Mark Rothko (American, Dvinsk, Russia 1903 - 1970 New York)
The Syrian Bull, 1943
Signed lower right (scratched into wet paint): M Rothko
Oil and graphite on canvas
39 3/8 x 27 7/8 in. (100 x 70.7 cm)
Gift of Annalee Newman in honor of Ellen Johnson, 1991
The Syrian Bull represents Rothko's response to European Surrealism, the dominant aesthetic force in New York artistic circles from the late 1930s to the mid '40s. The painting also served as a catalyst in an early published debate about the modernist painting of that period, the emerging New York School.
There were many Surrealist exhibitions, emigrés, and works circulating in New York during this period, and several interrelated factors drew Rothko and many other young American painters to this European influx.1 A widespread dissatisfaction with the provincialism and literalism of American art and culture; a commitment to subject matter of critical, human import; and a belief in an "authentic" subjectivity that resided in uncharted areas of the collective mind made Surrealism's focus on desires, dreams, and repressed subconscious materials highly influential.
Rothko's paintings of this period drew their figuration from the work of those European Surrealist painters, such as Joan Miró or André Masson, who deployed abstracted, biomorphic forms in an undefined space. Rothko's response to their work is exemplified in the pale, luminous color and thinly painted surface of The Syrian Bull, in the shallow, horizontal "stage" for the figure, and in the hybrid figure itself, a construction that combines aquatic, human, and vegetal matter. This and other composite figures by Rothko overtly recall the Surrealists' automatic drawing techniques, which purported to release unconscious energies and associations.2 The initial exhibition and reception of The Syrian Bull marks a key moment in Rothko's public presentation of his views on painting. First shown in 1943 at the Third Annual Exhibition of Modern Painters and Sculptors in New York, the canvas was among the paintings that New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell singled out to illustrate the hopeless incomprehensibility of recent modernist art.3 Another work so mentioned was The Rape of Persephone (AMAM inv. 91.41.2) by Adolph Gottlieb, a painter with whom Rothko had been working closely for several years.4 Wrote Jewell,
"You will have to make of Marcus Rothko's "The Syrian Bull" what you can; nor is this department prepared to shed the slightest enlightenment when it comes to Adolph Gottlieb's "Rape of Persephone."
Within five days, Gottlieb and Rothko, with the assistance of their friend and colleague Barnett Newman, wrote and signed a response to Jewell, parts of which were published in The Times on 13 June 1943.5
Their by-now famous letter, headed by photographs of The Syrian Bull and The Rape of Persephone,6 offers a compendium of aesthetic and cultural themes and positions that Rothko and other New York School painters would continue to put forward throughout much of the 1940s. An espousal of abstract forms which "destroy illustion and reveal truth" and are "the simple expression of the complex thought"; a committment to subject matter "which is tragic and timeless"; "a spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art"; and a belief that the meaning of a painting "must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker" are among their statements.7 The Syrian Bull is described as "a new interpretation of an archaic image, involving unprecedented distortions. Since art is timeless, the significant rendition of a symbol, no matter how archaic, has as full validity today as the archaic symbol had then."Despite the letter's expression of a unified purpose, the many differences between The Syrian Bull and The Rape of Persephone reveal the specificity of each artist's concerns as a painter. In contrast to Gottlieb's clearly defined, centralized image, and its dense uniformity of tone, hue, and pigment, Rothko's brightly-hued painting is complex and various in form, tonality, and paint application. Art historians have detected prefigurations of Rothko's later color-field work in The Syrian Bull (and others like it): specifically, in its luminosity, its rectilinear organization of the picture field, and the ambiguous "edges" of forms that seem to confound figure and ground, transparency and opacity of paint.
