Rothko’s Passage Through Fear and Trembling During the Seagram Murals

“I would like to say to those who think of my pictures as serene, whether on friendship or mere observation, that I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface.”
—Mark Rothko

“I would readily pay with my life
For a safe place with constant warmth
Were it not that life’s flying needle
Leads me on through the world like a thread.”
—Arseniy Tarkovsy

How does one hold reality at bay? By abstracting to ideal representations and holding fast.

In July 1954 it was announced that the Seagram Building would be constructed at 375 Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. $43 million and carte blanche was given to former Bauhaus director Mies van der Rohe and his assistant, Nazi sympathizer Philip Johnson, to design and construct an architectural icon.

Casting around New York, post-war center of the art world, four years later for the hottest talent in painting to adorn the interior walls of its plush Four Seasons restaurant, Phyllis Lambert, daughter of Seagram boss Samuel Bronfman, commissioned Markus Rothkowitz. For 500 to 600 square feet of paintings, manager Sidney Janis negotiated, the artist would receive $35,000, $7,000 “at once for immediate expenses.” For Rothko, by now fully immersed in the abstract, the line and all semblance of the figure utterly abandoned, it was to be a milestone, a touchstone in his career. And a period of inner turmoil culminating in a big beautiful No.

Motives for accepting this commission seem varied. On the positive side, Rothko admired the 1947 38 ½ foot long mural by Joan Miró in the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati. But perhaps the greatest allure was that by producing an ensemble of works Rothko would be moving beyond painting: he would be creating a space he could fully dominate. Willem de Kooning also noted that by making, for the first time, “one painting in relation to another painting,” this project would allow Rothko to return to the tensions between architectural space and human presence in his earlier figurative paintings. To one side of Street Scene, (1936), depicting his arrival in America, Rothko’s biographer James Breslin observes the grey “abstract environment from which figures appear to be emerging.” On the other side the “tan gives warmth, the geometrical order a soothing regularity.”

Mark RothkoStreet Scene

With an ideal father, a child is free to be an immature, naïve human that only need know how to play and obey. Consternation he can leave to his father, to notify him when it is time for instruction. At which time, all he need do is put aside his playing and follow the directions, knowing that however bothersome it may feel, in the grand scheme of things it is necessary. It is right. Following his father’s way will keep him out of danger, out of trouble—out of harm’s way. For this operation of faith the child, in return, receives freedom from worry at playtime.

Jacob Rothkowitz had emigrated from an increasingly anti-Semitic Dvinsk in 1912 for America, the Promised Land, when Rothko, his youngest child, was nine. Subjected to a strict Zionist upbringing, the Dvinsk boy diligently observed the rigors of his cheder. But when Rothko followed his father to Portland along with the remainder of the family in August 1913, Jacob would die within six months. Along with the humiliations of finding himself an immigrant without the power of language this untimely loss would have a lasting effect.

Rothko’s first reaction was to repudiate his roots, his Portland cheder, and his native languages: to assert independence from all that is familiar. For Rothko, about whom it would later be said that “he had zero trust in his parents”, dramatic social withdrawal would be a motif throughout life, a pattern reinforced by a self-image forged from the authority of literature.

Coming late to his métier, Rothko was a literary painter, at one stage envisioning a career as a playwright. De Kooning’s wife Elaine observed that “he was very articulate, he spoke in well-rounded sentences,” and that formulating his thoughts was more important to Rothko than to her husband or Franz Kline. He continued to draw from diverse literary sources to circumference his own complex history, in particular the father-son opposition that, for Rothko, extended to a vision of generational artistic usurpation. Elaine de Kooning gives a succinct and insightful critique of his paintings around the Seagram period: “the tension in Rothko’s work lies in its ominous, pervasive light—that of the sky before a hurricane. His edgeless shapes loom oppressively in an incandescent void, waiting, breathing, expanding, approaching, threatening.”

“We destroyed cubism,” Rothko declared to John Fischer, adding that if he came across his own future artistic usurper “I would kill him.” Back in 1950, rebellious and relatively unknown, Rothko had teamed up with 17 other painters, “The Irascibles”, including close friends Barnett Newman and Clifford Still. Together they penned an open letter of protest in the New York Times against conservative jurors in the New York art establishment.

