He was one of the most famous Jewish artists of the 20th century, but Mark Rothko, born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, was also a mass of contradictions. He was a cheder boy who turned his back on organised religion.
He yearned for an audience, yet when he was well established he insisted on producing the sombre abstracts he knew his public liked less than the brightly coloured canvases, known as his Classic Paintings, which had made his name.
He hated the thought of that same public buying pieces to decorate the interiors of their homes, but you could say Rothko briefly reasoned like an interior designer when he got his first public commission, a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York. Rothko used a dark palette of maroon, grey and black.
As he told the journalist John Fischer of Harper’s Magazine: “I want to make something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.”
But then Rothko refused to part with the murals, eventually gifting nine of them to the Tate on the understanding that they would hang together and be lit and spaced as he specified.
Christopher Rothko (Photo: Henry Elkan / Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko)
The artist had been seduced by “more money than he had ever seen in his life”, says his son Christopher, but quickly reverted to his socialist principles. He didn’t want his work to grace the walls of a high-end restaurant for the uber-rich.
Christopher, or Topher as his family have called him since he was a small child, is jointly curating the most important Rothko retrospective in more than 20 years.
Speaking to me on Zoom from his home in New York, he says he is particularly excited to be able to show in one room his father’s overlooked subway paintings of angsty figures looking lost in the big city, the works which preceded the huge colour-field rectangles that made Rothko’s name and reputation later in life.
They will be displayed in Frank Gehry’s flamboyant building for the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Sixty-five years after Rothko said no to displaying his work in Mies van der Rohe’s showy skyscraper in Manhattan, one wonders what the artist would feel about his work being shown in a museum financed by a luxury fashion house.
As we walk through the 100-plus paintings, it becomes clear that the artist’s son has a more pragmatic take on things. For Christopher, the greatest need is space to tell the story of Rothko’s artistic journey.
And he is especially keen that the world sees some of his father’s works from his Subway Series, his paintings that talk to the inner lives of new and bewildered immigrants in 1920s and 1930s New York.
“He painted this series during the Great Depression when he was barely making ends meet,” explains his son. “He never felt fully at home in New York. He never really understood the city’s commercial culture.”
Rothko was, in fact, born in a quite different place; in small-town Latvia, in 1903. He was youngest of four children and the only one to get a religious education before the family fled the pogroms for the safety of America.
When they arrived in Portland, Oregon, the ten-year-old Rothko delivered groceries and newspapers to help support his family.
As the only one of his siblings to have studied Hebrew, they also turned to him for ritual practices such as saying Kaddish. “After a year or so he got fed up with these religious obligations and, as far as we know, never went to synagogue again,” says Christopher whose own affinity with Judaism is thanks to his sister Kate and his wife.
“I lived with Kate and her husband during my teenage years. And now my wife and I are members of our synagogue in New York City and a smaller one near our home in the countryside.”
Rothko may have never felt fully at home in New York, but after two years at Yale on a scholarship that did not cover his living costs, New York is where the artist ended up. There he met Marc Chagall and other Jewish titans of 20th century art including Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell, the pioneers of abstract expressionism.
Mark Rothko is his studio (Photo: Henry Elkan / Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko)
His first professional assignment in the city was an illustration for a siddur and until the 1940s not many commissions followed in its wake.
The virtually unknown artist worked in the garment district, taught art to children at the Brooklyn Jewish Center and did book-keeping for a relative. His first marriage to the jewellery designer Edith Sachar fell apart over what she perceived as her impoverished husband’s lack of ambition. He married his second wife Mary Beistle in 1945.
His relationship with their daughter Kate was sometimes strained, but when Christopher was born, his father was an internationally fêted artist with money in his pocket, and about to turn 60. “He would put up paper in his studio for me to draw on, but we mainly communicated through the music he would play,” he recalls.
But tragically, when he was just six years old, his father committed suicide. “He was very depressed for the last three years of his life,” says Christopher.
In a terrible irony, the nine Seagram murals that he had kept in his studio after refusing them to the Four Seasons restaurant arrived at the Tate the day the artist was found dead in 1970. Today they are a coup for the Paris show: the museum has only loaned them out only once before.
Several months after her husband’s suicide, Topher’s mother died of a stroke while the little boy played in the room next door. Her death was followed by a lawsuit that has been called the greatest art scandal of the century, a battle in which Rothko’s three co-executors were convicted of conspiring with his gallery to defraud his estate.
A canvas from Classic Paintings series (Photo: Henry Elkan / Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko)
One of those executors, the artist’s friend Morton Levine, was initially named Christopher’s legal guardian and he lived with him for two months.
At just 19, his sister wasn’t old enough to be granted custody, but she managed to get her brother placed with their mother’s family: “I’m lucky Kate was able to get me out,” he says.
While he was growing up in Ohio far away from the fevered New York art scene where his father had become king of the abstract expressionists, Christopher’s sister was in court, fighting the executors and their art establishment cohorts in a protracted case no one believed she could win.
“It was like Bleak House. At times we almost ran out of money to pay the court fees,” he says. Christopher was 12 years old before he realised some 700 paintings were at stake. “We didn’t get everything back, around 100 were sold. It’s astonishing that Kate realised what was happening and had the gumption at that age to bring the lawsuit. If she hadn’t prevailed there’d be no Rothkos in public collections today.”
Rothko’s son hopes the new show, which contains an early street scene from his own collection that has not been seen “for at least 80 years”, and “more loans from museums and private collectors all over the world than I ever thought would be possible” will demonstrate his father’s enormous range.
He also hopes we will come to understand that the artist’s brooding abstracts are as open to as much conversation as his tortured subway figures, and that beneath the greys he turned to after his wildly popular yellow, orange and scarlet canvases, there lurks an urgency of a different kind.
“He wants to stir you, to make you think about what it means to be human, why we’re here, what happens after we die. All those things we don’t like to think about too much, my father wants us to look at closely.”
Mark Rothko is at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris until April 2, 2024.