Price to Pay

Fiction

New York, 1952

 

The news about Rothko discombobulates Barney Newman. He leaves early to walk off his anger, all the way from his studio on Wall Street back to the apartment in the Village. His wife, Annalee, will want to know. She’s the voice of reason; Barney’s the one with the artistic temperament. Fat lot of good it does him.

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As soon as he comes in, Annalee looks up from her grading her students’ homework and pushes it aside. Then she runs to him, asking, “What’s wrong?”

Barney swats the air. “Something I was told,” he says. He looks at Annalee’s dark, soulful eyes and chiselled features; he couldn’t ask for anyone lovelier or more devoted. It’s late in the evening and one of their favourite operas, The Magic Flute, is playing on the radio, but in his rage, he can’t hear it.

“Let’s talk about this over a bite to eat,” Annalee says. “I’ve made some tomato soup, your favourite.”

Barney plunks himself down on one of the chairs at the table and heaves a deep sigh. She brings him some soup and crackers, then joins him.

He waits to take a sip. “I just heard a rumour about Rothko. I hope to God it’s not true!”

 The next day, thoughts of Rothko continue to swirl in Barney’s mind.

“Is it about his new marriage or his little daughter?” Annalee says.

Barney reaches for a cracker. “Nothing like that. Say, you know that exhibit coming up at MoMA? The one I said I’d give my eye teeth to be in?”

Annalee nods and Barney starts in on his soup, then puts down the spoon. “Apparently Rothko got me excluded from it!”

Her face looks pinched. “But he’s a friend, Barney. Maybe it’s just gossip.”

“I hope so. Jeez, we’ve been friends for twenty-two years.”

“I thought so. But you know … if it’s true,” she says, wringing her hands, “then there’s a price to pay. If not, why would anyone say such a thing?”

“Look, Rothko’s in a different league now. He’s had three international shows in the past year! Who else around here can say that? I’m happy for him. But maybe he thinks I’m no longer worthy of his friendship.”

“Don’t say that,” Annalee says, her brows knitted. “You’re very worthy, Barnett Newman. But you’re making too much of this rumour.”

Barney finishes the soup, then taps out a cigarette and lights it. “The opening’s the day after tomorrow,” he says, taking a long drag. “I think I’ll show up.”

“You should. And talk to Rothko,” says Annalee, gathering up the dishes. “If you like, I can come.”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “It’ll be awkward enough.”

***

The next day, thoughts of Rothko continue to swirl in Barney’s mind. At the studio, he stares at the canvas for fifteen minutes without making a single brushstroke, then forces himself to snap out of his mood and do something productive. He finds his notes for a catalogue preface and starts to write the piece. His thoughts flow smoothly and he completes it quickly. A good distraction, albeit short.

Barney next decides to build a three foot by five foot stretcher, using wood salvaged from other projects, a skill he learned years ago at the Art Students’ League. After taking several precise measurements, he uses a saw to miter the corners before joining the sides together with tiny nails. Barney then measures and saws two more lengths of wood to build a crossbar, which he attaches to the back of the stretcher. The final step involves affixing the canvas. To accomplish this task, Barney uses special pliers to pull the canvas evenly around the stretcher. For this size of stretcher, he must repeatedly pull the canvas, first in one direction, then the other, to achieve the optimal tautness. After the canvas is even, he tightens its corners before gluing them down. A few hours later, he has completed the stretcher and almost forgotten about Rothko.

That evening, Barney teaches a night school class in art appreciation, and tells the students about the process of preparing a canvas. They discuss the pros and cons of using a large canvas as opposed to a small one. The time flies by. But at the end of class, a student asks about Abstract Expressionism. She says she read Rothko’s interview in yesterday’s New York Times. He quickly explains that, after the war, the world had changed a lot, so a new form of art emerged. He promises to discuss the subject further at the next class. But now Barney’s back to thinking about Rothko.

On the morning of the MoMA show, Barney stops by a gallery in Chelsea to view Louise Nevelson’s work. He’d met her years ago at the Art League and was impressed by her alluring wood and metal sculptures. Seeing her latest work is uplifting: she has created eye-catching pieces from construction materials found in her neighbourhood. Afterwards, he heads off to his studio to coat the newly stretched canvas with a layer of rabbit skin glue to seal the fabric. Building a stretcher and preparing the canvas are hard work, but they save some money, allowing him to spend more on the highest quality of paint.

