Rothko moving Untitled,1954 (seen inverted), photograph by Henry Elkan
Christopher Rothko 2016
photo by Deanna Sirlin
An Interview with Christopher Rothko
By Deanna Sirlin
Deanna Sirlin: The writing in your book Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out is very rich and very layered. I really enjoy the way you describe the paintings and the kind of language. Is this something new for you, or is it the way you’ve always written?
Christopher Rothko: I’ve always done at least some writing at each stage of my life. I went to college completely convinced I would come out of college being a fiction writer, and I didn’t. I’m not quite sure what happened. I didn’t at any intentional point say, oh, I’m not going to be a writer after all. But I worked for quite a few years as a music critic, which I loved doing and frankly, I’m like my father, I’m a great music lover and I’m still always playing critic in my head, I just don’t have time to be writing reviews.
DS: Was it all music, or classical music, or…?
CR: Strictly classical. Which is not to say I only listen to classical music but that’s what I was most equipped to write about. Although a lot of very early music, and a lot of very contemporary. Which is not to say I don’t love the things in between, but that’s what I primarily wrote about and focused on. I almost became a musicologist, and at the last minute I decided not to do that. But I’ve always done a fair bit of writing, some fiction, some more essays, and I’ve been working on pieces related to Rothko now for 15-plus years. And I spent a long time working on my father’s book of philosophical writings…editing that and then writing what was a monster-length introduction that I ended up paring down a fair bit.
DS: I’m very interested, as an artist and a writer, in the relationship of the person to the painting and also the person who made the paintings . . . and of course, that’s what you’re interested in about your father’s work. So, you grew up with his paintings.
CR: Well I did and I didn’t. My father died when I was six. So until I was almost seven years old, the paintings were in the house and I lived with them. They were a general part my vocabulary and my surroundings.
DS: Let me ask you about your vocabulary as a child looking at these paintings.
CR: You know, it’s a little difficult only because they were always there, and it’s not like I came upon them and ah-ha… they were part of the landscape.
DS: But you know your father made them.
CR: I knew my father made them and he was at a point in his career where he was well-known and I understood he was a well-known painter. There was one painting that particularly stood out and that was, I think arguably the greatest painting he made before 1949, which is called Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea . It was in his neo surrealistic style. He made it, actually, for my mother [Mary Alice “Mell” Rothko] shortly after they met and he subtitled it -this doesn’t usually make the history books- Mell-Ecstatic –yes, it’s in the book- It’s a beach scene with the two of them. I think he’s referencing a whole history of beach scenes, particularly Milton Avery but also back to a lot of the Impressionists. It’s of the two of them and it hung over the couch, it never moved from there. The bad news is it didn’t come to the estate, so my sister and I have not been able to hang it, but the good news is it is at MOMA because my mother had promised it to them and that is the one painting they always hang. They may have their classic Rothkos up and down, and different ones up and down, but there is a room of paintings the Abstract Expressionists made before they became what everybody knows them as, and it’s there, and it’s always almost up, and it’s a fabulous dynamic, ecstatic painting.
DS: Now you’ve changed your life to represent the estate and to take care of the legacy of your father’s paintings. So you gave me this lovely background of you as a child from just being there, but now you have certain paintings that you do live with and what is your relationship to those paintings? You said as a child they were just always there, but now is there a difference?
CR: There sometimes isn’t an always there, which is to say there are days I walk by them and I’m busy and it’s as if they weren’t there. People hear me say that and they want to smack me around a little bit and say “what’s the matter with you?” But this is something else I talk about a little bit in the book. There are days that I get stuck in front of a painting and I can’t move. It goes deeply into me and hopefully vice versa, and there’s really that kind of conversation and I’m completely absorbed--and then-- I’ll walk by it a couple days later and it’s not having the same kind of effect and I’m wondering if it’s not as strong a painting as I thought it was. The painting hasn’t changed; the lighting hasn’t changed; the placement hasn’t changed; the hanging hasn’t changed. Nothing’s changed; the only thing that’s changed is me. So I think this is true of all art, but my father’s works, because they are almost like a blank slate that you can project on, they really are what I call a psychological barometer that can tell you where you are in that moment, how willing you are to have an interaction. It may not tell everything about your mood, but they’ll tell you how ready you are to engage, and I love that about them. I really do. It emphasizes how much of a conversation, or an interaction, viewing a work of art is.
