Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):
To the south of St. Petersburg, in what is now Latvia, lies Daugavpils, formerly Dvinsk. At the turn of the twentieth century, under the tsarist regime, employment was scarce and young women were frequently forced into prostitution. To avoid such a fate, a fifteen-year-old named Anna Goldin agreed to marry Jacob Rothkowitz, a local pharmacist. She bore him four children. The youngest, Marcus, the future Rothko, the most sensitive, indeed hypochondriac among them, was the only one to learn the Talmud. Though there is no historical evidence of executions taking place in Dvinsk, in later years Rothko spoke of seeing a group of Cossacks taking Jews into the surrounding woods to dig a communal grave: “I saw that square grave in the woods so vividly that, though I can’t be sure the massacre happened in my lifetime, I have always been haunted by the image.” One morning Mrs. Rothkowitz and her children boarded a boat at the port of Liepāja. They were bound for the United States, where they were due to join the father, who had gone ahead a number of months before. The ship docked in Portland, Oregon, and they had barely set foot on shore when Mr. Rothkowitz died of cancer of the colon. Marcus was eleven years old: he was poor and Jewish, and left-leaning in his sense of politics. He made the best fist he could of high school, at the end of which he won a scholarship to study law at Yale in 1929. A few months later, as the Wall Street Crash began to eat away at the foundations of national life, he abandoned his studies. He had decided to give New York City a go, to “bum around and starve a bit.”
Had he died at that point, history would not have remembered him, since before the age of forty-five, Rothko did nothing to distinguish himself as a painter. He had a Surrealist phase, a surprisingly mediocre one, and began in the 1930s to produce anguished cityscapes, complete with Giacometti-like elongated figures—hopeless. One day he had the kind of moment that artists await their entire lives, and that sometimes comes, sometimes doesn’t: the vision that finally brings them up from the depths. It came to Rothko in the summer of 1945, while he was in the process of setting down on canvas a series of abstract, blurry blocks of color floating in space. All notion of line and detail had disappeared, and color itself exploded: pinks, peaches, lavenders, whites, yellows, and saffron, as evanescent as steam on glass. It was as through his eyes had dilated.
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