A conversation with authors Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko on the long-awaited release of their new book about their father titled simply “Mark Rothko”. The volume examines both Mark Rothko the man and Mark Rothko the artist, while providing more than 275 images of his paintings, prints, and works on paper. Our conversation reasserts Rothko as a deeply intellectual and philosophical man who aspired for his abstract work to challenge viewers at a spiritual level.
Craig: [00:00:09] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with authors Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko on the long-awaited release of their new book about their father titled simply "Mark Rothko". The volume examines both Mark Rothko the man and Mark Rothko the artist, while providing more than 275 images of his paintings, prints and works on paper. Our conversation reasserts Rothko as a deeply intellectual and philosophical man who aspired for his abstract work to challenge viewers at a spiritual level. And now a conversation about the legacy of Mark Rothko with Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko. Craig: [00:01:09] Kate Rothko Prizel, Christopher Rothko, thank you guys both for joining me this week on the Art Sense podcast. You guys have collaborated to produce a book eponymously titled "Mark Rothko" about your father. I know this book has been in the works for a very long time. Can you guys describe what makes this book different from other mono prints and catalogs that maybe have come before it? Kate: [00:01:35] You know, I think it has actually been quite a long time since we had a book that was really focused on the images, but not specifically associated with any exhibit. And it's actually hard at this point to find many of them in print. So we actually thought it was good timing to bring out such a book. It's also clearly the the essays in the book, again, are somewhat more general and not particularly associated with any exhibit. So I think that does make the book special. And I'm really looking forward to it because people complain to me frequently that they can't find such a book on the shelves to buy anymore. Christopher: [00:02:14] Yes. And and I'll just add that the book is quite comprehensive. It's, I think, the largest Rothko book except for the catalog raisonné. And it's different from the catalog in that it includes both works on paper and works on canvas, whereas the Rothko catalog raisonné are separate for those two media. This book encompasses both. Craig: [00:02:35] So you guys each wrote an essay for the book. Chris for yours kind of guides us through the evolution of your father's work, and Kate yours kind of provides us a more detailed personal history of Mark Rothko the man. Was it clear from the beginning how you two wanted to divide that narrative between the two of you? Christopher: [00:02:57] I think we were both working on similar projects for for other publications, and and it made sense actually, for us to continue in that vein and, and sort of take the core pieces from what we were already thinking about and distill them into this book that as my sister described, is pitched towards a more general audience. But it's certainly going to, I think, have some some new information for for Rothko lovers and aficionados. Kate: [00:03:24] For me, trying to pick out a piece of the biography was not easy and the short amount of space. So I tried to pick out highlights, tried to give an overview of his life with a focus on obviously certain periods, but it is a short piece, so needless to say, it is pithy in a sense. Craig: [00:03:45] So when you tell the story of your father's formative years, Kate, it's quite a story and it seems that most immigrant stories are, right? But what moments or circumstances do you feel had the longest term effect on who your father became? Kate: [00:04:02] Well, I think I started out discussing his background as an immigrant, because I do think that had a lasting effect, not that he was, you know, focused entirely on his childhood and looking back on it in a either nostalgic or negative way. But I think I would have to say that I always saw him with one eye turned toward Europe in some sense. So at least growing up with him in the fifties and sixties, I really considered him absolutely a New Yorker. But in some other ways he wasn't fully an American, despite the fact that, you know, some of his early years were spent in Portland, Oregon. I think there was always still that I looking toward his past and toward Europe. Christopher: [00:04:53] Yes. And just to pitch in that I think in some ways he was sort of an old style intellectual and he was frustrated sometimes by the sort of go, go, go highly commercial world of America and always longed for...it may have been a fantasy, but a fantasy had about a sort of older world where where that kind of intellectual focus was more was more valued. Craig: [00:05:16] When I think of your father and I think in the book you talk about him just thinking of himself as a quintessential New Yorker. And so it's it's funny. I don't know, maybe the quintessential New Yorker is someone who wasn't even born in the US and spent their childhood in Oregon. Right? New York is a place where you can go and invent yourself or reinvent yourself. And, you know, I feel like that is sort of part of your father's story, even right down to the name and how that name became kind of iconic and tied to a specific visual image that people have in their mind when you say it, right? Kate: [00:05:55] No, absolutely. I think New York is a place of reinvention. I mean, I would have to say, although I think I very tangentially discussed my mother in the piece, That was certainly her history, too. She picked up from