DS: Do you feel like you have a connection, a revisiting of your father when you’re looking at the painting? Or is it the painting? Does the person enter it, is what I’m asking.
CR: It’s interesting, because my father and I did not have a personal relationship around his painting. He was very private when he painted; he really didn’t let anyone see him paint. Even though I spent a lot of time in the studio with him, especially the last couple of years, we never talked about painting.
DS: Did you talk about being an artist?
CR: We talked about music all the time. So I’ll listen to pieces of music that he shared with me, and that will reawaken the memories and the person.
I have been looking at paintings and thinking about them for as long as I can remember. I believe in the primacy of the art object but the longer I live my life as an artist, the more I am interested in the relationship of the viewer to both the work of art and the artist.
Christopher Rothko has written a book, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, from the unique vantage point of a son having all his life lived with the paintings of the artist Mark Rothko. I had the opportunity to discuss the life that Christopher Rothko has lived and the work of his father, Mark Rothko, in this interview, published here as an edited transcription of our conversation.
Christopher Rothko’s book is an important work, the language lush and liquid and the description of his father’s paintings insightful. It is a journey into the paintings and the ideas of the artist. Christopher Rothko is a writer and psychologist; he has written eighteen essays on the paintings of Rothko.
As an undergraduate, I took a course in American Art History; on my final exam was what the question, “What is American about American Art?” I had no idea how to answer this question and I have forgotten what I wrote, if anything. I passed the course, but the question has plagued me over the years.
Nevertheless, I often think of Mark Rothko as the quintessential American artist, and looking at his work and thinking about his life while reading Christopher’s book, I think I have begun to answer the question posed to me years ago. In this time of xenophobia toward immigration worldwide, Mark Rothko exemplifies the importance of people being able to move from one place to another. The Rothko family would have perished if not allowed to immigrate to the United States, as would have many of the other first generation and second generation abstract expressionists.
After the Second World War, the axis of the art world shifted from Europe to the United States, partly because many important European artists, including Hans Hoffman, Joseph Albers, and Piet Mondrian, left Europe. But it was the generation of artists like Rothko and his teacher Ashile Gorky, who had immigrated earlier (Rothko in 1913 and Gorky in 1920) who forged a new language in painting, the Abstract Expressionism that came to be known as the New York School. There is something quintessentially American in the experience of Mark Rothko, who came to this country as an immigrant at the age of 10 not speaking any English, and less than a decade later found himself attending Yale University on a scholarship. Rothko later told his daughter that he did not even remember Russian and was no longer able to speak or read the language.
I want to thank Christopher Rothko for giving this interview to TAS and Forrest Wolff for her transcription. The Rothko works in this article are all currently on view at The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.
Mark Rothko (American, 1903-1970), Untitled, 1947, oil on canvas. Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1985.26. Copyright © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/ARS New York
DS: But what about being an artist? Did he talk about being an artist, the trials and tribulations, the commissions he was working on? As an artist working on a big commission knows, it’s joy and grief, all the time.
CR: Better to have the joy and grief than not, right?
DS: Exactly! But were you aware of this? I know you were quite young.
CR: I was quite young, but also, my sister is 13 years older than I am, and she didn’t have those conversations with him.
DS: He just didn’t talk about it.
CR: He kept banker’s hours. He was at the studio at eight and he came home…six something, and that was his world. It was a very private world. And with the family…that was a different space. That’s the best way she’s explained it to me.
DS: What about his friends? I believe he was good friends with Adolph Gottlieb; is that correct?
CR: He was close to Adolph Gottlieb, who, if I met him I don’t remember. I do remember he was very close to Herbert Ferber, who’s an artist and sculptor, who is not so well remembered now, though he has some important pieces in major museums, and I knew him quite well. He was close to Motherwell off and on, Newman off and on. I knew Motherwell particularly in the ‘70s because he lived a lot longer than a number of the other abstract expressionists.
