Mark Rothko Toward the Light in the Chapel Annie Cohen-Solal

Jewish Lives
Publication date:
22 Mar 2016
Yale University Press
296 pages: 210 x 140mm
17 b-w + 16 color illus.
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A fascinating exploration of the life and work of one of America’s most famous and enigmatic postwar visual artists

Mark Rothko, one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century, was born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in 1903. He immigrated to the United States at age ten, taking with him his Talmudic education and his memories of pogroms and persecutions in Russia. His integration into American society began with a series of painful experiences, especially as a student at Yale, where he felt marginalized for his origins and ultimately left the school. The decision to become an artist led him to a new phase in his life. Early in his career, Annie Cohen-Solal writes, “he became a major player in the social struggle of American artists, and his own metamorphosis benefited from the unique transformation of the U.S. art world during this time.” Within a few decades, he had forged his definitive artistic signature, and most critics hailed him as a pioneer. The numerous museum shows that followed in major U.S. and European institutions ensured his celebrity. But this was not enough for Rothko, who continued to innovate. Ever faithful to his habit of confronting the establishment, he devoted the last decade of his life to cultivating his new conception of art as an experience, thanks to the commission of a radical project, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Cohen-Solal’s fascinating biography, based on considerable archival research, tells the unlikely story of how a young immigrant from Dvinsk became a crucial transforming agent of the art world—one whose legacy prevails to this day.

Annie Cohen-Solal's books include Sartre: A Life (a best-seller translated into sixteen languages), Painting American (Académie des Beaux arts Prize), and Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli (ArtCurial Prize).

‘In this moving and readable biography, Cohen-Solal tells the story of Rothko’s life through the prism of his Jewishness.’—Marcus Field, the Independent.

‘…both a moving tribute to a great artist and a gripping story. Its strength lies in placing Rothko in the contexts of a Europe devastated by wars and anti-Jewish violence, and America’s post-war cultural scene, and the light that Rothko’s life sheds on both these tumultuous eras.—Tracey Warr, THES.

‘Cohen-Solal does an excellent job of guiding us through the New York art world… Her style is clear and she makes interesting connections between Rothko and the larger cultural world of mid-century America,’—David Herman, Jewish Renaissance.

“Gripping . . . meticulous . . . this novelistic account is a rewarding close-up of Rothko’s . . . experience as a Jewish immigrant.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Cohen-Solal's study of Mark Rothko is notable for her ability to link his strong Jewish ties to his changing, evolving art. Her access to newly available archives enables her comprehensive portrait of the man . . . A sure hit for fans of art history, and readers looking to understand modern art and especially abstraction will find this wonderfully enlightening."—Kirkus Reviews

“Once again, Annie Cohen-Solal has done it. As with her book on Leo Castelli, she has managed to bring not only Mark Rothko, but his time, to life. This book is a grand blend of biography, cultural history, and art criticism. Rare is the scholar who can pull it off so masterfully.”—David N. Myers, Professor of Jewish History, UCLA History Department

“Written with empathy, this biography is not merely one man’s singular history, however fractured and dazzling. Here, the reader is embedded in the heart of successive ‘art worlds’ and, at each step of the painter’s life, the biographer enriches her interpretation, connecting it to multiple realms: the geopolitical, the socio-economic, the aesthetic.”—Raymonde Moulin, Le Journal des arts

“Digging into family archives and into the most recent scholarly research, the writer re-creates the metamorphosis of this tormented and hypersensitive artist as New York is becoming the center of the art world. The reader passionately follows this ‘gloomy and enigmatic’ man dive into Abstraction thanks to his interaction with Matisses’ Red Studio in 1949, as well as his search for a contemplative experience in which the viewer could step into his paintings, as exemplified in the Houston Chapel.—Myriam Boutoulle, Connaissance des Arts

“This is less a traditional biography than the trajectory of a Jewish immigrant painter in the 20th century. Annie Cohen-Solal carefully attends to understanding the choices made by the artist in light of the historical events of his time.”—Fabien Simode, L’Oeil

“My admiration is boundless for those who manage to craft a painter’s biography—I mean a complete biography, merging work and life, analyzing both of them equally. Although it seemed an unreachable task to me . . . Annie Cohen-Solal, after other noted books . . . excels in tracking down Rothko’s position in New York artistic life . . . through a formidable and remarkably documented inquiry.”—Pierre Assouline, La République des lettres

“Annie Cohen-Solal’s book, altogether well-documented, sensitive and ambitious, is an invitation to better interact with an artist and his art, as its focus is on the core of Rothko’s being.”—Roger Pierre Turine, La libre Belgique

“[A] tightly focused, profoundly clarifying biography . . . A defining and affecting tribute to a modern master.”—Booklist, starred review

“It’s unlikely that many of Rothko’s admirers understand his art as he wanted it understood. . . . Annie Cohen-Solal . . . corrects our perceptions in Mark Rothko.”—National Post

“This compact study places Rothko’s development within the context of the evolution of American art in the mid-twentieth century . . . Cohen-Solal subtly demonstrates the link between Rothko’s three outsider statuses (artist, immigrant, and Jew), his color-block canvases, and his essential Americanness.”—New Yorker

"Cohen-Solal's work is well-written and well-argued, and will be of interest to anyone concerned with Rothko, modern art, American intellectual history or the politics and processes of Jewish identity and assimilation."—Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Illuminating . . . Impressively sourced . . . A sublime little volume."—Washington Times

“An admirable attempt to construct a coherent framework around what is undeniably a complicated, not to say messy, life.”—Washington Post

“Engrossing.”—Times Higher Education Supplement

"Written in succinct and fast-paced prose, this streamlined volume (part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series) . . . argues that Rothko’s Jewishness is at the core of his life and art, and played a decisive influence in the austere and majestic canvases recognized today as his signature work."—Yaelle Azagury, New York Times Book Review

"Cohen-Solal's work is well-written and well-argued, and will be of interest to anyone concerned with Rothko, modern art, American intellectual history or the politics and processes of Jewish identity and assimilation."—Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Cohen-Solal has made an important contribution with a well-researched book about Rothko's life."—New Criterion