Mark Rothko - Abstract Expressionism and the Decline of Western Art

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Mark Rothko, Abstract Expressionism and the Decline of Western Art, Part 1

By Brenton Sanderson

The Occidental Observer


The life and career of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko is a prototypical Jewish story that encapsulates a range of themes discussed at The Occidental Observer. Central to Rothko’s story is the political radicalism of eastern European Jewish migrants arriving in the United States between 1880 and 1920; the reflexive hostility of these migrants and their descendents to the traditional people and culture of their new homeland, and how this hostility was reflected in the artistic and intellectual currents that dominated Western societies during the twentieth century. Rothko’s story also exemplifies other familiar themes including: the force of Jewish ethnic networking and nepotism in promoting Jewish interests, and the tendency for Jewish “genius” to be constructed by the Jewish intellectual establishment as self-appointed gatekeepers of Western culture.
With Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko has been accorded a leading place in the ranks of the Abstract Expressionists. If there is such a thing as a cult artist among the liberal Jewish intelligentsia, then Rothko is probably it. Important people stand in grave silence before his empty expanses with looks on their faces that bespeak lofty thoughts.
As a critic for The Times noted:

Rothko evokes all that could be criticized as most pretentious, most clannish, most pseudish about his spectators. They stand there gravely perusing something that to the outsider probably looks more like a patch of half-stripped wallpaper than a picture and then declare themselves profoundly moved. And many outsiders will start to wonder if they are being duped, if this Modernist emperor actually has no clothes on and his fans are just the blind followers of some aesthetic faith.
For critics like Ottmann, Rothko’s genius is indisputable and he possessed an “extraordinary talent” that enabled him to transfer his metaphysical “impulses to the canvas with a power and magnetism that stuns viewers of his work… In fact Rothko’s skill in achieving this result – whether intentional or not – perhaps explains why he was once called “the melancholic rabbi.”“ For prominent Jewish art historian Simon Schama, Rothko’s “big vertical canvasses of contrasting bars of colour, panels of colour stacked up on top of each other” qualify Rothko as “a maker of paintings as powerful and complicated as anything by his two gods – Rembrandt and Turner.” For the ethnocentric Schama “these [Rothko’s] paintings are equivalent of these old masters… Can art ever be more complete, more powerful? I don’t think so.” [ii]
After experimenting with Expressionism and Surrealism, Rothko arrived in 1949 at the signature style that would typify his work until his death by suicide in 1970 at the age of 66. This consisted of two or three floating rectangles of colour painted against a monochrome background. A pioneer of “colour-field” painting, Rothko claimed that only abstract painting could express the “full gravity of religious yearnings and the angst of the human condition.” His final works became so minimalistic (large black canvasses) as to be almost void of any substance.

White Centre (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) by Mark Rothko (1960): Sold at auction in 2007 for $73 million

The Making of Mark Rothko
Born in 1903, Marcus Rothkowitz was the youngest child of pharmacist, Jacob Rothkowitz, and his wife, Anna Goldin Rothkowitz, in the Russian city of Dvinsk (today Daugavpils, Latvia). Dvinsk was located at the time within the Jewish Pale of Settlement. The Pale was then inhabited by five million Jews who were confined there by the Tsar at a time when thousands of Polish Jews came across the border into Russia seeking work. Rothko’s father was the stereotype of the leftwing Jewish intellectual, who presided over a family with an “intense commitment to politics and education.” [iii] He initially preferred secular education for his children, and political over religious involvement. According to Rothko, his father’s relation to formal religion was openly oppositional: “My father was a militant social democrat of the Jewish party, the Bund, which was the social democracy of that time. He was profoundly Marxist and violently anti-religious.” [iv]
That this was chiefly an anti-Christian rather than anti-religious impulse is revealed by the fact that he returned to the Orthodox Jewish fold after Marcus’s birth in response to the pogroms which followed the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. While no pogroms were visited on the Jews of Dvinsk, the town witnessed occasional incidents where Jews were targeted as sympathizers of the Social Democratic and other revolutionary parties. [v] In 1905, according to Rothko’s biographer, Jacob Baal-Teshuva, the young Rothko’s “hometown was under the blanket surveillance of the Tsarist secret police. Jews were the usual victims of reprisals whenever the Cossacks, the loyal followers of the Tsarist state, came into the town to break revolutionary uprisings. Other Jewish communities in the environs of Dvinsk also lived in constant terror of pogroms and massacres. The air was filled with slogans like “Kill the Jews to Save Russia.” This was the atmosphere in which Rothko grew up.” [vi]
While there were no pogroms or mass graves in Dvinsk, Rothko would later say that “as a child he could remember the local Cossacks indulging in their favourite activity – beating up Jews,” and later “claimed to recall dug-up pits in the forests around Dvinsk, where the Cossacks buried Jewish victims they had kidnapped and murdered. These images always plagued him mentally, and he says they exercised a certain influence on his painting.” [vii] Baal-Teshuva forgives Rothko these obvious untruths by pointing out that it is likely “that the child heard adults talking about the pogroms and massacres elsewhere, and in his memory ended up mixing up these stories with his own memories of the nearby woods.” [viii] Nevertheless, he acknowledges that some critics have willingly run with these falsehoods and have “gone so far as to say this explains his preference for rectangular forms in his late works, as a formal echo of the grave.” [ix]
In response to the economic insecurities and political dangers of life in the Pale, Marcus’s father migrated to the United States in 1910. Only in 1913, when Marcus was ten years old, did the rest of the family move to America. [x] Despite the apparent dangers of life for Jews in the Pale, Rothko “referred often to the ‘terrible experience’ of having been torn away from his homeland against his will.” [xi] It has been noted that it was certainly not American culture that attracted the waves of Jewish migrants from Central and Eastern Europe, but only the relatively advantageous conditions created by American economic growth. “They came to America’s shores” notes Muller, “motivated not by religion but in spite of it, their more orthodox leaders being inclined to warn them against the dangers of godless and goyish America.” [xii]
As an educated family and active Zionists, the Rothkowitz family spoke Hebrew in addition to Russian and Yiddish. Whereas the older siblings attended public schools along with many other Jewish children concentrated in one neighbourhood of Portland, father Rothkowitz decided that Marcus would receive a strict religious education. He was sent to a cheder, the religious school run by the synagogue, starting at the age of five, where he was subject to a strict and tiring routine: praying, reading and translation of Hebrew texts, and rote memorization of Talmudic law. [xiii]
Rothkowitz family portrait: Marcus second from the right