By the mid-1950s, however, as their abstract style was being recognized as an important artistic movement, disputes arose between members of the group on the issue of priority. Breslin has documented evidence of one charging the other with trespassing on territories he had taken, even backdating paintings to cover violations. “Each fought to preserve the integrity of absolute autonomy.” They were at each other’s throats. Clifford Still by now “judged Rothko an authoritarian bully.”

Mark RothkoSketch for Mural No. 1

No father, it would seem, and the child is free to play indefinitely. But this utopian state doesn’t materialize. In reality, the child never experiences play: play as an excursion from a stable haven into the unknown for the sake of curiosity and a search for new sources of pleasure. From the beginning there is fear and trembling; what islands of trust and security crop up are accidental and unreliable. In a context of day-to-day survival it is as difficult to express gratitude by offering respect as it is to depend on them.

When in 1956 Ad Reinhardt was being sued for libeling former father-figure Barnett Newman, Rothko commented: “Today one hasn’t any assurance of respect from the young because the father is nil.”

In an ideal world, the shuttling between states of play and duty—side by side but clearly distinguished—clarifies and reinforces each state as well as the movement itself between them. It is an internal movement, consisting in sets of mixed feelings that are positive and negative vis-à-vis another familiar set that are different. It sets up anticipation, readiness, accommodation and even longing for the ‘other’ state at any given time. It brings acuity to the present, believed to be leading to a break, to its counterpart; trust in an upcoming turnover to something different but familiar.

By May 1959, a year into the Seagram commission and unsatisfied with his progress (an early series of paintings had to be abandoned) Rothko decided to make his second trip to Europe. Daughter Kate was nine, Rothko’s age when Jacob had made a similar trip in the opposite direction, leaving the boy behind him. Just before departing Rothko asked Bernard Reis for help in making two interesting gestures: he legally changed his name to Mark Rothko on a new passport, and made a will that allowed him to control the stewardship of his art after his death (Reis would later gain virtually total control of Rothko’s affairs, and embezzle millions of dollars).

It was aboard the ship to Naples that he famously leveled on the Seagram commission to John Fischer: “I accepted this assignment with strictly malicious intentions. I hope to ruin the appetitive of every son a bitch who ever eats in that room.”

One cause of anxiety for Rothko, no doubt, was the stipulation to hang the Seagram paintings at least 4 ½ feet high in a space where the viewers would be seated. His preference in exhibitions to date had been to hang the paintings as close to the ground as possible and crowd the walls, enveloping the viewer in the atmosphere of his vision.

In Europe he revisited the vestibule of Michelangelo’s De Medici Laurentian library. At some point during the Seagram work he had “realized that I was much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo’s walls in the staircase of the Medicean Library in Florence.” In the small room with soaring walls, Michelangelo “achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after—he makes the viewer feel that they are tapped…” Nevertheless, Rothko was having serious doubts.

The previous year, 1958, 3 months into the commission Rothko had given a lecture at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It was a significant talk because it appeared to seal the shift in his way of thinking since the rebellious posturing of 1950, a settling of his horizon. In his speech, he espoused a distancing from the earlier emphasis on inwardness, freedom and Dionysian wildness. By all appearances this mature Rothko, stressing deliberateness and control, is turning Apollonian. He appears to be ushering in a phase of self-affirmed mastery, acceding to form and a father-like authority, but one in which he is both founder and custodian: a Derridean indeterminacy but one with Rothko tension. He even dared use the term “craft”.

Despite commercial and critical success, Rothko had not won the respect of his family (he never would) for his work, something he was seeking desperately, perhaps above all. A working-class family preoccupied with making ends meet and keeping a low profile (even Portland was not a haven from anti-Semitism), Rothko seemed to have pole-vaulted into a world totally removed from theirs. If it had been here that he found his freedom, the cost was the difficulty in unifying in a single world such extreme disparities of experience. If he wanted their approval he would need to return to their world and on their terms. He would have to cast his “trade” in terms acceptable to those of his original caste.

After pronouncing his manifesto on art at Pratt, Rothko’s lecture moved on to Kierkegaard’s Fear & Trembling, where he makes meat of the philosopher’s ethical and religious interpretation of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. Abraham Rothko positions as the great artist. In this myth Rothko finds a key to draw his complicated father-son opposition and status as a pioneering artist together on a glorious scale. The trauma of his sacrifice silences Abraham and alienates him from society, but it’s all ethical. In Abraham Rothko read acts of unprecedented individuality become law.

