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A book of heroic dimensions, this is the first full-length biography of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century—a man as fascinating, difficult, and compelling as the paintings he produced. Drawing on exclusive access to Mark Rothko's personal papers and over one hundred interviews with artists, patrons, and dealers, James Breslin tells the story of a life in A book of heroic dimensions, this is the first full-length biography of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century—a man as fascinating, difficult, and compelling as the paintings he produced. Drawing on exclusive access to Mark Rothko's personal papers and over one hundred interviews with artists, patrons, and dealers, James Breslin tells the story of a life in art—the personal costs and professional triumphs, the convergence of genius and ego, the clash of culture and commerce. Breslin offers us not only an enticing look at Rothko as a person, but delivers a lush, in-depth portrait of the New York art scene of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—the world of Abstract Expressionism, of Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, and Klein, which would influence artists for generations to come. "In Breslin, Rothko has the ideal biographer—thorough but never tedious, a good storyteller with an ear for the spoken word, fond but not fawning, and possessed of a most rare ability to comment on non-representational art without sounding preposterous."—Robert Kiely, Boston Book Review "Breslin impressively recreates Mark Rothko's troubled nature, his tormented life, and his disturbing canvases. . . . The artist's paintings become almost tangible within Breslin's pages, and Rothko himself emerges as an alarming physical force."—Robert Warde, Hungry Mind Review "This remains beyond question the finest biography so far devoted to an artist of the New York School."-Arthur C. Danto, Boston Sunday Globe "Clearly written, full of intelligent insights, and thorough."—Hayden Herrera, Art in America "Breslin spent seven years working on this book, and he has definitely done his homework."-Nancy M. Barnes, Boston Phoenix "He's made the tragedy of his subject's life the more poignant."—Eric Gibson, The New Criterion "Mr. Breslin's book is, in my opinion, the best life of an American painter that has yet been written . . . a biographical classic. It is painstakingly researched, fluently written and unfailingly intelligent in tracing the tragic course of its subject's tormented character."—Hilton Kramer, New York Times Book Review, front page review James E. B. Breslin (1936-1996) was professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965 and William Carlos Williams: An American Artist.


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A book of heroic dimensions, this is the first full-length biography of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century—a man as fascinating, difficult, and compelling as the paintings he produced. Drawing on exclusive access to Mark Rothko's personal papers and over one hundred interviews with artists, patrons, and dealers, James Breslin tells the story of a life in A book of heroic dimensions, this is the first full-length biography of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century—a man as fascinating, difficult, and compelling as the paintings he produced. Drawing on exclusive access to Mark Rothko's personal papers and over one hundred interviews with artists, patrons, and dealers, James Breslin tells the story of a life in art—the personal costs and professional triumphs, the convergence of genius and ego, the clash of culture and commerce. Breslin offers us not only an enticing look at Rothko as a person, but delivers a lush, in-depth portrait of the New York art scene of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—the world of Abstract Expressionism, of Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, and Klein, which would influence artists for generations to come. "In Breslin, Rothko has the ideal biographer—thorough but never tedious, a good storyteller with an ear for the spoken word, fond but not fawning, and possessed of a most rare ability to comment on non-representational art without sounding preposterous."—Robert Kiely, Boston Book Review "Breslin impressively recreates Mark Rothko's troubled nature, his tormented life, and his disturbing canvases. . . . The artist's paintings become almost tangible within Breslin's pages, and Rothko himself emerges as an alarming physical force."—Robert Warde, Hungry Mind Review "This remains beyond question the finest biography so far devoted to an artist of the New York School."-Arthur C. Danto, Boston Sunday Globe "Clearly written, full of intelligent insights, and thorough."—Hayden Herrera, Art in America "Breslin spent seven years working on this book, and he has definitely done his homework."-Nancy M. Barnes, Boston Phoenix "He's made the tragedy of his subject's life the more poignant."—Eric Gibson, The New Criterion "Mr. Breslin's book is, in my opinion, the best life of an American painter that has yet been written . . . a biographical classic. It is painstakingly researched, fluently written and unfailingly intelligent in tracing the tragic course of its subject's tormented character."—Hilton Kramer, New York Times Book Review, front page review James E. B. Breslin (1936-1996) was professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965 and William Carlos Williams: An American Artist.