***

Barney wears his woollen sports jacket and dress pants to the opening, though it’s April. To save cab fare, he walks from the apartment on East 19th to the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street. It’s a few miles, but the air is crisp and the trees are budding, the streets a visual feast. From two blocks away, a red, white and blue vertical exhibition banner grabs his attention: “FIFTEEN AMERICANS: THE BEST ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISTS IN THE COUNTRY.” Having an exhibit at MoMA means that you’ve made the grade in the art world of the Big Apple. From half a block away, Barney’s eyes scan the names of the participants listed in alphabetical order, a lump forming in his throat.

They say hello, but people keep coming up to them before he can even shake their hands.

By the time he arrives, a crowd has already poured into the building — fellow artists, critics, collectors and gallery owners. Annalee always says she can pick out these groups by their clothing: the gallery owners and collectors in starched white shirts and business suits, their wives dressed to the nines in elegant cocktail dresses; the critics in tweed sports jackets and bowties. Many of these people flit around the reception room, greeting others, embracing and congratulating anyone associated with the show. The easiest people to identify are the artists, usually wearing unusual hats and second-hand outfits in attention-grabbing colours.

The reception quickly fills up and soon no one is standing more than an arm’s length apart. A few members of the Who’s Who in the New York art world are clearly visible: Peggy Guggenheim in the far corner chatting with the art critic Clement Greenberg; the Sulzbergers from the New York Times conferring with that snake Thomas Hess, who verbally lynched Barney in an article two years ago. And there’s Betty Parsons talking to the curator Dorothy Canning Miller in her pearls and navy-blue suit. Betty gave Barney his first and second solo shows, but they no longer speak, and he withdrew all his work from her gallery last year after nothing sold.

And behold, in the centre of the room, Rothko is being questioned by one reporter, another waiting in the wings to interview him later. Once an avowed socialist, Rothko is now dressed in a $500 Brooks Brothers suit for the occasion, his sultry wife, Mell, at his side. Barney waves to them and she waves back, but nothing from Rothko. Not a good sign.

Barney starts weaving his way through the crowd towards the refreshments and sees a couple of the other exhibitors. They say hello, but people keep coming up to them before he can even shake their hands. MoMA has spared no expense for this reception. There are several bartenders along with an obscene supply of wine, hors d’oeuvres and caviar.

Pollock’s already at the bar. No great surprise to find him there. He and his wife, Lee Krasner, briefly join Barney.

“Jackson and I were shocked you weren’t included,” she says. “Brave of you to come in that case.”

Is it brave? Barney’s not so sure. Lee means well — she hasn’t a mean bone in her body — but nonetheless the remark stings.

“We’ll have to get together some time with you and Annalee,” Lee says brightly. “I always enjoy speaking with her.”

He’s about to reply, but just then a collector interrupts, wanting to meet Pollock. Barney surveys the area where Rothko was standing a few minutes earlier, but he’s since disappeared.

Barney then heads towards the exhibit. It’s a cavernous space adorned with black walls. Surprisingly, very few others are going through the gallery at this point. They’re probably still schmoozing. So much the better. It’s easier to view the pieces without anyone blocking them or making distracting comments.

Barney tries in vain to find a pattern to the order in which the paintings are installed. Three paintings per artist are featured along with a didactic panel containing a brief bio of each participant. Rothko’s pieces are displayed at the very end of the exhibit. How did the curator ever convince him to go along with that decision? To Barney, the order implies that Rothko’s pieces don’t need to be featured; they are so admired that people will seek them out regardless of where his works are placed. And no wonder. You can’t stop looking at Rothko’s paintings — their luminosity is mesmerizing. And he gets at least $1,800 for one, more than Barney earns in a year.

That thought is enough to make him want to leave the gallery. But he hasn’t yet found Rothko, who is probably still at the reception.

No sooner does Barney start heading there than who should emerge from the washroom but Rothko. Here is Barney’s chance. He steps forward to block Rothko’s path and shake his hand, but Rothko keeps his hands by his side.

“How are you?” Barney says. “You know, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about. Could I drop by your studio tomorrow?”

Rothko looks down at Barney with a scowl on his face. “Call my assistant. He’ll make you an appointment,” he says, then scuttles off. What a crumb. He acts like the two of them don’t even know each other.

