The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art by Mark Rothko

OK, so Mark Rothko was not a writer. This is apparent in this recently discovered text, published in 2004 by Yale UP but probably written during the late 1930's or early 1940's. His prose is dense and sometimes circular, he lets his bitterness about other, more commercially successful artists pop up in the middle of seemingly unrelated chapters, and he creates obscure definitions for artistic principles that he doesn't clearly define.

That having been said, The Artist's Reality is still a gem, if only because you get a tiny glimpse into the mind of one of the 20th century's most remarkable painters. Having just read Rothko's "philosophies," I am not sure I understand his work any more than I did before, and readers looking for insight into his color field paintings won't find much in the way of new clarity, as the editor, Rothko's son, warns. But it sure is delightfully bitchy fun listening to him make fun of Maxfield Parrish.

And there are some lovely sentences in this slim text, such as when Rothko proclaims:

Therefore art, like philosophy, is of its own age; for the partial truths of each age differ from those of other ages, and the artist, like the philosopher, must constantly adjust eternity, as it were, to all the specifications of the moment.

There is something really striking about this sentence, because among the meandering construction and totally useless little phrases to trip over like "as it were," there is this tiny gem of a phrase: "must constantly adjust eternity."

The whole book is like that -- a genius who knows his own mind and yet is struggling with words to make it clear. It's really wonderful in its rawness. We have to remember that Rothko himself did not publish the book, maybe for good reason, and did not have the final edit, since the manuscript was (thankfully!) unearthed from his files long after his death.

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