30 review for Mark Rothko: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Albert

    I think the book would have been improved if it had been shorter and had fewer interpretive descriptions of Rothko paintings. These were themselves quite long. Breslin says himself at the end of the book that he was giving his own "take" [my word] on the paintings he described. And that is not why I chose to read this biography. One of the many dangers in "reading" paintings as they supposedly reveal or reflect the personality of the painter is of course that characteristics they supposedly reve I think the book would have been improved if it had been shorter and had fewer interpretive descriptions of Rothko paintings. These were themselves quite long. Breslin says himself at the end of the book that he was giving his own "take" [my word] on the paintings he described. And that is not why I chose to read this biography. One of the many dangers in "reading" paintings as they supposedly reveal or reflect the personality of the painter is of course that characteristics they supposedly reveal can be read "into" the painting. Here is the biographical fallacy. Rothko said that "I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface." Personally, I see no violence in his abstract paintings. Does Breslin see it because he expects to? Anyway, I think the book could have focused more on Rothko's life and less on Breslin's readings of his works. The best description of Rothko in the book, I think, comes from someone else: “’He was a man of tremendous ego and tremendous doubt,’ said Hedda Sterne, and the doubts extended to himself as well as to others.” 525

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bill Delaney

    ...was in london late last year and the 4 seasons paintings were on at the tate, and i'd seen them many times before, and been enthralled, but I thought, nah, been there, done that. But, being at unusually and lucky loose ends for an afternoon, I decided to go anyway. And I was, once again, so moved by the mysterious power of these immortal statements of spirituality, and emptiness, and the unifying silence. And all that. So now I'm reading my first biography of this great artist...born in an ob ...was in london late last year and the 4 seasons paintings were on at the tate, and i'd seen them many times before, and been enthralled, but I thought, nah, been there, done that. But, being at unusually and lucky loose ends for an afternoon, I decided to go anyway. And I was, once again, so moved by the mysterious power of these immortal statements of spirituality, and emptiness, and the unifying silence. And all that. So now I'm reading my first biography of this great artist...born in an obscure part of Russia, came to the US only at about 12, to Portland Oregon of all places...a great book without the dulling detail that dragged down Hillary Spurling's Matisse opus - this book is as great as stevens and swans compulsively readable de kooning or chamberlins picasso -

  3. 4 out of 5

    Zach Church

    On the one hand, I was grateful for how exhaustive this was. The author did a nice job of placing Rothko amongst his contemporaries - always sort of rooting for him without excluding the fine artists he worked with. And the actual art criticism parts were well-written and guide even someone unfamiliar with his work. But the biographical parts often overreach, with the author playing armchair psychologist, sometimes proposing to know why Rothko made individual, minor decisions or reading a wide t On the one hand, I was grateful for how exhaustive this was. The author did a nice job of placing Rothko amongst his contemporaries - always sort of rooting for him without excluding the fine artists he worked with. And the actual art criticism parts were well-written and guide even someone unfamiliar with his work. But the biographical parts often overreach, with the author playing armchair psychologist, sometimes proposing to know why Rothko made individual, minor decisions or reading a wide theme from individual, second-hard remarks and stories. It doesn't enhance the story and feels forced. The subject himself is fairly fascinating, and I love Rothko's work, but it did leave me wanting to know more about artists like Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. The author did his job and did his research, but the self-indulgent afterward almost entirely about his adventures traveling to research the book was unnecessary and changed tone so sharply from the writing about the end of Rothko's life and the art he was making then. I scanned it at best.

  4. 4 out of 5

    David C Ward

    Finally finished this. Comprehensive and detailed - won't need another Rothko biography for a while. A biography in the tradition of big 'door stopper' lives that essentially argue that everything is important. On its own terms, it does what it does exceedingly well. We are fascinated with other lives down to the details. (I remember Carlos Baker's bio of Hemingway that documented how many shotgun shells he packed for a bird hunting trip.) That said I'm not sure this is the best way of approachi Finally finished this. Comprehensive and detailed - won't need another Rothko biography for a while. A biography in the tradition of big 'door stopper' lives that essentially argue that everything is important. On its own terms, it does what it does exceedingly well. We are fascinated with other lives down to the details. (I remember Carlos Baker's bio of Hemingway that documented how many shotgun shells he packed for a bird hunting trip.) That said I'm not sure this is the best way of approaching the work. With a literary figure - Henry James by Leon Edel for instance- you can do a life and letters but I'm not sure this works for an artist. Maybe.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Susan Carey

    I'm a Rothko fan so curiousity drove me to happily read this detailed, lengthy bio. It might be a bit much for less-obsessed readers. Overall, a vision of a complex man of opposing extremes emerged. The initial chapters outline his development as a painter, but what I thoroughly enjoyed were the chapters on his later group mural projects: the Seagram paintings, the Harvard murals, and the Rothko Chapel. The Rothko room at the Tate Modern where some of the Seagram group are displayed was an incred I'm a Rothko fan so curiousity drove me to happily read this detailed, lengthy bio. It might be a bit much for less-obsessed readers. Overall, a vision of a complex man of opposing extremes emerged. The initial chapters outline his development as a painter, but what I thoroughly enjoyed were the chapters on his later group mural projects: the Seagram paintings, the Harvard murals, and the Rothko Chapel. The Rothko room at the Tate Modern where some of the Seagram group are displayed was an incredible experience. Rothko's later and most significant works are mostly monochromatic panels with little form or colour variation. They can be a challenge to appreciate. Breslin revealed the man who created them, and helps one appreciate the forethought and intentionality behind them.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Slmcmahon