Work (C) 1998 Kate Rothko-Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia, on 25 September 1903, Rothko arrived in Portland, Oregon, in 1913. From 1921 to 1923, he attended Yale University, but left before receiving a degree. In 1925 Rothko settled permanently in New York, where he studied painting at the Art Students League with the American modernist Max Weber. From then until the late 1930s, Rothko's nudes, figures, and cityscapes absorbed a wide range of influences, including the work of Weber and Milton Avery, with whom Rothko exhibited in a group show in 1928. Throughout the 1930s, Rothko participated in a number of artists' groups that aimed to merge progressive, social action with artistic innovation.8 It was not until the Surrealist-inspired works of the late 1930s to the early '40s that a set of formal and thematic concerns became consistently manifest in Rothko's painting. During this period, Rothko's interests in Surrealism, the unconscious, myth, and tragedy, were shared by a number of young artists, who frequently discussed and defended their works in various public fora; they were later referred to as the New York School of painting. After World War II, Rothko developed the large, color-field paintings that became his signature style. These canvases are divided into rectilinear registers, each articulated by a thin field of unevenly applied pigment; they are admired for their powerful visual address and subtle, apparently psychological modulations. The painter completed several monumental mural projects in the later decades of his life. In the spring of 1967, Rothko suffered an aneurysm of the aorta. He died by his own hand on 25 February 1970 in New York City.
Ashton, Dore. About Rothko. New York, 1983.
Chave, Anna. Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction. New Haven, 1989.
Breslin, James E. B. Mark Rothko: A Biography. Chicago, 1993.
Gift of the artist to Barnett Newman (1943)
Collection his widow, Annalee Newman (after 1970), by whom given in 1991
New York, Wildenstein Gallery, 1943. Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors with Wildenstein Gallery. 3 - 26 June. No cat.
New York, 67 Gallery, 1944. Forty American Moderns. December. No cat.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1978-79. Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective. 27 October - 14 January. Cat. no. 28.
London, The Tate Gallery, 1987. Mark Rothko, 1903-1970. 17 June - 1 September. Cat. no. 19.
Jewell, Edward Alden. "Modern Painters Open Show Today." New York Times , 2 June 1943, p. 28.
Gottlieb, Adolph, and Marcus (Mark) Rothko. In Edward Alden Jewell, "The Realm of Art: A New Platform and Other Matters: ‘Globalism' Pops into View." The New York Times, 13 June 1943, x9.
Waldman, Diane. Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective. Exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978-79, pp. 39-40.
Ashton, Dore. About Rothko. New York, 1983, pp. 75-78, 85.
Chave, Anna. Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction. New Haven, 1989, p. 92.
Breslin, James E. B. Mark Rothko: A Biography. Chicago, 1993, pp. 187-92, 200, 201, 214, 241.
Barnes, Lucinda. "A Proclamation of Moment: Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and the Letter to The New York Times." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 47, no. 1 (1993), pp. 2-13.
Leja, Michael. Reframing Abstract Expressionism. New Haven, 1993, pp. 70, 78, 111, fig. 10.
The cotton canvas support is attached to the original stretcher (bottom member split) with tacks and staples, and covered with a fine, smooth white ground. Pencil underdrawing is visible. The paint was applied in several layers and varies from very thin washes, allowing the canvas to show through, to medium impasted areas. Certain elements of the design (and the artist's signature) are incised into the wet paint, thus exposing the ground. Dirt and grime cover the unvarnished (overall matte) surface of the painting.
1. For an outline of Surrealist exhibitions and publications in New York during the 1930s and ‘40s, see Clair Zamoiski's chronological table in Diane Waldman, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective (exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978), pp. 266-71.
2.See James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (Chicago, 1993), pp. 171-72; and Dore Ashton, About Rothko (New York, 1983), pp. 70-75.
3. P3. Edward Alden Jewell, "Modern Painters Open Show Today," The New York Times, 2 June 1943, p. 28.
4. Rothko and Gottlieb met in 1929 and established a close friendship. See James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (Chicago, 1993), pp. 161-64.
5. Adolph Gottlieb and Marcus (Mark) Rothko, in Edward Alden Jewell, "The Realm of Art: A New Platform and Other Matters: ‘Globalism' Pops into View," The New York Times, 13 June 1943, x9.
6. The since-forgotten Trijugated Tragedy by Theoder Schewe was reproduced between The Syrian Bull and The Rape of Persephone; see Michael Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism (New Haven, 1993), p. 28.
7. The Rothko/Gottlieb/Newman letter to The Times is one of the most frequently cited and extensively analyzed documents of New York School literature. For a recent study of the letter and a review of the literature, see Lucinda Barnes, "A Proclamation of Moment: Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and the Letter to The New York Times," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 47, no. 1 (1993), pp. 2-13.
8. See Dore Ashton, About Rothko (New York, 1983), pp. 65-70; and Anna Chave, Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction (New Haven, 1989), p. 83.