DS: Did you understand that these were all artists and have a sense of your father’s participation in a community of artists?
CR: My parents had parties at the house. I definitely remember being at the parties, I definitely remember thinking that I was the most important thing at the party, because I was three years old, and some of them talked to me and some of them really were just not interested in talking to a three or four year-old.
DS: But you were there.
CR: But I was there. And then, I also remember my parents had a rental house in Provincetown for a couple summers. Out there, definitely in an artist’s community, a theater community as well. I remember just being in that milieu and it being very exciting and just…there was a sense of creativity, that anything might happen. Which, I’m not quite sure was so true of my father at that point; he was old and in really bad health. And yet that was the world that he worked in. That was the world he lived in…moved in.
DS: So you felt it. You felt that kind of energy and creativity. Did he ever tell you anything about his paintings?
CR: I don’t…not that I remember.
DS: That’s very interesting. It’s very hard to talk about paintings.
CR: The book that you referenced, the book of his philosophical writings [The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art, published in 2006]…he spent many years working on that, off and on. There was one year where he worked on it quite intently, and then he let it go because…he didn’t say so, but my assumption was that he felt he could paint those ideas better than write them. His paintings are the very embodiment of ideas that are better expressed in non-verbal ways. I’ve now gone and worked quite hard to try and put some words to some of…maybe not the ideas specifically in the paintings, but ways to approach them. It’s still a little bit of a square peg in a round hole. They’re experiential; you can’t really understand them unless you spend time with them trying to understand them. It’s that kind of process.
DS: So how do you come at them? As a family member, a psychologist, as an art historian, as a son, all of the above? Or is it different from day to day? Because I know how I come to paintings, how I address them. What do you find is the strongest voice?
CR: Necessarily, I bring all those things on some level, although I’m not an art historian; I don’t have any kind of degree. And I wouldn’t pretend to do this about any other artist than my father, simply because I’ve spent so much time with the work. So I think my approach comes from having spent many, many years looking at the work, looking at different contexts, and also having seen the whole scope because of the family’s collection, because of having worked with the estate, because of having worked with the National Gallery and the Foundation, the Rothko Foundation, I know the full scope of his output. I know how the drawings informed the watercolors. I know how the watercolors informed the canvases. I understand how the different pieces all fit together and I wouldn’t say that I necessarily have done a really careful analysis of how each thing is related to another. I take a little more of a gestalt approach of wholes, but I understand the continuity of feeling, and the continuity of meaning that he’s trying to convey, and the continuity of language. Even as he’s developing radically different pictorial languages, he’s after that same goal of trying to find a way to communicate with as broad a population as possible. Not “this is aimed at someone who has taken art history A, B & Q,” or “this is somebody who lives in New York City.” He really wants to appeal to the humanity in all of us. And he’s working in every single painting trying to find that common chord that he’d strike with each of us.
DS: There’s a very charming documentary from 1982 called Strokes of Genius: In Search of Rothko that was made in conjunction with the Guggenheim’s 1978 retrospective of your father’s work. Are you familiar with this? It’s about a young art historian who doesn’t understand Rothko. It shows the work in that show, but also it’s about an art historian who doesn’t know how to enter the work. That’s the concept. At the end, he does.
CR: This is exactly why I wrote the book because the paintings, even the classic paintings that people know, they’re 50 years old, 55 years old, 60 years old at this point. And they’re still a struggle for a lot of people who don’t know how to approach that level of abstraction. They don’t know the way inthey’re a little bitafraid of getting lost in the painting. They feel like they’re not sure what the language is of abstraction; is it saying something specific? Is it all about what they feel? They believe they need guidance. And I don’t want to give guidance insofar as…there’s no road map that I can give, and that would actually defeat the whole purpose of really interacting with the painting. Yet it strikes me how fresh and contemporary these paintings still feel to a large segment…to the population at large. But even in the art-loving community it’s not a language everyone speaks.