    Excellent. A pioneer within and then without the Abstract Expressionist movement of mid-twentieth century American art, Breslin's biography introduces the reader to a misfit immigrant who arrived in Oregon as a young boy and follows Rothko across America to New York where he discovers art and his vocation. Not always a happy man, nor a happy painter Rothko painted some of the most sublime works of art. Reading this book, I learned that my feelings for his paintings were often contrary to his and Excellent. A pioneer within and then without the Abstract Expressionist movement of mid-twentieth century American art, Breslin's biography introduces the reader to a misfit immigrant who arrived in Oregon as a young boy and follows Rothko across America to New York where he discovers art and his vocation. Not always a happy man, nor a happy painter Rothko painted some of the most sublime works of art. Reading this book, I learned that my feelings for his paintings were often contrary to his and that was a bit disconcerting. Regardless, his paintings are a special experience. Here, in Washington, DC's Phillips' Collection, there is a small collection of his canvases which used to hang on their own in a small gallery with a bench placed mid-room. It was somewhere I would go just to visit the Rothkos. There were many conflicting thoughts and emotions I felt which changed with each visit. (Should you ever come to Washington and are interested in art, the Phillips is not to be missed. The art was collected by Duncan Phillips and hung in his home which continues to be the location of this collection. There are many, many spectacular paintings arrayed with much thought providing a tour of modern art from its beginnings to present day.) Breslin's biography is an exploration of what it is to live as an artist as well as to be a part of his life. Rothko married and had two children, a detail of artists' lives not always included when recounting the life of an artist. The book is a wonderful balance of a man of genius and the struggles and exhilarating joys he experienced creating a body of work that continues to affect art lovers today. If you are interested in Rothko and the business of art, I would suggest reading "The Legacy of Mark Rothko" by Lee Seldes, an expose of the "greatest art scandal of our century. The first edition is dated 1978. There is a second edition (which I have not yet read) which continues the story of the scandal to its final outcome.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne

    Breslin's biography of Rothko is generally well-balanced, offering insight into the painter's difficult personality, his relationships with other artists of the period such as Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, his unease with the art market, and his preoccupation with his place in history. However, after reading the first two volumes of the Picasso biography and the bio on Willem DeKooning, I found this book to be not as interesting and in fact, difficult to get through - perhaps a combination o Breslin's biography of Rothko is generally well-balanced, offering insight into the painter's difficult personality, his relationships with other artists of the period such as Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, his unease with the art market, and his preoccupation with his place in history. However, after reading the first two volumes of the Picasso biography and the bio on Willem DeKooning, I found this book to be not as interesting and in fact, difficult to get through - perhaps a combination of Breslin's writing style, tending to extend a point beyond what is necessary, and my own impatience with Rothko's foibles.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    A balanced look at a difficult man and his monolithic artwork. While Rothko was an artistic genius, he had an unstable family life, a history of terrible business decisions and a habit of perpetuating myths about his life. The author is in obvious reverence to Rothko's talent but doesn't shy away from the more critical aspects of his life. However, the best part of the book is the epilogue in which the author details the odd encounters and adventures he had while researching the book. The prose A balanced look at a difficult man and his monolithic artwork. While Rothko was an artistic genius, he had an unstable family life, a history of terrible business decisions and a habit of perpetuating myths about his life. The author is in obvious reverence to Rothko's talent but doesn't shy away from the more critical aspects of his life. However, the best part of the book is the epilogue in which the author details the odd encounters and adventures he had while researching the book. The prose style is so off-the-cuff and charming that it made me wish he would expand it to a separate book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jessie

    I really enjoyed this book and the information it provided. The author successfully presented a biography of Rothko's life and tied that in with his paintings and the methods, thoughts, and emotions behind them. The book gives a lot of historical information not just about Rothko's life but also other influential artists and institutions in that time. There were also descriptions of some of his paintings, and while other readers may not have enjoyed that, I did. It helped me understand and appre I really enjoyed this book and the information it provided. The author successfully presented a biography of Rothko's life and tied that in with his paintings and the methods, thoughts, and emotions behind them. The book gives a lot of historical information not just about Rothko's life but also other influential artists and institutions in that time. There were also descriptions of some of his paintings, and while other readers may not have enjoyed that, I did. It helped me understand and appreciate the works even more. I really got a lot out of this book.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Gabriel

