Montesquiou, in the words of Ghislain de Diesbach, the unsurpassed biographer of Marcel Proust, with his Parisian elegance suited to dandies from Buenos Aires. His angular face is the only one that escapes looking like an eggplant, a pear, or in any case, that is different from the elongated faces that adorn the others in the portrait. Compared with this beau of the époque, the offspring of the Rothkowitz/Goldin marriage exude a certain air of misery, although careful observation provides interesting notes, Moise looks just like his brother Albert, while Markus, on the other hand, is the very image of his sister Sonia. Indeed, with looks both simian and brutal, emphasized in the case of Moise by his short hair and wide forehead, Markus’ two brothers collect the genetic fingerprint of a shared destiny through generations that have contemplated the world with the stupid sense of trust such eyes glimpse through a murky dark; on the other hand, Markus and his sister seem able to reveal a kind of grace, a way of giving themselves up to the magic eye of the lens as if knowing that, although posing for the moment, they simultaneously are also permitted a furtive, yet bold glance toward the future.
And notice how in the angle of Markus’ head, in the white purity of his skin, something almost feminine flutters, the nonchalance of a nymph, a glow of flesh blessed with the secret of beauty. And is it not also true his hands, which grip the back of the chair gently, delicately, as if afraid to upset the balance between the wood and its suggested geometry, promise to contain a world of possibilities?
Closing our eyes, for a moment we can almost hear their songs as the nightingales stir, the expert caresses that the lovers, Edoardo and Vanadia exchange protected by anonymity’s light sleep. The modest trompe l’oeil has become the triumph of the possible over the real. A taste of a theme Markus will insistently explore in the future.
That question is not for nothing. What is painting if not the translation of the illusion of a third dimension where only two exist?
IV. Immense Prairies, Endless Skies, Escape
A man is what he has seen.
The first time I admired a work by Rothko in a museum, I didn’t know I had fallen in love. Enough years had to pass, almost a decade actually, before I could accept how he dazzled me. The same way it happens with those women whose beauty–the sense of their beauty, I mean, not the substance of that beauty–how you can only discover it after a second look, I was not prepared for the sense of Rothko’s painting until the second time I admired his exhibited work.
It seems to make sense to trace writers’ own life experiences in their books, in the films of directors, their personal stories, even in the scores of musicians. If you can find resonances of recognizable landscapes, why not look for similar relationships in Rothko’s life?
Rothko was born in 1903 in Latvia, in the second city of the republic, then called Dvinsk and today known as Daugavpils. During the Soviet occupation and the Cold War, at a distance of 12 kilometers from the city, there was an airbase with a certain reputation, called Lotsaki, and until Rothko was born into the light of the brand new 20th century, the city had given to History only a handful of notable people, almost all were rabbis who answered to names like Meir Simcha or Abraham Isaac Kook. Guidebooks mention that Dvinsk received its founding charter in 1275 and praise the beauty of its lakes. In the city, in addition to Latvians, lived Russians, Lithuanians, Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Estonians, and, of course, Jews.
In 1913, when he was just ten years, Markus Rothkowitz, who spoke only Yiddish and Russian, braved the railway in the United States to reach Portland, Oregon, where the rest of his family, who had already immigrated to the land of opportunity in 1910, awaited him. Young Rothko made that long journey with a sign hung around his neck, a sign, written in English, listing personal information along with his destination.
I’ve often wondered how much that sign would bring in the art market. I imagine graceful handwriting by a loving mother or maybe clumsy characters, barely legible, from an old mustached uncle, perhaps the father of the handsome double of Robert de Montesquiou, the cousin without a name. History, that old whore, without missing a beat, swallowed up that placard we try to shelter now in these pages–a poor, perhaps vain attempt that may provide nothing of use. However, let’s return to Markus.
Let’s assume that the future genius would never forget the experience of that vision of infinite space of the American landscape glimpsed through the windows of the train car, it was the only way he could understand everything around him. Let’s insist: a man is the sum of what he has seen. And yet, reflected in the retina of someone still a child, only that extended view of the landscape could make any sense, no matter how basic that might be. Not the men or the women in those cars, nor the languages they spoke, nor the clothes they wore, not even the objects they carried, were relinquished or exchanged for that image, only the immutable, non-negotiable, indestructible landscape that lay on the horizon beyond him, as promise or fatality. Perhaps as redemption.