Rothko’s parents saw no contradiction in bringing up their son as an Orthodox Jew, a Zionist, and a Communist. This is quite in keeping with Kevin MacDonald’s observation that “within Russian Jewish communities, the acceptance of radical political ideology often coexisted with messianic forms of Zionism as well as intense commitment to Jewish nationalism and religious and cultural separatism, and many individuals held various and often rapidly changing combinations of these ideas.” [xiv]
Baal-Teshuva relates that “after the family had achieved a degree of economic security in Portland, they began to join local chapters of radical movements. The sensitive and rather nervous Marcus was similarly inclined, and increasingly participated in discussions on current affairs. He argued quite skilfully for the right of workers to strike, or for general access to contraception. His entire family was in favour of the Bolshevik Revolution, as Rothko later said.” [xv] This was, of course, very typical, with Jewish historian Norman Cantor noting that “in the first half of the twentieth century, Marxist-Leninist communism ran like an electromagnetic lightning flash through Jewish societies from Moscow to Western Europe, the United States and Canada, gaining the lifelong adherence of brilliant, passionately dedicated Jewish men and women.” [xvi]
Another “Jewish Genius” Gets Stung by the WASPS
Rothko was, according to Schama, very much one of these brilliant Jewish men, and despite his Orthodox Jewish education, was “no Jewish Trappist, but a much more recognizable type (at least to me): loquacious, exuberant, hot-tempered, deeply immersed in literature and history.” While the Orthodox Judaism in which Rothko was schooled was not directly expressed in his art, Schama insists that “once you”ve done cheder – Hebrew school – it never really goes away, however much you try to banish it; nor did it for Marcus. He was what everyone would call, with smiles, both admiring and pitying, a chocom – a know-it-all. And what do chochoms do if they weren’t going to be rabbis? [xvii] He was, Schama insists, “just your super-educated, ungainly, sentimental Jew. In the grip of mighty ideas, he was desperate to tell you all about them, fidgeting on the sofa and waving his arms all around. A big heart and a big mouth to match – you know the type.” [xviii]
Rothko excelled academically at Lincoln High School in Portland, and was a passionate debater for the radical cause, and “went to hear the firecracker orator “Red” Emma Goldman attack capitalism and sing the praises of the Bolshevik Revolution.” [xix]
A youthful influence: Emma Goldman

Schama tells us that Rothko was “scholarship material, and won a place at Yale before the Ivy League decided they were about to be inundated by clever Jews and imposed admission quotas. But, Rothko felt the sting of the WASPS all the same. If they couldn’t actually evict the talky-smart kikes, “those people,’ they could at least make it hard for them to stick around.” [xx] According to Baal-Teshuva, Rothko and his fellow Jewish students from Portland soon discovered the difficulties of gaining social acceptance in a setting where “the majority of generally affluent White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were contemptuous of the Jewish minority.” [xxi] Exactly how these WASP students were supposed (or even remotely likely) to embrace a group who feted Emma Goldman, were deeply hostile to their people and culture, and who longed for the day when a violent revolution would consign them and their kind to the dustbin of history, and elevate Jews like Rothko to their supposedly deserved high status is unclear.
At the end of a year spent studying mostly history of philosophy and psychology, Rothko’s scholarship was rescinded and replaced with a student loan – this event being held ever after as a prime example of the systematic anti-Semitism Rothko confronted at Yale. He lived off-campus with relatives in New Haven, and launched a radical underground newspaper called the Saturday Evening Post “which took aim at the college’s teaching methods and fetish for prestige.” [xxii] He dropped out of Yale after his second year, and moved to New York where he took further courses at the Art Students League in 1925 and took lessons in drawing from nature.
Soon thereafter, Rothko enrolled in the class of Max Weber, the Jewish American painter who taught a course in still-life. Weber and Rothko had both come to the United States as Russian-Jewish immigrants at the age of ten. [xxiii] Marcus also gathered experience in advertising, and was hired to draw maps and illustrations for the Graphic Bible by Lewis Browne, a retired rabbi from Portland who had become a best-selling author. When Rothko saw he was not credited as the creator of these works, he sued Browne for $20,000 in damages. In the end, he lost the trial. [xxiv]
When the Wall Street crash came in 1929, followed by the Great Depression, Rothko had little to show for his decade in New York. He was exhibited but not much sold, and when he did sell his work, it was not enough to make a living. “He was married to Edith Sachar, bright and Jewish, whom he had met at a progressive summer camp at Lake George in the Adirondacks: downing dialectical materialism, Freud and Cubism along with the weak coffee.” [xxv]
Living in a Jewish world— New York art scene branch.