Kierkegaard’s Abraham “went out from the land of his fathers and became a soujourner in the land of promise. A stranger in the land of promise…there was nothing to recall what was dear to him, but by its novelty everything tempted his soul to melancholy yearning.” If Jacob, going from Dvinsk to Portland, had known this experience, his son Markus went through it again after his own fashion. Repudiating the social relations and American Dream of his caste, however, had turned accidentally lucrative: in 1958, the year of the commission and Pratt lecture, Rothko’s work earned $20,000. In 1959, it would rise to $61,000. Concluding his talk, Rothko asserted that his art is “involved with the scale of human feelings, the human drama, as much of it as I can express.”

No father and the world is a place where everything is strange but in which, at the same time, everything is potentially familiar. The distinction between the state of play and duty, and the emotional rhythm of the interplay is absent. Instead, a hybrid of mutually contaminated complementary colors persists as a monotonous grey, from which there appears to be no actual escape except to a lighter or darker shade, a warmer or colder tone.

On returning from Europe’s citadels of artistic influence Rothko resumed work on the Seagram commission in his Bowery studio. Assisted by Dan Rice, the vast canvases on homemade stretchers were first coated with rabbit-skin glue and colored pigment ground; fast application was needed for even drying. It was a messy Business Relationships. Rothko then applied the “luminous” layers himself, rapidly, with five-inch housepainter brushes.

Mark RothkoUntitled

In the summer of 1959 the Four Seasons restaurant opened and Rothko went to experience the environment in which his work was to be on permanent display. Seated amid sumptuous Tinian marble walls, granite floors, travertine staircases and nature themes Rothko discovered an atmosphere already established. His work could never dominate here. His ideals and vision could not be imposed upon the diner.

Hard as the child may try to abandon himself to play, the constant effort turns it into a self-imposed hardship. But for what purpose? It brings no joy, only anxiety over the outcome and public reception. Yet if he turns his attention wholly to duty, who will take the foundling under his wing, engender sufficient self-respect in fulfillment of that duty? For either state, he feels, if he could experience it purely—as a pure color, a pure set of unmixed feelings, a separation of the grey of anxiety—he would gladly forfeit the other state for ever more. To guarantee a permanent state he would sacrifice the other, whatever of the two states it be. Either way will come to know the roots of fascism.

Having imagined his commission in terms of the Sistine Chapel, reality came crashing down when Rothko saw his paintings as decorations for those whom he loathed—the complacent rich. He immediately announced he would be returning the $7,000 advance and withdrawing his paintings. “Anybody,” he raged to Rice the next morning, “who will eat that kind of food for those kinds of prices will never look at a painting of mine.”

Rothko, who hated luxury, after all hated to paint too. As Callas hated to sing, and Beckett — with his gravestone request: “any color, so long as it’s grey” — hated to write. But in the haven of his studio, with individual visitor-viewers surrounded by his work, Rothko could at least hope for the ultimate ideal he desired: “real transactions.”

During two years of work on the commission Rothko produced 40 panels, seven of which are likely to have been used for the final Seagram selection. We will never know for certain which ones.

Today, 7 of the Seagram panels (Sketch for Mural No.1, 1958; Sketch for Mural No.4, 1958; Untitled, 1958; Mural Sketch, 1958; Mural Sketch, 1959; Mural, Section 1, 1959: Untitled, 1959) are on permanent display in a separate exhibition room at the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art, near Tokyo.

The paintings hang close to the floor and fill most of the wall surfaces. The lighting is carefully regulated.


1. Breslin, James E.B. 1993. Mark Rothko: a Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2. Tarkovsky, Andrey. 1987. Sculpting in Time. Translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair. Texas: University of Texas Press.

About George Saitoh

George Saitoh’s fiction, essays, poetry, and drama have appeared in Clarion, Aeqai, Kyoto Journal, , Word Riot, Santa Ana River Review, Janus Head, Gravel, and Literary Orphans. His plays have been performed in Tokyo and Dublin. His debut novel All The Dead Animals was published in 2018. He holds a doctorate from the University of York and currently teaches at Waseda University, Tokyo. He was born in Dublin and regularly spends time in Boston. Find him at and on Twitter @george_saitoh.

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