back to February 14, 1956: Alfred Jensen visits Mark Rothko in his studio

Alfred Jensen on Mark Rothko [February 1956]:

Alfred Jensen:

"Yesterday [February 14, 1956] I again visited Rothko at his studio. I found that he had developed as a painter since I saw his work last spring when I told him he included elements of father, mother and child in his paintings. Now in his present canvases he has united these three distinct elements into a family unit.

'Jensen, what you say pleases me and when I get home I'll tell Mell about it. I know that it will please her that you have discerned this new expressive element in my recent work. You are the only one to have understood this. I'm always happy to get your response to my work. Others will say this canvas is beautiful, etc., but they do not see the depth and significance of what I'm after. You know that we all as artists share the distinction of being catalytic idealists. This is the turn of mind we labor under. We as artists are strange creatures. Look at de Kooning, look at you, Jensen, look at me, and what does one see? Surely strange lives! I'm in terrible circumstances at present. I could kick myself for having messed up my teaching job at Brooklyn College, but how could I have done otherwise?

I'm sorry that other painters disapprove so strongly of Philip Guston's show. They accuse him of impotency; they say he can only caress a woman's backside, a pleasant occupation, but they mean that Philip can't go on to take the woman to himself to fuck her. To fuck a picture thirty or forty times a year is quite an order to fulfil. However, I guess that even if a painter fucks a picture to a real climax once a year, it is quite a record. Ten to fifteen times is what the average good artist can accomplish each year.

Now, Jensen, you maintain that a painter must be concrete, abstract, figurative, or geometric. You maintain that the woman must be seen as an image; the ugly must contrast with the beautiful. Let us take de Kooning's women. Bill de Kooning contrasts the distorted fragments of a woman and fuses them with his sense of the pictorial. Picasso's Grecian nudes that he did in the twenties are extremely sensual works of art, but what Renoir did with his nudes is something that belongs to his epoch. However, today one can't make a figurative painting of a woman without distortions and ugliness. Picasso avoided the ugly by his references to another epoch. While he was doing his women he was inspired by their beauty and so painted them as Greek goddesses.

Now Milton Avery is the only painter today who can create the concrete image of a woman without having to resort to distortion. Matisse is sensual but distorts his women, while Avery is nonsensual and paints the pure loveliness of womanhood. If I weren't shy about painting the direct image of woman, I would concentrate on her loveliest features. I hate any kind of distorted image in art. There is something about our times that does not allow us as artist to represent woman. Matisse still felt about the woman as one does about a chattel. He used her, he fucked her. He painted her as he lived with her. Today woman has her independence: man looks at her as his equal and something indefinable stands between them. Not as yet to my mind has anyone discovered what this something is. Whatever it is, it blocks the painter from seeing her the way former generations did. Because as an artist today I cannot see her, I paint the abstract image of woman until something happens to show me the way toward a direct representation - a new attitude perhaps toward her.

It might be true, Jensen, as you claim that comedy, ecstasy and loftiness of spirit are what I actually stand for and that I only exploit talk about tragedy and despair. I'm at present reading Sigmund Freud's letters to a Dr. Fleiss, a nondescript doctor whom no one ever heard of. However, Freud made use of film as a sounding board, and made Fleiss a focal point to whom he addressed some of his most important ideas. Thus an insignificant person like Fleiss can be of great indirect service to mankind. However it is also true as you brought out, Jensen, that both Boswell and Ackerman, even though they seemingly played minor roles in the lives of their friends Johnson and Goethe, still in their own right remained important, and besides also benefited mankind by their published conversations.

You, Jensen, might not be recognized this year by the art world, and I am; yet ten years from now you might be well known and I might be forgotten. It thus is very difficult to judge our contemporaries.

You say that Lil who was present at our last conversation found that your written report was not exactly what she heard me say, that indeed what you wrote is better than what she remembers that I said. Lil is in love with you and therefore it's no wonder that when she reads your interpretations of my thoughts, she prefers your version. Her response is very womanly.

By the way, I've begun to hate Negro masks and other Central American pre-Columbian art, and all the other primitive art manifestations. These objects take on a minor role for me, sort of an anthropological phenomenon. I really have begun to deny their value as art. Look at those Picasso pictures, suffering from a cult of ugliness and deriving from primitive sources.

When young painters come to me and praise my work, I am certain that they are really assaulting me. Beneath their praise I feel their envy and jealousy; they assault me with praise. nevertheless they assault, by praising me they actually try to destroy my influence over them. It frightens me to accept their praise.'" (RO359-61)

back to February 14, 1956: Alfred Jensen visits Mark Rothko in his studio