Creating a new “American” Art
Before the rise of Abstract Expressionism, the American art scene after World War I was defined by two main currents. The first were what one might call the Regionalists (e.g. Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry) who used their own signature styles to portray the virtues of the hard-working rural American population. In the second group were the artists of Social Realism (e.g. Ben Shahn and Diego Rivera), whose work reflected urban life during the Great Depression, and reflected a preoccupation with international socialism.
Neither of these two schools was interested in abstract art. Despite the leftwing view of the social realists, both groups held rather conservative attitudes on figurative representation. Yet, even as these two styles dominated, the artists of the nascent New York School “met frequently at the legendary Cedar Bar, where they discussed their radical theses. They argued endlessly about the problems of art, about how to effect a total break with the art of the past, about the mission of creating an abstract art that no longer had anything to do with conventional techniques and motifs.”
Spring in the Country by Grant Wood (1941)
The Museum of Modern Art did not yet exist; the Metropolitan Museum tended to “look down its WASP patrician nose at modernism”; and the Whitney favoured exactly the kind of American painting young Rothko most despised: scenic, provincial, anecdotal, and conservative. [ii] For a Jewish outsider like Rothko, who in 1970 declared that he would never feel entirely at home in a land to which he had been transplanted against his will, urban America was his America.

But what was on the mid-town gallery walls was, for the most part, another America altogether: Big Skies, fruited plain, purple mountain majesty, the light of providence shining on the prairie. About that America Rothko knew little and cared less. Early on, he had the sense that America ought to offer an art that was as new and vital as its history; but he also wanted that art to play for high stakes, to be hooked up somehow to the universal ideas he was chain-smoking his way through. Just what such an art might look like, however, he had as yet not the slightest idea. [iii]
Terry Cooney points out how the New York Intellectuals associated rural America with “nativism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and fascism as well as with anti-intellectualism and provincialism.” By contrast the urban was associated “with ethnic and cultural tolerance, with internationalism, and with advanced ideas.” A basic assumption of the New York Intellectuals was that rural America “with which they associated much of American tradition and most of the territory beyond New York – had little to contribute to a cosmopolitan culture” and could accordingly be dismissed by writers who, by examining all issues through this lens, could “mask assertions of superiority and expressions of anti-democratic sentiments as the judgements of an objective expertise.” [iv]
Rothko’s skill in rendering the human form was poor, as is evident in early works like Bathers of Beach Scene (Untitled) (1933/4). Schama admits as much, noting that: “When he [Rothko] stood in the Brooklyn classroom it all seemed so easy. He would tell the children not to mind the rules – painting, he said, was as natural as singing. It should be like music, but when he tried it came out as a croak. It’s the work of a painfully knotted imagination… No not very good.” [v]
Bathers or Beach Scene (Untitled) 1933/4 by Mark Rothko
Drawing on his boyhood training as Talmudic scholar, Rothko, in a speech in the mid-thirties on art education delivered at the Jewish Education Center in Brooklyn (where he began teaching in 1929) offered a quasi-philosophical rationale for the unimportance of technical skill by stressing “the difference between sheer skill, and skill that is linked to spirit, expressiveness and personality. … The result is a constant creative activity in which the child creates an entire child-like cosmology, which expresses the infinitely varied and exciting world of a child’s fancies and experience.” Rothko believed that one’s means of artistic expression was “unrelated to manual ability or painterly technique, that it is drawn from an inborn feeling for form; the ideal lies in the spontaneity, simplicity and directness of children.” [vi] Such grandiloquent pronouncements from Rothko were not unusual, with Matthew Collings noting that “Rothko was outrageously over-fruity and grandiose in his statements about art and religion and the solemn importance of his own art.” [vii]
This tendency on the part of Rothko prompted one writer to declare: “What I find amazing … is how a painting which is two rectangles of different colors can somehow prompt thousands upon thousands of words on the human condition, Marxist dialectics, and social construction.” He suggests that a good rule of thumb is “that the more obtuse terms an artist and his supporters use to describe a work, the less worth the painting has. By this definition Rothko may be the most worthless artist in the history of humanity.” Another critic humorously observed that:

Rothko needed to be fluent in rationalizing his existence and validating himself as a relevant artist to the average idiot who spent tens of thousands of dollars on paintings which could be easily reproduced by anyone with a pulse and a paint brush. Rothko… learned to garner attention to his paintings by getting into a frenzied drama-queen state and hysterically claiming that his works were deep, profound statements and not just indiscriminate blobs of color. They were expressions that rejected society’s expectation of technical expertise, actual talent and an artist’s evolution over time.
Lasha Darkmoon has noted the tendency of Jewish artists to set about redefining the very nature of artistic excellence to allow for their own technical inadequacies. She observes that: “Whatever Jewish artists were good at, that would be the art of the future. If Jews were no good at drawing, good drawing would no longer be necessary.” She cites Israel Shamir who notes that the “Preparation of these items [of non-figurative art] places no demand on artistic abilities. They can be done by anybody,” and that “such art is perfectly within Jewish capabilities.” Darkmoon elaborates:

In order to succeed in this difficult profession, the visually challenged Jews had to “bend art to fit their abilities.” It is as if, unable to excel at athletic prowess, the Jews had somehow managed to gain control over the Olympic Games and decreed that, from now on, sprinting and marathon running were no longer important. What really mattered was winning the sack race or the Spitting Competition — accomplishments, possibly, which Jews were particularly good at!
“The Jews were extremely ill equipped for their conquest of Olympus,” Shamir instructs us. “For many generations, Jews never entered churches and hardly ever saw paintings. They were conditioned to reject image as part of their rejection of idols.” In short, the Jews were visually handicapped. Trained in Talmudic dialectics, they were marvelous with words. They had a verbal IQ of 130. Their IQ for patterns and pictures, however, was dismally low: only 75.The Jews of course don’t wish to acknowledge this. To suggest that they tend to make lousy artists is anti-Semitic.

If Jews didn’t make more of a splash as artists in past ages, it is argued, it was because they were “held back” by their Christian oppressors. Unfortunately for the Jews, the great [Jewish art critic] Berenson will have none of this argument. “The Jews have displayed little talent for the visual,” he states tersely, “and almost none for the figure arts.” How, then, you might wish to know, are there so many Jewish artists around nowadays? To what can we attribute this fantastic efflorescence of sudden Jewish pictorial genius? The answer, we are told, lies in Jewish networking and hustling, Jewish predominance in the mass media, Jewish economic dominance of the art world, Jewish power, Jewish money.
Roger Scruton has observed how the presence of significant financial incentives served to hasten the death of traditional painting by “devaluing the fund of artistic knowledge and encouraging minor talents to dispense with the humility which might otherwise have caused them to study and emulate the masters.” [viii]
As well as self-interestedly seeking to redefine the nature of great art, Rothko often spoke out for the importance of “artistic freedom,” which in practice meant artistic freedom for those on the Left. He became involved in the famed 1934 incident between John D. Rockefeller and the socialist painter, Diego Rivera. This began when Rivera was hired to paint a huge mural in the lobby of the main building of Rockefeller Center, the newly completed showcase of the oil baron’s ideals. Shortly before Rivera completed his work, Rockefeller dropped in and saw that the mural had a defiantly socialist message based on a heroic depiction of Lenin. He ordered the removal of the mural, resulting in its destruction. After this incident, a group of 200 New York artists gathered to protest against Rockefeller, and Rothko marched with them. [ix]
Detail from copy of Diego Rivera’s Mural for Rockefeller Center – Tribute to Lenin (1934)
In 1934 Rothko was one of the original 200 founding members of the Art Union and started the Gallery Secession, which was devoted to the newest artistic tendencies. A year later he became a member of the group who called themselves “The Ten” (the minimum number of Jews that can pray together). This unashamed exercise in Jewish ethnic networking was an opportunity for Rothko and his colleagues to engage in mutual admiration and promotion, and agitate in favour of “experimentation” and against conservatism in museums, schools and galleries. [x] Among “The Ten” were Ben Zion, Adolph Gottlieb, Louis Harris, Yankel Kufeld, Louis Schanker, Joseph Solman, Nahum Chazbazov, Ilya Bolotovsky and Marcus Rothkowitz. Gottlieb, in describing the group, later recalled: “We were outcasts, roughly expressionist painters. We were not acceptable to most dealers and collectors. We banded together for the purpose of mutual support.” The Ten acted as an alliance against the promotion of regionalist art by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which to them was simply too “provincial” for words. [xi]
For Rothko, “the whole problem of art was to establish human values in this specific [American] civilization.” [xii] The pronounced ingroup-outgroup mentality of “The Ten” was consistent with that existing within the Jewish intellectual movements reviewed by Kevin MacDonald in Culture of Critique , where he observes how Norman Podhoretz described the group of Jewish intellectuals centred around Partisan Review as a “family” that derived from “the feeling of beleaguered isolation shared with masters of the modernist movement themselves, elitism – the conviction that others are not worth taking into consideration except to attack, and need not be addressed in one’s writing; out of the feeling as well as a sense of hopelessness as to the fate of American culture at large and the correlative conviction that integrity and standards were only possible among ‘us.’” [xiii]
MacDonald notes, moreover, that within these alienated and marginalised Jewish groups was “an atmosphere of social support that undoubtedly functioned as had traditional Jewish ingroup solidarity arrayed against a morally and intellectually inferior outside world.” [xiv] Nonetheless, despite the ethnic superglue, there was tension within the Jewish milieu of “The Ten”, with Schama noting that: “Amidst the usual Talmudic bickering of leftist factions, the denunciations and walk-outs, Rothkowitz and his comrades were all burning to make an art that would say something about the alienation, as they saw it, of modern American life.” [xv]
Since the triumph of the culture of critique and the Jewish seizure of the commanding heights of Western high culture in the sixties and seventies, this pattern of Jewish ethnic networking has become an entrenched feature of the modern art establishment. Scruton observes how “the new impresario surrounds himself with others of his kind, promoting them to all committees which are relevant to his status, and expecting to be promoted in his turn. Thus arises the modernist establishment, which has dominated the official culture of Europe for the last three decades, and which shows no sign of loosening its grip.” [xvi]
For Rothko, like for most American Jews, the Second World War was a moment of universal moral crisis. He had only become an American citizen in 1938 and Baal-Teshuva notes that: “Like many Jews, he was worried about the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the possibility of a revival of anti-Semitism in America, and U.S. Citizenship came to signify security.” American entry into the war was exactly what Rothko wanted, claiming that it represented “an escape from narrow-minded isolation, a reconnection with the destinies of modern history.” Schama observes that