Not even after he had settled in Portland, Oregon, without, for years, understanding English and, even less, the strange customs of this new country into which his elders’ desires had thrown him, not in his games, nor in his most intimate dreams could he stop putting into some compartment the sense of space that confined him during that long journey, that acted as refuge and stronghold, that cauterized him against the unknown.
When at the end of the 1920s Rothko became convinced that painting was his true vocation, when decades later he discovered the signature style that separated him from the rest of his contemporaries to make him what he has become, a pure, bold-print celebrity with an indelible signature that comes from a unique way of seeing among the millions of possible ways of seeing, he could not stop painting over and over the desolation of that horizon line devouring, like a cannibal, the width of the canvas, with varying densities, colors, textures, yes, but always with his gaze locked away within the geometric forms he observed at age ten as he dared cross the landscape of the New World and felt in his chest, not the drums on the prairie nor the roar of waterfalls nor the distress of Indians massacred nor the four presidential faces on Mount Rushmore nor the majestic and solemn Statue of Liberty nor the unstoppable flow of machines and dollars coming out of Ford plants and Detroit’s assembly lines, but childhood exile and the will to survive, the grand shining that canceled out everything strange or dire.
If an artist is a fanatic, straining thousands of purifying processes, a filter always in motion, the carrying out of Rothko’s obsession lay in his faith that, thanks to painting, thanks to the repetition of a single primitive, written gesture (the mark, the line, the first action of sapiens as symbolic animal), he could retain the experience of that encounter, that still glow contemplated from a train in motion (what a beautiful paradox) that had rescued him from obscurity. Although that event, obviously, was only an illusion, being part of the territory of the artist, of whatever artist, including one as important as Rothko, recapturing that moment is always a failure. And so it is that every artist, call him Tati or Stravinsky, writes or composes for eternity or wastes the light from his own eyes in a poor room in Addis Ababa or in a dimly lit basement in Odessa, is summoned to the ruin of his own hopes.
An aortic aneurysm forced Rothko to retire temporarily from painting, leaving his health broken; the separation from his wife, who had deceived him with various mediocre men (what an ordeal for someone with his enormous talent to be beaten out by some other cock, by a form of kissing, by certain kinds of tenderness or charm); and for years a growing state of anxiety joined by a latent depression without respite lead him to those final canvases that became dark and dense, as if he could not leave that land of shadow to paint the light which had been his refuge for decades, that same light which had shone for the Latvian boy on his journey to the heart of his future empire. Perhaps the realization that he could no longer summon up that light, that he could not hide within it, made it impossible most of the time to endure the dramatic tension of his life and so, in effect, he painted one final canvas, a requiem for light, that was nothing if not a self-portrait.
A completely black picture painted in his New York studio devoured the morning of February 25, 1970, exactly 51 weeks before I, the author of Light Is More Ancient Than Love, was born on the other side of the Atlantic in a city near the sea with the disputable reputation of never having been fictionalized with any sense of genius.
Shortly before his death, he prophetically wrote:
“My capacity to see is so great my eyes will end up consuming themselves. And this exhaustion of my pupils will be the illness that will take me to my death. One night I will be looking so intently into the dark that I will end up inside it.”
The Word of Rothko.
V. Old Photos
Michelangelo Antonioni once sent a letter to Rothko: I film nothing, he said in it, you paint nothing.
Plausible or not, Antonioni’s sentence holds a trace of truth: so, the films of the Italian master take on as an objective, whatever that is by definition, the absence of subject to interpret, contemplate, and evaluate, that is not nothing (what comes about is something materially resonant, but meaningless); thus Rothko’s art, from the late 1940s, turns to a form so pure and stripped of interpretation that we are tempted to think that sometimes the Latvian master entertained the idea that a painting aspired to be nothingness itself, to be the nada.
Better said, with a single flick of his wrist he focused the canvas on the nada. To trap the nada in a moment of distraction, to discover it by looking at a skirt, or nail polish, or a bank balance. Nothing with blood running from its face. Nothing playing with its children. Nothing wearing its best clothes.