Mark Rothko (American, 1903-1970), Untitled, 1946, oil on canvas. Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1985.25. Copyright © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/ARS New York
DS: Yesterday, I stopped at the library to get this old VHS of In Search of Rothko, and the librarian asked me about my interest in it. I told him I was going to be writing about you and your book, and that the library should get it. He said, “my mother is a painter, she studied with Rothko. She’s still alive-she studied with him at Brooklyn College. She’s in her 80s and she still goes to the Art Student’s League. She’s an abstract painter.” I thought that was great. I just wanted to relay that to you because there are people who have difficulty with abstraction, and there are people who don’t. So this is another question…so I’m pretty interested in Daugavpils, Latvia [Rothko’s birthplace and the current location of the Mark Rothko Art Centre]—is that how you say it?
CR: I think it’s Daug-o-pils. Like the beer.
DS: Yes. But it was originally Dvinsk, which I know how to say!
CR: (laughing) that’s easier to say!
DS: Is your father’s early life something you knew about? And what is your relationship to this place now?
CR: My sister has strong memories of him talking about the old country. I never had that conversation with him. I always understood that he came from Russia, and it was the Russian Empire at that point. Latvia didn’t really exist at that moment; it was more of a concept. It didn’t have a distinct personality at that moment. But he remained conscious of that, as the place where he came from. And actually, the lecture I’m giving tonight I gave for the first time—in a very different form—but I gave it for the first time on his 100th birthday in his hometown. They put on a centennial celebration for him. There was really one woman, a woman named Farida Zaletilo…she caught wind of the fact that Rothko was from Dvinsk and tried to stir up interest. Nobody knew who he was, and she went on a one-woman crusade to make the celebration happen. She got some of the world’s top Rothko scholars to speak; she got every art school in the area to let their students out and come. We filled a 2,000-seat cinema for a two-day symposium just on Rothko.
DS: And people came from all over the world?
CR: People came from all over the world, especially the people who were presenting. Most of the people who were coming for the celebration, though, were local and this was completely new to them. There was just amazing electricity in the air because it was all new. And at the same time they were discovering someone who, in some ways, they felt belonged to them. Fast forward, and after that symposium was over, she [Zaletilo] says we have to continue this commemoration; we need to build the connection. Over a number of years, she convinced first the local government, and eventually they worked together to convince the national government to create this Rothko center, against all odds.
DS: It must have been really very difficult.
CR: It was tremendously difficult. It’s a very centralized country and it’s like in France, everything happens in Paris or it’s not really happening at all. If it doesn’t happen in Riga [Latvia’s capital], it’s not happening. So it was an uphill battle the entire way. They actually managed to get a European Union grant, which was key because otherwise they couldn’t have afforded to do it. They were starting from zero. They built a beautiful, beautiful museum and there’s a small section of it that is dedicated to my father, and has also a history of the Jewish community in the area because it’s all gone. So they talk about the old Dvinsk, which was almost half Jewish, and had a vibrant cultural life that’s all gone. There’s a section about Jewish life, and then there’s a room with Rothko paintings that my sister and I loan. The first group was there for three years--it is getting changed this spring. Those paintings are coming back –
DS: So you’re allowing them to see these paintings that, in a sense, come from there. In a way.
CR: In a way. They weren’t made there, but there are tendons, there’s some sort of organic material that connects them.
DS: Well I do think that there’s a link through the DNA. What a childhood he had. That was quite difficult, having to be an immigrant, and then his father dying when he was so young … like yourself. Do you think about that? Your shared DNA and history..?
CR: It definitely occurs to me that we both lost our fathers very young. I, of course, never met his father, who died 50 years—believe it or not—before I was born. So it was something I was not aware of as a child. I don’t remember him talking about his parents.
DS: Oh he didn’t? He didn’t talk about…?
CR: With my sister, more so because his mother died just before my sister was born. But that was still 14 years before by the time I was born. But certainly, as I have been spending so much time with the Rothko legacy, I do see that parallel.
DS: So when you wrote this book, you wrote it because…?