now Rothko and his painter friends – so many of them originally European Jews – wanted American art to go the same way. With European civilization annihilated by fascism, it was up to the United States to take the torch and save human culture from a new Dark Ages. It was not just a matter of offering safe haven to the likes of Piet Mondrian or [Picasso’s] Guernica , but rather the authentic American way – doing something bold and fresh, taking the fight to the enemy which had classified modernism as “degenerate” and had done its best to destroy its partisans. … The Nazis had art (as well as everything else) entirely the wrong way round. The modernism they demonized as “degenerate” was in fact the seed of new growth, and what they glorified as “regenerate” was the stale leavings of neo-classicism. Their mistake was America’s – and particularly New York’s – good fortune [!]. [xvii]
This was a time when many American Jews were modifying their names to sound less Jewish. In January 1940 Marcus Rothkowitz became Mark Rothko. During the war years Rothko’s art changed too as he produced a series of surrealistic pictures inspired by Freud’s interpretations of dreams, C.G. Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, and ancient Greek mythology. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy was an important influence at this time. [xviii]
Towards the end of 1943, all of the ethnic networking finally began to bear tangible fruit for Rothko. He befriended Peggy Guggenheim, “the most voracious patroness of American avant-garde art”, who had migrated to New York in 1941. Guggenheim’s artistic consultant, Howard Putzel, “convinced her to show Rothko in her Art of This Century gallery, where she had opened in 1942, during the low point of the war.” [xix] In January 1945, Guggenheim decided to put on Rothko’s first one-man exhibition at her gallery. [xx] In 1948 Rothko invited a coterie of mainly Jewish friends and acquaintances to view his new ‘multiforms’. The art critic and historian Harold Rosenberg “remembers finding these works “fantastic,” and called his experience “the most impressive visit to an artist” in his life.” [xxi] Dempsey notes that “both the critics and the artists themselves gave the works heroic, noble interpretations.” [xxii]
Untitled (1947) – “Multiform” by Mark Rothko
Rothko’s financial situation improved significantly in the early 1950s, by which time he had arrived at the style that defined his art until his death in 1970. The highly successful Jewish art dealer Sidney Janis signed up Rothko in 1954 and showed 12 of his works at his gallery in 1955. According to Baal-Teshuva, “this settled Rothko’s status as a protagonist of international importance in the postwar art scene.” This is ascribed to the fact that “Sidney Janis marketed Rothko’s paintings much more effectively. … and even during the recession of 1958 he was able to sell 13 paintings for more than 20 thousand dollars”—likely to other Jews. After this, Rothko’s art was declared a good investment by Fortune magazine, which led to his relationship with his now resentful colleagues Clifford Still and Barnet Newman deteriorating to the point where “they accused Rothko of harbouring an unhealthy yearning for a bourgeois existence, and finally stamped him as a traitor.” [xxiii]
Untitled (1956) By Mark Rothko
In 1958 Rothko received a contract to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram’s Building in New York. The man who approved the commission was Seagram’s American subsidiary head Edgar Bronfman Sr – who was to become President of the World Jewish Congress in 1981. The fee offered was $35,000 (a huge sum at the time). Rothko was, however, uncomfortable with the commission and the damage it might do to his bohemian reputation. Later he returned the money and asked for the completed murals to be returned. Nine of the “Seagram Murals” were permanently installed in a room at London’s prestigious Tate Gallery in 1970. These paintings are widely considered to be Rothko’s greatest achievement.
Three of the Rothko’s Seagram’s Murals at the Tate Modern
Opinions vary widely about Rothko’s work and legacy. While many within the Jewish-dominated art establishment hail him as a genius, others cannot believe that any sane person would pay tens of millions of dollars for what amounts to nothing more than a large, empty canvas occupied by two colors divided into separate rectangles by a third color. What is clear, however, is that Rothko’s career and posthumous reputation as an artistic giant have been, to a very great extent, the result of hyping on the part of the Jewish cultural establishment. Jewish role models play a very important role in fostering Jewish pride and group cohesion, and it has been a standard feature of Jewish intellectual life to actively construct Jewish geniuses by wildly exaggerating the artistic or intellectual significance of their work. This ethnocentric Jewish self-puffery is an important way to shape social categorization processes in a way that benefits Jews in two ways: by undermining traditional notions of the importance of painterly ability as a bedrock of the traditional culture of the West; and by undermining specific schools of art, such as Thomas Hart Benton and the Regionalists, that promoted positive and uplifting images of America for popular and elite consumption. This places Rothko firmly in the culture of the left that has been vastly predominant among Jewish intellectuals at least since the beginning of the 2oth century. Mark Rothko stands out as an egregious example of a figure who has been utilized by Jewish art critics and historians for these purposes.
Abstract Expressionism and the Culture of Critique
Abstract Impressionism was disproportionately a Jewish cultural phenomenon. It was a movement populated by legions of Jewish artists, intellectuals and critics. Prominent non-Jewish artists within the movement like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell married Jewish women (Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler). Willem de Kooning defied the trend, although he generally had to ingratiate himself with the overwhelmingly Jewish intellectual and cultural elite focused around the journal Partisan Review which was ‘dominated by editors and contributors with a Jewish ethnic identity and a deep alienation from American cultural and political institutions.’
It was an art movement where the culture of critique of Jewish artists and intellectuals, frustrated that the post-war American prosperity based on Keynesian foundations had prevented the coming of socialism, turned inward and instead “proposed individualistic modes of liberation.” This mirrored the ideological shift that occurred among the New York Intellectuals generally who had “gradually evolved away from advocacy of socialist revolution toward a shared commitment to anti-nationalism and cosmopolitanism, ‘a broad and inclusive culture’ in which cultural differences were esteemed.” [ii] Doss notes how this ideological shift manifested itself among the post-war artists who became the Abstract Expressionists:

As full employment returned, New Deal programs were terminated — including federal support for the arts — the reformist spirit that had flourished in the 1930s dissipated. Corporate liberalism triumphed: together, big government and big business forged a planned economy and engineered a new social contract based on free market expansion… With New Deal dreams of reform in ruins, and the better “tomorrow” prophesied at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair having seemingly led only to the carnage of World War II, it is not surprising that post-war artists largely abandoned the art styles and political cultures associated with the Great Depression. [iii]
The avant-garde artists of the New York School instead embraced an “inherently ambiguous and unresolved, an open-ended modern art … which encouraged liberation through personal, autonomous ‘acts’ of expression.” The works of the Abstract Expressionists were “revolutionary attempts” to liberate the larger American culture “from the alienating conformity and pathological fears [especially of communism] that permeated the post-war era.” [iv] Rothko claimed that “after the Holocaust and the Atom Bomb you couldn’t paint figures without mutilating them.” His friend Barnett Newman remarked that if people only read his paintings properly “it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.” [v]

In 1947, Adolph Gottlieb, declared that

today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind … abstraction is not abstraction at all … it is the realism of our time. [vi]
A Barnett Newman "Verticist" painting
At the heart of Abstract Expressionism lay a “vision of the artist as alienated from mainstream society, a figure morally compelled to create a new type of art which might confront an irrational, absurd world” — a mentality which was in complete accord with the outlook of the alienated diasporic Jewish artists and intellectuals at the heart of the movement who viewed the traditional White Christian society around them with implacable hostility. [vii] MacDonald notes that the New York Intellectuals “conceived themselves as alienated, marginalised figures – a modern version of traditional Jewish separateness and alienation from gentile culture. … Indeed [Norman] Podhoretz was asked by a New Yorker editor in the 1950s ‘whether there was a special typewriter at Partisan Review with the word ‘alienation’ on a single key.’” [viii]
During the 1950s Jewish artists and intellectuals chaffed against the social controls enforced by political conservatives and religious and cultural traditionalists who limited Jewish influence on the culture, “much to the chagrin of the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals who prided themselves in their alienation from that very culture.” This all ended, together with Abstract Expressionism as an art movement embodying the alienation of the New York Intellectuals, with the triumph of the culture of critique in the 1960s, when radical Jews and their allies usurped the old establishment, and thus “had far less reason to engage in the types of cultural criticism so apparent in the writings of the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals. Hollywood and the rest of the American media were unleashed.” [ix]
In his exposition of the political significance of the widespread Jewish involvement in modernism Cantor noted that “something more profound and structural was involved in the Jewish role in the modernist revolution than this sociological phenomenon of the supersession of marginality. There was an ideological drive at work.” [x] This ideological drive was the urge to subject Western society and culture (deemed a “soft authoritarianism” fundamentally hostile to Jews) to intensive and unrelenting criticism — in the process of which they spawned a massive literature of cultural subversion throughout the post-war period. Quoting Philip Rahv (a onetime PR editor), MacDonald points out that: “Modernism encouraged ‘the creation of moral and aesthetic values running counter to and often violently critical of the bourgeois spirit.” “What is modern literature if not a vindictive, neurotic, and continually renewed dispute with the modern world?’ Such pronouncements on the critical potential of even the most abstract art reflected the views of the Frankfurt School theorists Adorno and Horkheimer, the latter of whom noted that ‘An element of resistance is inherent in the most aloof art.’” [xi]
Max Horkheimer
There was “a great deal of influence and cross-fertilisation between the New York Intellectuals and the Frankfurt School.” [xii] These intellectuals promoted modernism in art at least partly because of its apparent compatibility with expressive individualism, but also because it was seen as being capable of alienating people from Western capitalistic societies. For Frankfurt School intellectual Walter Benjamin the purpose of modern art was to spread the kind of cultural pessimism that would bring on the revolution, insisting that “To organise pessimism means nothing other than to expel the moral metaphor from politics.” His colleague Willi Munzenberg saw the role of the Frankfurt School as being “to organise the intellectuals and use them to make Western Civilisation stink. Only then, after they have corrupted all its values and made life impossible, can we impose the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Clement Greenberg and the New “American” Art