By now, more people are entering the exhibit. Barney must wend his way through the crowd. A few people he knows smile or nod at him on his way out. He smiles back at them but doesn’t stop to talk. If he did, they might say, “Nice show. Too bad you weren’t included.” He doesn’t want pity.

He finally approaches the reception again. The room is half full and Rothko is still flitting from person to person, working the crowd. Barney leaves MoMA and stands outside in the dark near the front entrance. He’s about to light up when someone taps him on the shoulder. It’s Clyfford Still, a scrawny young Minnesota artist included in the show. Barney admires his work and they’ve spoken a few times. Still seems like a decent, unassuming guy. Barney chuckles to himself, recalling the first time they met, when Still spoke about how strange it felt not being able to see the horizon line in Manhattan.

“Hey man,” says Still in his Midwestern twang. “I was hoping to catch up with you, but you disappeared.”

It was so nice of him to write that comment, but, at the same time, it implies that Still is no longer sure about Rothko.

They talk for a few minutes and Still invites him for a studio visit. Barney is pleased by the invitation.

Before they say goodbye, Still insists on signing Barney’s program and scribbles a few words. Unable to read the upside-down scrawl, Barney stuffs the program in his pocket before heading home.

Surprisingly few people are on the streets, but lots of vehicles keep passing by. The quietness of the streets heartens Barney. Stopping for a red light, he looks up at the starry sky and feels a sense of aloneness or “onement” like in his paintings. He reaches into his pocket and removes the program. He reads Still’s chicken scratches. “To my friend Barnett Newman, who also should have been represented in this exhibit!” He is touched by the generosity of Still’s gesture. It was so nice of him to write that comment, but, at the same time, it implies that Still is no longer sure about Rothko.

At home, Annalee is waiting up for Barney. He shows her the signed program, then tells her about his encounter with Rothko. “He was so cold,” Barney says, shrugging, “like he didn’t even know me.”

Annalee bites her lip. “I think you have your answer right there.”

***

The next day, Barney books an appointment with Rothko’s assistant, then walks over to his studio, a short distance from home. Along the way, pools of oily violet shimmer on the rough pavement tinted by the bright morning sky. That colour jogs his memory about a visit to Rothko’s studio a decade ago.

Barney had wanted to observe his friend’s painting technique. Rothko attacked the canvas with short, swiftly executed brush strokes, applying layer upon layer of slight variations of the same colour.

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“With all those layers, how do you finish your pieces so fast?” Barney asked.

Always a joker, Rothko said, “You know, I’m almost out of paint right now. After you leave, I’m going to Woolworth’s to buy some more.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Barney said.

“No, I’m dead serious. Bocour is the brand that dries the fastest and produces the right effect. Sometimes I add other stuff, like eggs and glue. Whatever helps make the canvas dry faster.”

“But won’t the paints affect the life of the canvas?”

Rothko didn’t answer, just threw his hands up in the air as if to say, “Who cares?”

At the time, Barney bit his tongue. Over the years, Rothko’s choice of materials would deteriorate and ruin the paintings. The collectors would be so disappointed.

***

Barney knocks three times, but no one appears at the door. 

“My assistant is busy! Just come in.” Rothko yells from inside. He’s in his painting clothes, a great bear of a man. His colour looks off, but his face looks more relaxed than at the exhibit.

“Long time, no see,” Barney says.

Rothko is standing there, wiping his hands with a cloth. “Yeah, I’ve been away … a few months in Europe … openings in Amsterdam, Brazil and Japan. You know how it is.”

“No. I don’t.” Does he think he’s talking to one of his collectors? And how would Barney know? He’s never been outside the States.

On the final evening, the artists ask his advice about their professional careers. “Be careful of who your friends are in the art world. And pay attention to what they do,”

The air is heavy with silence as Barney glances around. It’s the same studio as before, but everything is arranged differently, every surface littered with paint pots and several half-empty bottles of Glenlivet. Rothko must be hitting the booze a lot, no doubt. The canvases, at least the two visible ones, look different too. They still have that same shimmery glow, but the colours are sombre, burgundy and a deep eggplant purple, not bright like his earlier work.

Barney stands silently admiring the paintings. He is about to ask his burning question. But Rothko suddenly turns to face him and says, “Hey, here’s a joke! How many artists does it take to change a light bulb?”

“No idea.”

He sits down on a stool near Barney. “The answer’s ten. One to change it, and nine to reassure the artist how good it looks.”