When Malevich paints his white on white canvases, he breaks the ultimate taboo in painting, to create silence, void, ground zero in the fine arts: the triumph of anti-painting, at the same time, however, Malevich joins, for always, tradition, tames the beast, converts the iconoclastic into the orthodox. After Malevich, ingenuity is dead, but that sense of the inventive is the least traditional that has ever existed. The avant-garde, by becoming seminal, has made itself the governing institution. So, innovators begin by killing the father to become the fathers themselves.
I suspect Rothko wanted to paint a different kind of nada, to kill the father in a different way, to trap on canvas a material nada, intense, not the nada of painting as representation of man’s capacity, but nothingness as man’s cognitive capacity, not nothing as spectacle, pyrotechnics, play, but nada as substance, organic, ontological responsibility. Not nothing as possibility, but nothing as consciousness itself. Malevich was a jokester, but Rothko came from Aeschylus. The distance between Malevich and Rothko is the distance between laughter and irony: the former born of youth, the latter a testament to maturity.
Photographs of the artists. How handsome they are. On my desk, as I write Light Is More Ancient Than Love, I look at one of the photos of the artists that has inspired me for years, one that has become something of a touchstone.
In the beginning was the Word.
But the Word has a Saxon name, a conqueror’s name, although he may be small in stature. There exists no correspondence, at least not in the imagination, between a name and its possessor. Because the man, rather than being a bad-tempered bard or a thundering warrior, rather resembles a Spanish gentleman fallen on hard times or at the least, a man diminished by adversity, who yet maintains in his eyes and in the cut of his mustache, if not strength, at least the pride of an ancient breed.
The Word–let’s say it this one time–is named William, and he came into the world to write one of the most important works of literature in the English language, which is to say in world literature. Today, while I write these words for another artist, while I write in order to feel close to Mark Rothko, what he represents for me, I admire this other man, enclosed in a simple frame on the wall north of my desk, in a reproduction of a photograph that Carl Van Vechten made of him on December 11, 1954, after he’d already won the Nobel, had written all his master works, and his genius had burned out like a candle someone has extinguished.
In Van Vechten’s photo, Faulkner has white hair and a protruding nose like those noses of old men that invade a face like a cancer. His face has a certain weariness, or maybe he looks as if he has heartburn. He wears a suit that does not fit quite right and a handkerchief not at all neatly ironed peeks from his jacket pocket. His left hand folds back in a position that looks uncomfortable and behind him, for the photo session, there is a wall of brick or something that imitates brick, a kind of Wailing Wall.
We can see that the writer isn’t happy in the pose, but we can also attest that nose has smelled God knows what from the bottom of a drink glass and that those hands have typed some of the best pages of literature ever. Because that man, the Word, William is one of the most majestic incarnations of the mystery we call writing, a powerful demiurge, one of its authorities. Because that man, the Word, William, will endure and prevail.
I don’t know if Mark Rothko read Faulkner. From the look of his canvases the connection seems complex. Within Rothko beats a love for geometry, for form, pure and naked, a leftover European taste for order foreign to Faulknerian ambiguity and sensuality. So, in that way that potential conversation can only be feasible here in Part 2, Chapter V, of Light Is More Ancient Than Love, after the discovery of “The Bearded Virgin” by Adriano de Robertis has provided a cataclysm of conscience for that certain man of the Church who would one day be Pope, and only then, stemming from another image, one of four men and a woman posing in a photograph in the distant year 1912, may we break through to the mystery of Mark Rothko.
It’s true. Everything that happens in time leads back to memory. When we look at the stars, we see old photographs.
VI. As If
In the image, Rothko in shirt sleeves seems to be smoking a Vegueros cigar, premium, Cuban, seated on a huge sofa with his arms folded across his chest and wearing a bemused look. He seems like a customs agent on his day off who has just shown a fellow police officer some contraband found inside a suitcase, pornographic films perhaps. Or sex toys: enormous rubber and latex cocks, sadomasochistic masks, the still-inviolate secret of an inflatable doll with the face and measurements of Rita Hayworth. He looks relaxed and cheerful like a man in a T-shirt on Sunday morning. Let’s not dismiss the idea that he resembles Groucho Marx.