    A solid biography. At times Breslin becomes a bit long winded. I found he often made unnecessary parallels between Rothko's life and his work (though this seems to be a pretty common fault among biographers). His descriptions of individual paintings were often long winded and superfluous. I think he could have mostly left these descriptions out, and instead included more images. But these complaints are minor. Overall I really enjoyed the book and it did deepen my understanding and appreciation A solid biography. At times Breslin becomes a bit long winded. I found he often made unnecessary parallels between Rothko's life and his work (though this seems to be a pretty common fault among biographers). His descriptions of individual paintings were often long winded and superfluous. I think he could have mostly left these descriptions out, and instead included more images. But these complaints are minor. Overall I really enjoyed the book and it did deepen my understanding and appreciation of Rothko's work.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Scott Cox

    Mark Rothko is one of the foremost abstract expressionist painters. I can appreciate each of the various stages through which his painting evolved. His latter works tend to be darker as he struggled both physically & mentally, culminating with his committing suicide in 1968. This book was one of the first modern artist biographies I read, and it had a lasting impression (expression?) on my appreciation of modern art; especially the NY "expressionists." Mark Rothko is one of the foremost abstract expressionist painters. I can appreciate each of the various stages through which his painting evolved. His latter works tend to be darker as he struggled both physically & mentally, culminating with his committing suicide in 1968. This book was one of the first modern artist biographies I read, and it had a lasting impression (expression?) on my appreciation of modern art; especially the NY "expressionists."

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mark Valentine

    I read this in preparation for my role; I played Mark Rothko in Olympic Theater Arts' production of the John Logan play, Red. I found it incredibly informative, thorough, enlightening, and useful. Rothko's drive and personality, his amazing ambition to create a new way of looking. I am immensely grateful to Breslin for writing such a profoundly immersive study of Rothko and his contemporaries. I read this in preparation for my role; I played Mark Rothko in Olympic Theater Arts' production of the John Logan play, Red. I found it incredibly informative, thorough, enlightening, and useful. Rothko's drive and personality, his amazing ambition to create a new way of looking. I am immensely grateful to Breslin for writing such a profoundly immersive study of Rothko and his contemporaries.

  13. 4 out of 5

    F.J. Commelin

    James Breslin takse me through Rothko's life and it's like i'm seeing all this as a movie. The only very irritating thing for me was his descriptions of Rotko's paintings in which he lays many emotions etc. and i think constantly ; how does he know this? I feel that's a lot of interpretation going on for too long. but all in all i enjoyed the book. James Breslin takse me through Rothko's life and it's like i'm seeing all this as a movie. The only very irritating thing for me was his descriptions of Rotko's paintings in which he lays many emotions etc. and i think constantly ; how does he know this? I feel that's a lot of interpretation going on for too long. but all in all i enjoyed the book.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ann Tracy

    I love Mark Rothko. I really truly do. And I love art books, but also readily admit there are a lot of boring ones out there. Some pure gems too. I can't go on. I only got halfway through. It's torture. Life is too short and there are too many fantastic books out there. Doesn't make sense to spend the time on ones that just aren't cutting it for you. I love Mark Rothko. I really truly do. And I love art books, but also readily admit there are a lot of boring ones out there. Some pure gems too. I can't go on. I only got halfway through. It's torture. Life is too short and there are too many fantastic books out there. Doesn't make sense to spend the time on ones that just aren't cutting it for you.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    I'm so glad I took the time to read this book. I have a much better understanding of Rothko's place in time and others he was connected to, which in turn adds to my appreciation of his works and also of the works of those artists he knew, hung out with, argued with, and created with. I'm so glad I took the time to read this book. I have a much better understanding of Rothko's place in time and others he was connected to, which in turn adds to my appreciation of his works and also of the works of those artists he knew, hung out with, argued with, and created with.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Natalie Lovejoy

    While I love Rothko's paintings the book was boring While I love Rothko's paintings the book was boring

  17. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    There was a lot of interesting information, but I felt it was too wordy

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mbkjconley

    Excellent!

  19. 5 out of 5

    G

    Sad life, great book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Charles Baudelaire

    Read it and weep! One of the first books i ever read upon moving to NY. It left a deep, perhaps too deep impression on me.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Steph DK

  22. 5 out of 5

    Baby Smith

  23. 5 out of 5

    Carl

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lou

  25. 5 out of 5

    Victor Hernandez

  26. 5 out of 5

    Edward Twohig

  27. 4 out of 5

    Scott Whitton

  28. 5 out of 5

    Dahlia Johnson

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jerry Boorda

  30. 4 out of 5

    Marit Oyen

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