Cleveland, Ohio. She always wanted to be an artist and moved to New York with that in mind. So in a sense, they both reinvented themselves. My father, of course, starting in the 1920s, my mother didn't move to New York until around 1943. Craig: [00:06:27] And so, Christopher, your essay guides us through his explorations with a number of different artistic experimentations. And we see work that is akin to like Joan Miro, different inspirations. But I thought it was very interesting that in the middle of those periods of experimentation, he took a year off to study philosophy and there seemed to be an attraction to what Joseph Campbell would call the monomyth, this shared mythology that all cultures embrace. Can either of you kind of talk about how that period kind of changed his outlook, maybe the way he operated and how it eventually wound up with kind of the visual turning point we see in 1949? Christopher: [00:07:13] Yeah, I'm not sure that my father ever intended to be an artist with a capital A, He was a person with a lot of ideas and he was searching for the best way to express those. And he sort of fell into art, having not really studied it very much in his younger years. In the mid-twenties, which was also his mid-twenties, he took drawing classes and he fell in love with it, but he fell in love with it. I think he enjoyed the mechanical process, but I think it was really a channel for him to express ideas that were percolating in him from an even younger age. So that moment when he pauses in around 1940 to really think through, think through those ideas and see how he can express them more fully, more deeply, more richly, more universally, that's a moment it's a pause in his artwork because he's trying to find the sort of medium that will allow him to sort of catch up with his ideas. And coming out of that, he changes styles in an effort to capture some of that that monomythical notion that you just mentioned. Kate: [00:08:16] And interestingly, you know, still a little later into the forties, he was writing about art and again from really from a philosophical perspective. But it is interesting that as he broke into what we might call his classic abstract style, he wrote less and less. So I think in many ways he found a voice in his artwork at that point rather than to needing to express it in words. So perhaps writing this larger piece about his philosophy was sort of a, as Christopher said, a stopping point. And from then he moved forward to trying to put what he wanted to express strictly into the art itself. Craig: [00:08:57] You know, I think what comes across in the book and just your responses to that question is just how much of an intellectual your father was and how he wanted people to think and feel deeply as a result of experiencing his work. And so, you know, when somebody first approaches a post 1949 Rothko, the first thing someone will be struck with is kind of the scale and the color. But, you know, your father was adamant that he wasn't a colorist, right? Because that would mean that it's really about decorative. He he wanted people to be touched deeper, correct? Christopher: [00:09:39] Absolutely. And I think the phrase that he and Gottlieb coined together in the early forties was "the simple expression of a complex thought". So he's trying to come to very directly and as you mentioned, on an emotional level, for all the intellectual content, he wants to engage on an emotional level through color, through scale, through filling your horizons. And yet there's a message there. There's a discussion he wants to have with you that goes well beyond just what's on the surface of the painting. Kate: [00:10:09] Yeah, I think there is nothing that galled him more than a collector who wanted to purchase a piece to put over their mantle as the decorative focus of their living room. And I think whenever he interacted with collectors, one of the first things he wanted to ascertain was whether that collector had a feeling for the true meaning of his work, for the kind of emotion he wanted to convey with the color, not just for the surface appearance. Craig: [00:10:37] You know, I wonder if we can read between the lines in ascertain that that was the problem that your father had with the Seagram's Building commission there at the the Four Seasons restaurant, that once he actually saw the space where they planned to be, that they would be akin to that picture over a mantle that the people that would be dining in that space wouldn't pause to linger and contemplate that work. That they would be decorative. Can you guys talk a little bit about that experience? Kate: [00:11:13] I mean, I think he had truly thought he was going to be able to create an environment. And Christopher spoke a little earlier about perhaps having illusions. And I think this may be a case where he had an illusion that he was going to be able to create an environment for the proper audience who would sit, you know, slowly through a meal and truly be able to be immersed in the paintings surrounded by them. And I also think my father was a long time socialist in many ways. And somewhere he had gotten the idea, which he always conveyed to me and interestingly also conveyed to his friend and assistant who worked with him, Dan Reiss, on that group of murals that he somehow thought that this was also going to connect him with the cafeteria of the building and the actual workers in the building, as opposed to the people who might come to a luxury restaurant. So clearly, his first introduction to the restaurant, he and my mother were taken to dinner there some months after the project was actually completed, came as a huge shock to him. And again, people talked about the fact that he must have known what it was going to be, but I think