"The Big Bruise"
Rotko's career as a painter came about abruptly when, upset by the bill for a moonlit painting of his poodles Sam and Janet*, he covered the painting with green Sherwin-Williams alkyd and sent it back to the artist's agent. You can imagine how surprised he was when the following week he received a check for $3,200 and an invitation for a private showing of his work.
Rotko, who until that time had been a firefighter with a Brooklyn engine company, was flabbergasted. In his biography, Watching Paint Dry, he recalls the moment:
"All of a sudden the wheels begin to turn. Thirty-two hundred smackers for something I did in 5 minutes with leftover paint and an old house brush? I called the Captain down at the firehouse and told him what he could do with his hose nozzle and the firehorse he rode in on. Then I went down to the hardware store and picked up a couple of cans that were on sale, plus a couple of brushes, and on the way home I stopped at the Salvation Army place and got me a beret.
"Rotko discovered that the bigger the canvas, the higher the price, and pretty soon he had to rent space in an abandoned warehouse to contain his works. His output was astonishing. After he discovered the roller, he was turning out three or four museum-quality paintings a week.
Alas, lured by money, he began forging his own paintings and selling them on the black market. He became the true pessimist of the Depressionist school when, just for laughs, he painted "The Bruise," which was inspired by a household accident, and discovered that the Rockerfeller Foundation wanted it for its permanent collection. He then cynically began a series in Mennonite Black barn paint, which sold better than anything else he had done, even though the last 146 were for all practical purposes identical. Crazed by frustration, guilt and remorse, in 1970 he drowned himself in a 55-gallon drum of Benjamin Moore "Winterset" exterior latex.
*The original painting, called "Sam and Janet, Evening," became the basis for a popular song, later incorporated into the 1949 hit musical "South Pacific."