mark rothko painting

Photo: Courtesy Portland Art Museum

Mark Rothko, self-portrait, 1936

In conjunction with the PAM show, other local arts organizations will help flesh out this intricate aesthetic and personal legacy: Portland Center Stage will present the bio-drama Red, based on Rothko’s epic struggle with a commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant, and Third Angle Ensemble will play “Rothko’s Chapel,” composer Morton Feldman’s ode to the artist’s church–cum–artistic shrine in Houston.

For all his global importance, Rothko’s short, early stay in the fertile, socially tense milieu of early-20th-century Portland can hardly be dismissed. In the war against authority, convention, and interpretation that Rothko waged all his life, the earliest battles were fought here. Around the time his family arrived, Portland’s Jewish population was in the process of more than doubling. In the tight confines of the South Portland neighborhood alone, there were four synagogues. Portland had already had three Jewish mayors. The city teemed with successful Jewish merchants, from the furniture dealer Isaac Gevurtz to Julius Meier, heir to the department store that anchored the city’s shining white terra-cotta district.

But Rothko began life in Portland as an underdog, a state of mind that would animate his early politics, his deep insecurities and outsize ego, and his restless pursuit of ever-more narrow definitions of success. His family was poor, part of a wave of Eastern European Jews fleeing the rising anti-Semitism of czarist Russia. Only months after arriving, his father died of colon cancer. Rothko learned English by ear in elementary school before attending the original Lincoln High (today the Portland State University performing arts venue Lincoln Hall). He recalled hearing Emma Goldman speak in 1915 on anarchism, free love, and birth control (the last topic netting her a fine of $100). As in many US cities, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 stoked both labor unrest and fears of “reds.” (That year, labor rabble-rouser and one-time socialist William Daly nearly became Portland’s mayor.)

As a junior at Lincoln, Rothko cofounded a debate club and a column in the Cardinal, “an open forum for ideas.” Both were, at least in part, a response to Jews’ exclusion from the school’s social clubs. This writing and organizing presaged later actions and manifestos that helped articulate an intellectual and revolutionary spirit for the new American painting. Though Rothko was sharp enough to graduate from Lincoln early with a scholarship to Yale, his WASP classmates nevertheless chided his heritage in the yearbook, scrawling that he mostly likely was destined to become “a Pawn Broker.”

Rothko claimed he was self-taught, but the Portland artistic atmosphere was plenty fertile. The innovative Portland Art Museum director Anna Belle Crocker initiated art education programs at Lincoln, bringing the students into the museum for talks and tours and showing reproductions in the school’s hallways. During an after-school job, an employer recalled, Rothko frequently whiled away time sketching on wrapping paper.

Rothko left Yale after two years, returning to Portland where, among other things, he acted (once, he later bragged, with Clark Gable as “an understudy” during that actor’s brief sojourn here). After moving to New York for good, he occasionally came back. Camping in Washington Park on one visit, he and his first wife, family members recall, were rousted by police for public nudity.

“The vision of a long, long road arises before me. The road is rough and bumpy. Milestones … are lined along the road. The last one is far, far away, beyond that point where horizon meets the earth.”
—Mark Rothko, 1920 (writing as a junior in lincoln High school newspaper The Cardinal)

Had he stayed in Portland, Rothko once said, he “would have been a bum.” Indeed, whatever imprint Portland left on him is hard to detect. His childhood haunts were scrapped in early-’60s urban renewal. His paintings are nothing if not ineffable. Stare long enough at a Rothko abstraction and you might very well see the sunlit mists engulfing Hood—or, just as easily, the uncertain promise looming beyond your own emotional cliff. Rothko once described his paintings as “dramas” in which the shapes were “performers.” Successful art, to him, had a dimension he often described as “tragic.” For all of the serenity often ascribed to his paintings, the artist himself believed his works “imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface.”

Provocateur, libertine, revolutionary, and, as many an acquaintance described him, simply “lonely,” Mark Rothko embodied many roles. But the earliest was the ill-fitting émigré on the stage of South Portland.