he had built up this image in his mind because he so badly wanted to create this immersive space that perhaps that didn't get through to him. And because his reaction was so immediate when he was taken there, there was no question in his mind the paintings couldn't hang there. And he called the next morning to withdraw from the paintings from the commission. Craig: [00:13:03] I would like to talk a little bit about the family of artists that your father was was living with in New York or working amongst, you know, for example, Barnett Newman would often do these large color field canvases with a single vertical line that was often white. And I saw him interviewed once talking about he wants the viewer to contemplate whether that white line is a plane that sits in front of the color or whether it's actually where this wall of color has parted, revealing what's behind. And I feel like your father's work can be equally disorienting in terms of one moment it feels like you're looking at a wall and in another moment it feels like you're kind of peering through fog into an abyss. And can you guys talk about your father's relationship with the artists of his generation there in New York and especially someone like Barnett Newman? Kate: [00:13:59] Well, I think, you know, I certainly firsthand do not know as much about that relationship as I might like to. Certainly in the thirties and forties, he and Barnett Newman and also Adolph Gottlieb were very close. They are the ones who, aside from my father's book, which became the artist's reality, they wrote together and spoke together about art during the 1940s, including a well known piece to the New York Times, which Gottlieb, probably Gottlieb and Newman wrote along with my father, although ultimately only my father and Gottlieb signed the letter. So I don't really...I have to say firsthand I don't know that much about their artistic relationship. I know...unfortunately, by the time I was growing up, there had been some sort of I don't want to call it the schism, but a division between the two of them. And I had very little direct contact, therefore, with especially with Newman growing up. I always felt as an observer that the type of work was very different. I do think my father created that kind of flat surface. I think one of the things he was obsessed with was many earlier painters of the Renaissance who were not concerned with perspective. And I think he felt there was a great power in the flatness of the surface. So I'm not...and I would agree with you that some of the work seems to draw you in more than others. But I think even with some of the matter darker paintings, there is such a meditative quality that if you're not physically drawn in, you're drawn in by that emotion, if you will. Christopher: [00:15:59] Yeah, and I would agree. But although I would say that, I think he does make sort of a seductive use of space of not always being clear what you're looking at as a way of getting you engaged and again, sort of taking you into the world of the painting, getting you out of the world where you've been presumably thinking about things that most of the time that aren't very important. And he's really trying to get you to focus on painting as a way of getting into deeper matters, internal matters. Craig: [00:16:27] Can you guys talk about how your father wanted his work to be viewed? Because it sounds like he was pretty fastidious about wall heights and the brightness of lighting, right? Kate: [00:16:38] Yeah. You know, I think maybe the first time I really witnessed that in any way was with his 1961 show at the Museum of Modern Art. And, you know, I look back on that exhibit and it seems to me to kind of epitomize what he wanted. And because the ceiling height was so much lower in museums at the time, it was...I think he found a much easier time creating the kind of intimacy he wanted that could draw people into the paintings, let them take the time to be drawn and drawn into their inner thoughts, as Christopher said, as opposed to this flitting through the gallery and not really involving themselves with an individual work. I also think he felt that very low lighting tended to accomplish the feeling he wanted very much as well. And interestingly, whenever he painted and of course gallery lighting at the time too was mainly incandescent light, which has a very, very different feeling from the natural light or the other forms of light that are used today in museums. So I know I have had trouble making the shift in the adjustment to seeing my father's work in these more modern settings. And I do wonder how he would have reacted. We do have a story, and I have never been able to pinpoint where it came from about my father going in every morning to MoMA and turning down the lighting first thing in the morning. Craig: [00:18:19] (Laughter) Kate: [00:18:19] And apparently by the end of the afternoon, one of the curators had turned it up again. So I don't know if it's apocryphal, but it's a wonderful story and I do think it reflects how he wanted his paintings to be viewed. Christopher: [00:18:33] And I will just add that as someone who spends a fair bit of time lighting Rothko exhibitions or assisting with that, I think he's unusual amongst artists in having really understood what makes his artwork sing. And he...I think it probably carries over to all of the installation pieces that he creates, the mural suits that he creates in the last decade or a little more of his career. But he...all that fastidiousness about the lighting, he was really right. If you put too much light on a Rothko, it just it bleaches out the color and it actually lessens the intensity rather of the experience, rather than brightening it, if you will. Craig: [00:19:14] Can we talk about John