“So true,” Barney chuckles.

Then Rothko says, “Here’s another one. Why did Van Gogh become a painter?”

“Don’t know.”

With a deadpan look, he says, “Because he didn’t have an ear for music.”

Barney heaves a sigh. This is so weird. What the hell’s the matter with him?

“Now,” says Rothko, “I just have one more. What do you call—”

Barney can feel the blood thudding in his head. “Look, I didn’t come here for jokes. I need to ask you something.”

“Why didn’t you say so? Ask away,” Rothko says, his face blank.

“There’s a rumour you excluded me from the show. Am I wrong?”

Rothko’s eyes narrow. “That’s why you’re here?”

Barney nods.

“I told the curator I wouldn’t be in the exhibit if you were included,” Rothko says, his arms folded. “It would diminish my reputation.”

Barney’s heart beats jaggedly at the words. “Why? How could you?”

“Do I have to spell it out? You’ve sold one painting in fifteen years! You withdraw your work from the Parsons Gallery, then don’t show anything for a couple of years.”

“So you’re punishing me for that?”

“Look, you’re not in the same category. My paintings sell for $2,000 or $3,000.”

Barney would like nothing more than to punch Rothko in the face, but he’s a head taller and a good fifty pounds heavier. “You call yourself a socialist and say this? You never used to care about money. You’ve sold out to the establishment. And there was never anything spiritual in your paintings. Your only religion is money!”

There, Barney’s finally had it out with Rothko. But he doesn’t feel any better.

The colour rises in Rothko’s face like a thermometer. “Get out of my studio!” he roars, waving his hands about wildly. “Get out or I’ll have my assistant throw you out!”

***

Barney never sees Rothko again. He withdraws from the art world for a few years, but still paints every day. Then, out of the blue, his art career takes a turn for the better, thanks to Ben Heller, a wealthy young collector, and a good review by Thomas Hess. Suddenly Barney is asked to exhibit in prestigious galleries and speak at conferences about art. One day, he accepts an offer to spend a month at an artists’ colony in Emma Lake, Saskatchewan, up in Canada.

The artists there are young and serious about their work. Many are talented. He critiques their pieces every day and they have wonderful talks about art around a campfire every night. He especially loves watching the flames as they flicker, dance and soar above the pancake flatness of the ground. In fact, the nightly routine of the campfire strikes him as spiritual in a sense, as well as universal, making him ponder about the connection between nature, God and people.

On the final evening, the artists ask his advice about their professional careers. “Be careful of who your friends are in the art world. And pay attention to what they do,” he says, recalling two distinct encounters, one with Rothko about not being included in the MoMA show and the other about observing Rothko’s choice of materials.

These young artists were smiling a few minutes ago, but now they all look as if a light bulb has gone off in each of their heads.

“And if you get fame, don’t find despair in it, like someone I once knew,” Barney tells them. “Find the joy in it!”

***

Fast forward eleven years to February 1970. According to habit, Barney goes out early every morning to get the newspaper for Annalee, so she can read it on the subway to work. Lo and behold, the front-page headline in the New York Times announces Rothko’s suicide. Barney feels the back of his neck tighten like a vice grip. He scans the first paragraph, then folds up the paper and heads home.

Back at the apartment, Annalee is already dressed, but looks shaken. She knows about Rothko from another artist who called while Barney was out.

He shows Annalee the article and they sit side by side on the couch to read it together.

After they finish, they sit motionless, numbed by the details of Rothko’s demise — the self-inflicted stab wounds, the fact that his assistant found the body in the studio, that Rothko left a wife and two children.

Annalee turns to Barney and breaks the silence. “What a lonely way to die. I just don’t understand it.”

“I heard he was living in his studio ever since his marriage went kaput a year or two ago,” Barney says. “Come to think of it, my last time there, I remember these two paintings he was working on. One was burgundy, the other a deep purple. Both were luminous. He must have started out with a black canvas and painted those colours on top. You could tell from the bits of black bleeding through the main colour and left along the edges of the canvas. Seems like his later work kept getting darker and darker too, like his moods. In the end, I think he paid the price for his fame. It swallowed him up.”

Barney moves closer to Annalee and gives her a hug. “Look,” he says, “Rothko and I both explored the mysteries of light,” he says. “I found sparks of light in my art and with you. He discovered it in his paintings. But in his personal life, the inner light always eluded him.”


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