PORTLAND, Oregon — Mark Rothko was born 113 years ago on September 25, 1903. By the 1950s he would become a giant in the pantheon of 20th-century Abstract Expressionism, painting colors in swaths, rectangles, and squares that overlap and embrace each other. His canvases are hypnotizing in their large scale, and unmistakable in style. In the early 20th century he was decades away from the painter we know, but unwittingly developing the character of a “tortured artist.” There was a fair amount of frustration in Rothko’s early years. But he was not yet “Rothko.”
His name was Mark Rothkowitz. In 1923 he gave up on a scholarship to Yale University after two years, fueled by an intense distaste for the school’s country-club-esque environment that felt, to him, antithetical to learning. Rothkowitz returned to his childhood home of Portland, Oregon, a city to which his family had immigrated from Dvinsk, Russia, when he was 10 years old. His mother was still alive, and he had three siblings that were older, out of the house, and working. His father had died long ago from cancer, just months after Rothkowitz arrived in the United States.
Here, in Portland, he was not a painter yet. He, like his artist friends and inspirations, had other avenues to explore. Paul Klee, for example, began as a gifted violin player at the behest of his music-teacher father and singer mother. Milton Avery, later a friend and mentor to Rothko, worked in a manufacturing and insurance company into his thirties. Barnett Newman, also a friend, worked for his father’s menswear company until the Depression devastated the business. Rothkowitz likewise immersed himself in a world that was not his future career, but one that would inform his life as a painter. He joined an acting troupe.
It was then that two artists of very different mediums with very different backgrounds met under temporary circumstances, finding themselves in the same place for that same brief moment. Mark Rothkowitz and the actor Clark Gable, then known as William C. Gable, were both dabbling in dramatics at the Portland Theater Guild in Oregon.
Rothkowitz had studied drama in grade school and expressed to friends at Yale his interest in the theater. But the stage didn’t stick. By the time Josephine Dillon, director of the Portland troupe, left for Hollywood in the summer of 1924 with Gable on her heels, Rothkowitz was considering returning to New York City. He would enroll in the New School of Design and, later, the Arts Students League. He would shorten his name.
Gable was also still young and not famous. Between the fall of 1923 and the spring of 1924, Rothkowitz and Gable were in at least two plays together, as advertised in the Oregonian. In the scope of Rothko’s life, the meeting of these two men takes on a mythical significance. “I was a better actor than Clark Gable,” said Rothko, according to James E. B. Breslin’s Mark Rothko: a Biography. In later years, during Gable’s ascension as a shimmering celebrity following his role in Gone With the Wind, Rothko claimed that Gable had been his understudy, though I found no evidence of this.
Gable grew up on a farm. His father called him “Sissy,” though Gable preferred his middle name, William, or Billy. During Gable’s teens, father and son worked on an oil field together in Bigheart, Oklahoma — 12-hour shifts as a tool dresser “on the business end of a sixteen-pound sledge,” said Gable to the New York Herald Tribune decades later in 1956. Soon, Gable ended up in Oregon quite by accident, having joined a traveling theater troupe to get the hell out of Dodge, as they say. The ensemble stalled out and folded in the face of a snowstorm in Montana. Gable and the troupe’s piano player hopped a freight train bound for Bend, Oregon, where the piano player had an uncle. When they arrived, the uncle was nowhere to be found, so Gable made his way to Portland. He worked various day jobs and pursued acting by night. The next year he followed his mentor Josephine Dillon to Hollywood to try it in the movies. He would marry her in December of 1924.
As a leading man, Clark Gable may not ping on the radar of classic Hollywood stars with the same hypnotic pitch of, say, Cary Grant, or even Jimmy Stewart. With his dark pomaded hair, confident smirk, olive skin, and pencil moustache, Gable’s power was his iconic swagger that trundled through classic cinema. He was not a particularly good actor, but he was a good movie star. His most famous line is likely remembered because it’s true: “Frankly, my dear Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” he says as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. Along with Scarlett, Gable didn’t seem to “give a damn” about his big ears, ham hands, or casual, loping gait that he snuck into some of his roles, especially early on in his career.