and Dominique de Menil and their ability to understand your father's vision for abstract painting's capability of speaking to viewers on a spiritual level? Kate: [00:19:29] I think they had a long interest in abstract art. So certainly their connection with Rothko was probably not their first connection with abstract art. So I think that they had a long history of feeling that abstraction very well expressed spirituality. They had also collected Rothko. So over the years they had acquired quite a number of works and...but apparently they had seen the Seagram murals after they'd been withdrawn from the project and had been particularly impressed by them and felt that those paintings really spoke to the type of atmosphere they were looking for in a chapel they were considering even back around 1960. And apparently they had actually approached my father and asked him if he would consider giving a group of those murals to be hung in such a chapel. And he apparently declined feeling that really, if he was going to do a commission like that, he would have to paint a set of paintings specifically designed for a space and a space he would be involved in the design of. But I think from that time he had a good feeling for the de Menils as an audience and really felt a connection with them, which I think played into his later agreement to enter into the chapel project with them. Craig: [00:21:08] It's interesting that that's the second place in your father's narrative where Philip Johnson shows up and in both times the projects kind of...they part ways for for a second time. Is that just happenstance or does it say something about these two creative spirits? Kate: [00:21:28] Well, I think that we're both very strong personalities and that that probably speaks to it. But the particulars of it, I think, were quite different. Christopher, did you want to speak to it? You've done so much work with the chapel building and things. Christopher: [00:21:40] Yes. I think it's clear that that Johnson admired our father's work. I mean, he bought a painting actually pretty, pretty early in my father's career, a beautiful 1950 painting that hangs at MoMA today. And I don't think we know exactly how...if my father is on record...I don't think my father has ever gone on record about about Johnson's work. But clearly, at the Seagram Building, I think Johnson thought he was essentially hiring Rothko to decorate, if you will, the space. And my father had much more grandiose ambitions about that space. And that is a large reason why that commission fell apart. But the chapel commission, I think there was much more clarity about this being something that was a space with greater with greater ambitions and with and with potentially deeper meaning. And I have to say, having spent a lot of time looking at the earliest drawings for the chapel, Johnson was really quite deferential to our father in allowing him to shape the design. Johnson's first design is a square, and my father, from moment one, said, "No, no, no, an octagon". Johnson conceded that to our father continued to let him simplify and simplify. It was only when it came to the lighting of the room that they couldn't agree. And that had to do both with, I think, differences of ideas about how the room should be lit. It also had to do with differences about the purpose of this building, which was also to be the sort of capstone of Johnson's campus at the University of St Thomas in Houston. So he wanted something that was going to be something fairly spectacular on the outside. And my father was creating something that was really minimal and of the spirit. And he felt, I think all about humility, did not want a big spire with an oculus at the top and they could not agree ultimately about how that how that ceiling and lighting should work. And also they had to go to the de Menils to choose between them. And they decided with our father. Craig: [00:23:46] Sure. Kate: [00:23:47] And interestingly, I fairly recently read a pretty comprehensive biography of the de Menils and interestingly...apparently the de Menils felt that they also did not want to make such a strong external architectural expression in this rather quiet neighborhood. So from what I understand, they were actually against having a large spire as well. Now, I don't know all the research that's gone into it and the truth behind it. But I was actually interested to read that because I thought that that had been driven more by my father's feelings. And at this point, I'm a little less sure. And it's interesting because clearly a spire is something that the de Menils as devout Catholics would have been very comfortable with. I don't think my father would have been uncomfortable for religious reasons. Certainly he spent all his time in Europe visiting one church after another to look at both the architecture and the art. So I can't imagine that it would have bothered him on that level. I think it was somehow that it and perhaps the de Menils as well, that it was drawing away from the interior of the building in some way. And of course, for an architect, that would have been very upsetting. Craig: [00:25:16] And I believe...Christopher mentioned the insistence on this space being an octagon. And Kate, I believe you wrote in your essay that that was something that came from the European travels. And you recall your father mentioning some of the inspirations there in Europe that kind of motivated that attraction to the octagon as a space, right? Kate: [00:25:40] Yeah, I think, you know, one of the chapels in Porticello particularly has that octagonal form. And I do know we visited in 1959 and spent some time in that chapel. So that certainly may have been one of his inspirations. Craig: [00:25:57] We're looking at over 50 years since