CR: Partially, as I mentioned before, that I really wanted to be there as a way to talk through the process of looking at a Rothko painting for people for whom it’s not automatic. And for people who have done a lot of it but are still wonder what it’s all about. At least to share some ideas about having done this for a long time…talk about that process a little bit. I also wrote it to try and correct some myths because there are some ideas that either…simply wrong–headed or have been exaggerated to be larger than they are. I really wanted to set some of the record straight. I also think people tend to think only of my father’s classic paintings but he was a figurative painter for 20 years, he worked in the neo-surrealist style, and other abstract styles before making what everybody knows as Rothkos. I want to make people aware of those works and how they relate to the classic work. Both to appreciate them for themselves and also to understand the development…his development as a painter.
DS: He loved other art.
CR: He did. He’s not an artist who felt like, “okay, I created a revolution in art.” He felt absolutely that his work, if anything, was a logical progression from what came before.
DS: He felt his place. In history.
CR: He was hoping to find his place. He was hoping to become part of that continuum. He revered many periods of art. Particularly, he loved art of Renaissance Italy. Loved Giotto, loved… Rembrandt is another artist that he talks about a lot. He was looking at artists all the time. Of course, Matisse, from closer to his own time, was a big influence that he acknowledged very much. It’s funny because I look at Matisse colors and I don’t see them as being so similar to my father’s. I think it’s more the boldness to fill a whole canvas in the frontal plane, and just fill it with incredibly rich and saturated with color. I think a big part of the leap my father makes is less about colors specifically. It’s more about the willingness to just say things as directly and simply as possible.
DS: In color.
CR: In color, yes. Color is what is carrying the message. But it’s the fact that he is willing to spread it broadly and say things directly. Because if you look at his work from the previous ten years, it’s just as colorful as his work in the 1950s, but he hasn’t…he’s making a little patch here and a little patch here. Over the course of about 10-12 paintings in 1948-49, he just simplifies and simplifies until he’s speaking his ideas full-voiced. It’s as much, I think, a function of boldness as it is a function of really having something new to say.
DS: What about the late paintings that become quite dark and tonal? Unfortunately, when I visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston [Texas], it was a day like this where it was blazing. I walked into this chapel and the light that was coming through the chapel was so intense that it was very hard to even see the paintings.
CR: When was this? Because there have been different iterations of shades for the lighting …
DS: At least 15 years ago. So things have changed?
CR: We’re actually about to redo it right -- for the last time. That’s why I’m now chair of the Rothko Chapel board.
DS: What is your project?
CR: The project is simply that we’re going to rework the skylight and its covering. There are several possibilities of how that’s going to actually be carried through or realized, but the bottom line is we’ll create both a space that is more open, with a skylight that actually feels like a skylight -- right now it’s covered. And yet it will continue to protect the paintings. It needs to be a quiet and not overly bright environment.
DS: It’s very bright.
CR: Usually the trouble is it’s too dark. He really wanted the space sky-lit but then you are dependent on the light of any given day. But he was clear that he did not want the individual paintings lit because they’re really not truly paintings…there are 14 panels, but really the whole space is one work of art so he didn’t want anything spot-lit. He just wanted it to be an atmosphere. So we’re trying to make that atmosphere both as consistent as possible, but one where the room itself feels more inviting.
Mark Rothko (American, 1903-1970), Untitled, 1968, acrylic on paper mounted on Masonite. Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1985.28. Copyright © 1998 Kate
Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/ARS New York
DS: I know that he traveled, and I’m sure that he went to the chapel…the [Giotto] Chapel in Padua [Italy]…
CR: I’m sure he did. He spent a lot of time in Italy. I don’t have any notes about that…
DS: You weren’t with him?
CR: I was not. I went a few years ago, but that was a little bit later after he died. But he must have. Absolutely must have. We know about stories about him visiting the Sistine Chapel, but I don’t have any stories…
DS: What was that story?
CR: The story is that he went in and he laid down on his back on the floor to look up at the ceiling from Michelangelo’s perspective until the guards threw him out. (laughter)
DS: (laughter) That’s a great story!