The ingredients of Gable’s life were ripe for celebrity stew: five marriages, a career in the air force, and so many blockbuster films. He died from an ailing heart in 1960, days after production wrapped on The Misfits, a film in which he stars with Marilyn Monroe. “The people programmed in the golden days of movies believe no truth is as interesting, or safe, as a half-truth,” writes one of the more spirited of Gable’s biographers, Lyn Tornabene in Long Live the King: a Biography of Clark Gable. She continues, “No life history of a star could be as saleable as the one a publicity department could invent for him.” Indeed, Gable made a living becoming a story, and the public ate it up with pleasure.
In 1923 the young ushers of the Beaux Arts society guided audience members to their seats in the Portland Women’s clubhouse. The play was (perhaps appropriately titled) The Contrast, a light comedy written by Royall Tyler in 1787. As Rothkowitz and Gable waited backstage, ready to act their respective roles, maybe they chatted. Maybe they talked about Hollywood and the scoundrels, murders, rapes, and drug overdoses that crowded the real estate of the tabloids — the accused being the superstars. Or maybe the two men talked politics. Maybe the future painter talked about Emma Goldman. Rothkowitz had been following her anarchist orations since grade school. Gable might have shrugged it off. Lefties and books weren’t for him, he’d say — though biographer Tornabene writes that Gable hid a remarkable library, including fiction and nonfiction, that he feared might tarnish his macho facade.
I imagine Rothkowitz in the theater hesitating. This was a place where you didn’t have to be who you were and where it was often best if you weren’t. Gable clambered out of his past and chased attention. But attention was too much for Rothkowitz when he became Rothko. A painter is to at least some degree introspective and has the ability to create and adore his work regardless of others’ opinions. Once Rothko started painting, he continually fought against a system he found to be opinionated for all the wrong — art market — reasons. To him, his paintings were not commodities; they were stories of life.
Ultimately Rothko was not an actor, and could not successfully escape himself. But his paintings were his thespians. In his essay, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” Rothko writes: “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. … Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space.” He illuminated the lights of their stage through color butted up against color on soaring canvasses.
Rothko committed suicide in 1970 after he suffered an aortic aneurysm the previous year and then struggled with depression. He had completed a commission granted by Dominique and John de Menil in Houston, the Rothko Chapel, which had yet to open. He had also recently delivered nine paintings from a series known as the Seagram Murals to Tate Britain in London. The paintings arrived in the UK the morning he died.
When Rothko died, there were multiple stories in the press probing why — why didn’t we see it coming? How did we miss this? Those vibrating, pulsing, crying, howling, screaming, silent, vicious, bleeding, enveloping, staring, saturating, penetrating, stroking, petting paintings were right there in front of us. These paintings pleaded: Just make me more than object — paint, canvas, wood.
At the opening of the Rothko Chapel, Dominique de Menil said of Rothko: “As he worked on the chapel, which was to be the greatest adventure of his life, his colors became darker and darker, as if he were bringing us to the threshold of transcendence, the mystery of the cosmos, the tragic mystery of our perishable condition.” When I was at the Rothko Chapel several years ago it was, indeed, dim — and quiet — the kind of quiet that demands introspection. But the chapel also invites the eye to search, to understand what else inhabits those canvases other than black. Perhaps there is red, but it takes eyestrain and effort to see. The behemoth paintings line the octagonal space, all very similar: dark, deep, enveloping. They made me feel small, just some breath and a heartbeat. Both Gable and Rothko died following troubles with the heart, the former a famous movie star, and the latter, ever trying to rein fame in, ever searching for authenticity and meaning.
At the end his life maybe Rothko found this meaning, or maybe it became clear that it was all just something that one cannot really find amid all the performance and space between the colors.
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