Clement Greenberg was the most influential theorizer and promoter of modernism in America during the middle years of the twentieth century. His advocacy helped to bring about the institutionalisation of Abstract Expressionism and to secure the dominance of American Modernist art in the immediate post-war period. Greenberg “made his reputation entirely within what one might term a Jewish intellectual milieu” including as ‘a writer for PR , managing editor of Contemporary Jewish Record (the forerunner of Commentary ), long-time editor of Commentary under Elliot Cohen, as well as art critic for The Nation .’ [xiii] Greenberg’s Jewish identity was strong, and he once avowed that “I believe that the quality of Jewishness is present in every word I write, as it is in almost every word of every other contemporary Jewish writer.” [xiv] Furthermore, he pointed out that “it is possible that by world historical standards the European Jew represents a higher type than any yet achieved in history.” [xv]
Greenberg’s later rejection of Pop and Conceptual Art led to a period in which his writings and his preferences were dismissed by those who aligned themselves with the views of rival Jewish art guru Harold Rosenberg. This arose from what was perceived as Greenberg’s dogmatic advocacy of abstraction, and his distaste for commercial popular culture — what he called ‘kitsch’ in one of his most famous essays “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) which was his response to the destruction and repression of modernist art in National Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union. [xvi] “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” made Greenberg’s name as a critic and led to his direct participation in the world of cultural journalism as an editor of Partisan Review.
It is not hard to detect an underlying concern with anti-Semitism in Greenberg’s famous essay. There was a general understanding among both the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals that “mass culture — whether in the USSR (both groups were anti-Stalinist), National Socialist Germany, or bourgeois United States — promoted conformism and escape from harsh political realities; it ‘offered false pleasure, reaffirmed the status quo, and promoted a pervasive conformity that stripped the masses of their individuality and subjectivity.’” [xvii] By contrast, avant-garde art had the potential to foster the type of subjective individualism that could disconnect the masses from their traditional familial, religious and ethnic bonds — thereby reducing the salience of Jews as an outgroup and weakening the anti-Semitic status quo within these societies.
In his essay Greenberg downplays the culturally critical potential of avant-garde art, and instead seeks to account for the ubiquity of “kitsch” in totalitarian societies by stressing its usefulness in ingratiating a regime with the masses — a practice that, he informs us, will only cease when these regimes “surrender to international socialism.” He writes:

Where today a political regime establishes an official cultural policy, it is for the sake of demagogy. If kitsch is the official tendency of culture in Germany, Italy and Russia, it is not because their respective governments are controlled by philistines, but because kitsch is the culture of the masses in these countries, as it is everywhere else. The encouragement of kitsch is merely another of the inexpensive ways in which totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects. Since these regimes cannot raise the cultural level of the masses — even if they wanted to — by anything short of a surrender to international socialism, they will flatter the masses by bringing all culture down to their level. It is for this reason that the avant-garde is outlawed. … Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact with the “soul” of the people. Should the official culture be one superior to the general mass-level, there would be a danger of isolation. [xviii]
Greenberg’s thesis here is not without validity. Indeed one of the striking features of modern Western life under a Jewish cultural hegemony has been an all-pervasive popular culture of Hollywood that is supersaturated with the rankest multi-cultural and multi-racial kitsch. Despite the repeated real-world failure of the utopian vision being relentlessly endorsed, this form of easily assimilated kitsch (seasoned with liberal doses of sex, violence and schmaltz) works very well to brainwash the great bulk of White people and avert even the mildest forms of rebellion.
Clement Greenbert
Kitsch works for the Jews of Hollywood for the very same reason it worked for Hitler and for Stalin. This is because kitsch is defined by efficiency of communication, while the avant-garde alienates some viewers “simply because this was an inescapable by-product of their formal experiments and of their rejection of kitsch.” [xix] Barlow notes that, for Greenberg,