CR: I want to circle back to the dark paintings because it is something I talk about quite a bit in here. First of all, I look at the black and grey paintings from the last year of his life. I have a whole essay devoted just to them because they aren’t absolutely just black and grey. I don’t actually find them particularly dark. The black is very monolithic but the grey is incredibly dynamic and is actually full of color. He was very depressed at the time he was painting them, but I actually see him being very much alive and very engaged in the making of those. Also, stylistically it’s a big break for him. So it’s very striking to me that at the time when he was so depressed he’s forging out into something new. At the same time he’s painting those very dark black and grey paintings, he’s painting very, very light, very large-scale works on paper. Pastels, terra cottas, on white backgrounds. Throughout the ‘60s when he was painting largely darker paintings, there are bright paintings mixed in too. So one of the myths that I try to debunk is…because a lot of people are very keenly aware that he committed suicide, there’s a temptation of reading the career backwards and saying, “oh, well all those dark paintings point to the suicide.” There’s a temptation to see that as the piece of the story that informs everything that came before it. And to see the career through that lens will distort the way you see the work. I talk about that at some length.
DS: So you’re trying in the book to let people know that that’s not what was going on in the studio.
CR: That’s not what’s going on in the studio. And for this reason, I actually try to clear biography from the air as much as possible, which is not to say that he’s not in the paintings. He’s very much in the paintings. The paintings are extremely personal. But because they’re so simple, and because they’re so abstract, there’s a real temptation to pin on them whatever you can to try and start making sense ofthem. If you paste the pieces of his life story on the paintings, and you’re not going to see the paintings, they will just fade into the background.
DS: I sort of hate that myself. So what do you tell people to do to engage in these dark paintings? Just to really look at them?
CR: To try and start over. I have an essay about trying to strip the titles away, almost all of which are spurious. I have essays that try to encourage you not to worry about the size of a Rothko painting, because we sort of assume they’re supposed to be 8-feet tall, when some of the smaller paintings are incredibly powerful. You just have to go up to them and have that same direct interactive relationship. Again, I encourage people to let go of the biography.
DS: And then the change in medium, right? It’s the ‘60s. There are new things that are invented, but he also went and used old media like eggs, right?
CR: He used eggs. He was making all of his own home-brew paints. He’s using powdered pigments that he mixes with rabbit skin glue, and eggs, sometimes just egg white, sometimes whole egg. So he’s constantly trying to find whatever will work most to express what he’s trying to express. But also he’s painting in temperas and watercolor quite a bit. I actually think the watercolor painting informs a lot of his work with oils later on because he starts thinning out the oil so much, in a way that I think would have almost that feeling of a watercolor for him. He’d build up layer upon layer…but I think it was from using that very thin watercolor medium. I’m convinced more and more that’s what inspired him to do that with his oils.
DS: So, he was quite happy making these. In a sense, because it was a real investigation.
CR: It was. He was exploring, looking for a quieter, more reflective mode, … some people would label it spiritual, which I’m not going to argue with, even if I wouldn’t necessarily chose that word myself. I think it’s partially the way you approach the painting, but he’s slowing everything down. He’s really demanding that you spend more time and take a little longer to see the darker colors. It’s harder, these paintings are often blacks on browns, or they’ll be dark burgundy on dark burgundy. You really have to work to see how it’s structured formally, and he’s deliberately trying to get you to slow down your viewing process.
DS: Which also he is as an artist. He is in his 60s at this point, correct? He has to slow down physically, because of his illness, and yet he’s relishing it in a sense. Being able to investigate his own work. I have another question that’s a little jump. He was of a generation for which it was very important to be modern. He wasn’t born into a modern world. You referred to spirituality—I think it’s about being modern as well. Do you talk about that in the book at all?
CR: I talk about how the paintings continue to feel modern. He himself was an interesting mix of very old world European, raised very much a socialist by the way—his family was all…(he was the baby of his family), they were all Mensheviks. His sister was very upset about leaving Russia when they did because revolution was in the air. In a lot of ways, he still harkens back to a lot of old-world principles. His connection to the history of art, again, very old-world. At the same time, he relished the freedom of being in America, of being in America where he could express whatever he wanted and be completely unfettered in the way he was going to paint.