In front of him, he leers at Picasso in a compromising position indeed, holding a young girl on his lap. The girl can’t be any older than fourteen and the date of the photo (October 1962) refers immediately to Lolita. Kubrick had just filmed Nabokov’s novel that same year. But Picasso, of course, does not seem concerned about certain institutions that dictate public morality nor does he remember the patrician James Mason. Blistering eyes shine in the photo with a roguish gleam, in no way solemn, and his right hand, (the one he paints with, bulging and veined, the hand of a stevedore or an ancient miner) rests with delight on a thigh thick and full, delicious, that calls to memory, not so much the figure of Sue Lyon, but that of some Norma Jean Harlow locked up in the body of a wanton teenage girl. As far as knowing much about the face or the expression of the girl who is turned slightly sideways (looking at the jovial customs agent and with her back to the horny police officer), there is nothing we can say, well, her straight hair covers the half of her face we might have been able to see. She becomes a featureless sexual motif, which, of course, makes her incredibly desirable.
We could call the photo “Old Men with Hard-Ons.” But there is no title, nor any museum or particular collection in the world to shelter it, because that photograph was never taken and only exists in the camera of my longing, sunk deep in the belly of this book, Light Is More Ancient Than Love, as a way to move forward, in order not to diminish, not to constrain the act of writing as a means, I don’t know if it’s justifiable, of survival. So, we could name the photograph: “How to Save the Furniture.” Or better yet, without having to resort to cynicism: “What We Talk About When We Talk About What Exists But Is Nonexistent.” Isn’t that one of the basic aims of literature?
Nietzsche wrote that a man needs to live “as if” he accepts the world around him. Indeed, we know that humanity as we know it will disappear one day, and we have a Copernican view, and I include Einstein’s question concerning the friendliness of the Universe, but we live “as if” the sun will never fade away, “as if” we didn’t know about the existence of ice ages, “as if” we were still in the time of Ptolemy. Scientists, who by definition are often terse in their conclusions, perhaps because their job is not to comfort or entertain, but to inform and understand, also ensure that our system is governed by entropy, which means that this world, with all that inhabits it, is heading inevitably towards chaos, disorder, decay.
And yet, as I write, as I use my magnifying glass to study all the stories around me–some real, some fictional, all possible; I feel I’m engaging language in the construction of a semblance of order, of an organization of a higher order, a structure resistant to any risk of dissolving, of being swallowed up by disorder. At the end of the day, upon writing this, am I not trying to avoid entropy, disarray, the very death of Form?
Like any artist, Rothko created paintings that tried to explain the world, paintings that sought to capture it within the borders of the canvas, paintings that desired to condense everything into an array of textures, colors, and shapes. All paintings, from the most primitive to the most avant-garde, even those, when the artist was naive as well as bold, that predate the discovery of perspective, include an attempt that aims to make sense, even if that sense comes from meaninglessness or absurdity of the form itself. Similarly, all literature is an attempt to defeat terrible, devastating entropy.
The paradox, of course, is as obvious as it is disturbing. Each book, each chapter, each paragraph, every sentence, every letter, every arrangement of some subject in a grouping of words, do they not in turn generate a new and unbearable source for entropy? Are we not pretending to clean the stables of language with the only tool that actually helps increase the filth? One of the most common temptations that plagues the writer is to give up from exhaustion. The author has nothing to say. His stories have abandoned him, abducted by silence, have become a white dot on a white page, have become the white painting of Malevich: a man without a landscape. The image of the writer forgotten by his muse is so common it has even been included in advertising, not to mention film or literature itself: some guy pulling out his hair seated in front of a table.
But in my case, I am often overcome by another kind of temptation: to stop writing because of excess, overabundance, surfeit, because there are so many stories to tell, way too many things to say, they generate a sense of suffocating glut: that sensation, with its warning by certain topographers that the most accurate map of a territory would be the territory itself.
However, I am lying. The test is to talk about Rothko, not even his paintings are enough for me, not his all-consuming career, the volume of printed words in every language spilling forth about his genius, but here, as I sit at the desk in my house, contemplating a photograph of William Faulkner taken by Carl Van Vechten on December 11, 1954, I feel the need to add another story to the story, to invent another face for Rothko, to give him the dubious, unlikely bearing of a fellow artist, the Spaniard named Picasso who seems to like young girls.