your father's passing. In your guys opinions, how would your father want to be remembered? Christopher: [00:26:06] I mean, I think first and last by his artwork and the fact that there are so many Rothkos in major public collections where people can direct, can interact with them, the fact that there's the beautiful installation of the Seagram Murals at the Tate Gallery in London at the Kawamura Memorial Museum outside Tokyo, the fact that the Rothko Chapel has been restored and is a place that can be visited to see Rothko, but really to have a spiritual experience in a chapel, I think all of this would make him very happy. I'm not sure how he would feel about the emphasis on the commercial world of art. Of course, it's always been there. It has inflated and I'm not sure I think he would have found that a distraction. I don't know. Kate, I assume you agree, but please speak to that. Kate: [00:26:55] No, absolutely. I think it was a distraction then and clearly now it would be that much bigger of a distraction. I think, because of these public installations, my father would have been particularly happy because I think many of them do allow the audience to be truly immersed in his work and have an intimate interaction with it. And that would something that would certainly have been important to him. You know, unfortunately, he died a year before the chapel opened, and I think that would have been an incredible experience for him to see the paintings in that setting, to see the audience who even came to the opening of that setting. Not to mention, you know, since then wandering through the chapel at odd hours and seeing the people just meditating there, sitting on benches and taking in the paintings would have been a very moving experience for him. I think one of the things that would have upset him about today's art world and not even so much speaking about the absolute contemporary art world, but something that was all already happening in the later 1960s was the rise of pop art and minimalism. And I think those movements were particularly difficult for him, particularly because many of the minimalists claimed to even have some influence from him in their painting, and yet they felt painting...for them, painting was devoid of meaning, devoid of emotion. That's not what they were trying to convey. And I think that was absolutely the antithesis of what my father wanted and was something that was very upsetting to him. So that was just another element that I think would have bothered him in today's art world. Craig: [00:28:43] And so the book has an upcoming release, and if listeners happen to be in Houston, there's going to be a release event coming up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, correct? Christopher: [00:28:57] Yes. Craig: [00:28:58] You know, the chapel is there and it feels like it's not going anywhere, which is wonderful. And I feel like it kind of resides as a place of civic pride for Houston at this point. Can you guys kind of talk about how your father's work has kind of become interrelated with the art community in that city? Christopher: [00:29:18] I mean, it goes back a long way. The de Menils before they created some of their iconic arts institutions, were on the board of the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, and they brought a very important show for my father in 1957 to Houston. It was one of his first major exhibitions of his signature style, his classic work. So their relationship began quite a few years before the chapel commission. So he has a long history with Houston. There have been exhibitions there subsequently, and then of course, the Rothko Chapel, which is, I mean, has become almost a pilgrimage site for people who are some people who are just great aficionados of our father's work and other people who know it as a place to really spend deep, meditative time. So the joke is sometimes it's better known outside of Houston than actually inside Houston, although I think that has changed quite a bit over the last 20 to 25 years because the chapel actually has a very active programing series involving human rights, interreligious tolerance. And that's actually been there from the beginning, but it's flourished, particularly in the last 20 or more years. Kate: [00:30:34] I think what's impressed me most when I've visited the chapel periodically is just to see local people in Houston coming in to have that spiritual or meditative experience. Sometimes I've caught a school group coming through...things like that. So I think not only is the chapel reaching Houstonians via its programing, but I do think it's reaching them via the sanctuary, if you will, that spending some time in the chapel can give. And I think there are people who talk about coming there perhaps weekly to have that experience. And that's been particularly moving to me. I know when I used to visit I used to talk to the guards at the door and their stories of the locals coming through I found particularly moving. Craig: [00:31:24] Well, Kate, Christopher, I really appreciate you guys taking time out to talk to me about your father's work and his ongoing significance and impact and this new book. And I really appreciate your guys time and I thank you so much for having this conversation. Kate: [00:31:44] Thank you for having us. Christopher: [00:31:46] Thank you so much. Really, really enjoyed it. We covered a lot. I hope people really enjoy the richness of the discussion and then hopefully the richness of the book and also the artwork on the walls. Craig: [00:32:02] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art Sense. You can find the show on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to canvia.art and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.Show More >