DS: But also in his viewpoint of life. Being a modern man, rather than one of the old country.
CR: Yes. He claimed not to speak any of the multiple languages he grew up knowing.
DS: Oh, really?
CR: Yes. He discarded them. And he named his children Kathy and Christopher, so…
DS: Do you ever think to ask him about that? Or your sister, did you ask her?
CR: I don’t know what…she and my father went down together to the city clerk’s office—he did not officially changed his name to Rothko until she was a child. She went from being Kathy Lynn to Kate, and he officially made his name Rothko. He’d been using it for 20 years already but he hadn’t actually changed it.
DS: Is there any particular meaning, aside from just making it more American?
CR: Well, the story that comes down…the name had been “Rotkovich” in Russia. When he came to Ellis Island it was made “Rothkowitz,” which was more the Polish ending. As it’s been explained to me, they were very proud of their Russian heritage, and they didn’t like the way the name had been changed. So his brother changed it to “Roth” and he changed it to “Rothko.” I don’t know if that’s true. They certainly wanted to Americanize it. They didn’t want the ending on there, whatever that meant. It literally means “red head.”
DS: Was it a family of red heads?
CR: I don’t know of any, but historically Jews have a much higher percentage of red heads. Especially in Europe among the Ashkenazi Jews. Much higher percentage of red heads than the general population.
DS: Things changed a lot during your father’s lifetime--there were two world wars. Did he ever reflect on that? I know he tried to enlist, is that right?
CR: I don’t think so. He was too young for World War I and too old for World War II. It’s a tiny pocket of people in that age bracket. He did talk about World War II, and he talked, in later years, about the Holocaust. He refused to do a show in Germany at one point. He said, “I’ll only do a show in Germany if you will make a memorial to the Holocaust.” It has been interpreted by many people that that whole generation went abstract in the wake of World War II. The horrors of World War II pushed them to abandon the figure and move to abstraction. I’m not always a big fan of historical interpretation, but it is striking that that’s the moment when they do it. Though they’d also went through a period of surrealism at this time, which is involves deconstructing the figure so…
DS: There’s a very beautiful letter that he wrote, maybe it was to Ferber, about when he was at Berkeley teaching. What I loved about the letter was he was saying, “oh, we have a nice house and this and that,” but he said the intensity of the air, of the students, pre-Vietnam War. He felt this so intensely about the young people he was teaching…what they had to deal with. I thought it was very sensitive. It’s important that he really loved to teach, didn’t he?
CR: He did. He taught for many years after he actually had to keep teaching. He taught at a very small, very progressive Jewish day school in Brooklyn for, oh, 17 years or something. He loved working with kids.
DS: When he stopped, was there something else that replaced teaching? Was it the commissions? I don’t mean financially.
CR: I think he relished the time to paint more. That was the time of the big mural commissions, so that was probably part of the whole mix.
DS: Did he argue a lot with his artist colleagues?
CR: Certainly robust discussions. (laughter) He and Newman were very close; they ended up falling out. And he and Clyfford Still were also very close, and at one point they sort of had a falling out, although Clyfford Still fell out with everybody, so that maybe doesn’t tell us much.
DS: Do you know, or can you tell me, what their discussions were about?
CR: I may have been there for some of them, but I was pretty young.
DS: And you haven’t investigated that in the book?
CR: It’s not in the book, no. That’s another book.
From Christopher Rothko, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out
This process, which my father is proposing to you, his viewer, is ultimately his greatest gift. For he is not only insisting that you slow down and spend time with the work; he is giving you permission. He is helping you reorient your values, to spend time on things that are deeper, more meaningful, distinctly not practical and ultimately more worthwhile. Writing from my current perspective, I can attest that such needs are very twenty-first century. Painting from his own, my father would argue that such needs are timeless.
Christopher Rothko, a writer and psychologist, chairs the Board of Directors of the Rothko Chapel, Houston, and is actively involved in managing the Rothko legacy by organizing and presenting exhibitions of his father’s work around the globe.
Deanna Sirlin is the Editor-In-Chief of The Art Section and an artist.
Her website is www.deannasirlin.com.