kitsch worked to maximize effect , while the avant-garde sought to address cause . Both commerce and totalitarian regimes sought maximum penetration of controllable information. They required the culture of kitsch. Mass culture will almost inevitably be kitsch, as passive consumers will comprehend accessible effects more readily than the self-conscious explorations of cause. Only in a truly socialist society will mass culture transcend the psychology of passive consumption. Despite important differences between the two men, Greenberg’s attitude to popular culture is close to that of Theodor W. Adorno. [xx]
Like Greenberg, Adorno initially directed his attack not against the high culture of Western civilization, but against the “mass culture” which warred with it – a “secondary emanation of authority” which was an inescapable product of capitalism. For Adorno, nothing was more abhorrent in the mass culture of America than its music. “For him the new sounds, riddled with cliché and kitsch, were not art but ideology – the sweet pill of false consciousness that numbs the senses of the working class.” The owners of the means of communication (the capitalist class) are sovereign in this debased musical culture. Under socialism, Adorno implied, all this fetishism would be swept away and the emancipated proletariat would be whistling the ideology-free music of Schoenberg and Webern in the streets. [xxi] However, as Scruton notes, this aspect of Frankfurt School’s critical theory was later to change fundamentally:

Since the Frankfurters came as exiles to America, there to pour scorn on their hosts, the culture of repudiation has taken another and more home grown form. Instead of focusing on the ‘mass culture’ of the people, it now targets the elite culture of the universities. It is indifferent, or even vaguely laudatory, towards popular art and music, seeing them as legitimate expression of frustration and a challenge to the old forms of highbrow knowledge. Its target is the culture in the sense that I have been defending it: all those artefacts that have stood the test of time, and which are treasured by those who love them for the emotional and moral knowledge that they contain. [xxii]
Unlike his rival Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was never to embrace this new critical paradigm. In “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940) he articulated his famous claim that resistance to kitsch requires that art “emphasize the medium and its difficulties,” adding that the history of the avant-garde is one of “progressive surrender to the resistance of the medium.” [xxiii] Greenberg argued that the vision of the Abstract Expressionists was characterized by a “fresher, opener, more immediate surface,” offensive to standard taste. He related this quality to a “more intimate and habitual acquaintance with isolation,” which was, in his ethnically, morally and culturally particularistic view, “the condition under which the true quality of the age is experienced.” [xxiv]
Greenberg’s dismissal of Harold Rosenberg’s account of Abstract Expressionism as “action painting” was based on his view that Rosenberg’s claim implied that the active process of painting mattered more than the result – that one chaotic combination of drips and splodges was as good as another. For Greenberg, Rosenberg’s theory gave the green light to charlatans whose work was no more than “stunts.” Such stunts certainly came into prominence with the rise of Pop and Conceptual art during the 1960s as many artists embraced Rosenberg’s claim that the moment of “performance” could itself be art. This aspect of the art scene in the 1960s earned Greenberg’s contempt, but as Barlow points out, “could all too easily be interpreted as the conservative critic whose time had passed – the modern equivalent of Ruskin’s attack on Whistler.” [xxv]

Harold Rosenberg
It is somewhat ironic that Greenberg, an ethnocentric Jewish Trotskyite, in his staunch defence of Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction, and rejection of the “pre-emptive kitsch” of Pop Art, Neo-Dada and Conceptual Art, was pushed into the role of artistic neo-conservative by Rosenberg. While the Abstract Expressionists that Greenberg had championed had been intensely eager to break with the figurative art of the Regionalist painters, their work (owing to its highly abstract nature) lacked the more overtly ideological form of the art that replaced it. This should, however, never obscure from us the fact that the rise of Abstract Expressionism coincided with the Jewish takeover of American high culture, and the deposing of the old WASP establishment.
The new establishment shunned the traditional Western preoccupation with beauty and instituted a cult of ugliness that has tainted Western art ever since. Indeed, an art that emerged as a direct response to the “alienation” of Jewish artists and intellectuals in America at mid twentieth century ushered in an art of ugliness and alienation for everyone. In effect, they succeeded in making all of America and the West as alienated as they were. With the rise of Conceptual Art in the sixties we saw the emergence of an art that (like the Social Realism of the thirties) wore its culturally-critical heart on its sleeve, and unambiguously sought to engender in its White audience an individualistic disconnection from the traditional reinforcers of White ethnocentrism and group cohesion — to create what Georg Lukacs called “a culture of pessimism” that reflected “a world that has been abandoned by God.” Noting the extent to which they succeeded in this endeavour, Scruton observes that the degradation of Western art and culture “was not an inevitable consequence of cultural decay, but a willed gesture of repudiation.” [xxvi] He points out that

it is a law of human nature, confirmed by social revolutions throughout modern history, that old authorities, when they fall from their eminence, are instantly trampled on before being kicked aside. We should not be surprised, therefore, to discover that sacrilege and blasphemy have been such important ingredients in ‘Young British Art’. [xxvii]