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© Rebecca Barr, Tu Square Studio.jpeg

Christopher Rothko, photo: © Rebecca Barr, Tu Square Studio

Christopher Rothko

Look at the painting. Look into the painting. 


 Dialogue with Deanna Sirlin 


Mark Rothko and Christopher Rothko, 1966, © 2005 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

2024 is the year to see paintings by Mark Rothko in two major exhibitions––the Retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, co-curated by Christopher Rothko and Suzanne Pagé, and Paintings on Paper at the National Gallery in Washington, D. C. curated by Adam Greenhalgh. There is also a significant temporary installation of Rothko paintings at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D. C., lent from the collections of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, as three of the Phillips’s four Rothkos are on loan to the Paris exhibition. These opportunities to see Rothko’s work are perhaps akin to the lunar eclipse (March 25, 2024)––like the sun and the moon, the paintings are brought together in a singular event.


The exhibition at the National Gallery begins with an exquisite suite of landscape paintings Rothko made while visiting his family in Oregon. He painted these works en plein air while camping on the hills overlooking Portland in 1933. These precursors to later works in the exhibition are filled with light. Rothko was not painting the landscape in his later works, but the sense of light that radiates from them begins here. This luminosity and sensitivity of touch is particularly resonant in two large vertical works from 1969. Their dark but luminous palettes in saturated violets are paired with the artist's touch, as he layered acrylic paint onto woven paper.

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The Phillips Collection Rothko Room, Courtesy of The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Reinstallation Images, Photos by Lee Stalsworth;

 Copyright © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There is great luminosity, a lightness and character of sunlight, in the works from Christopher’s and Kate’s respective collections on view at the Phillips. This room at the Phillips is one of the great places to see a Rothko painting. Duncan Phillips created the room with Rothko. The collector paid close attention to and respected Rothko’s wishes as to how the four paintings should be exhibited. The artist understands best how his/her work should be seen, and it is indeed a rarity for wishes to be observed so accurately. Too many curators seem to have forgotten that the curator’s primary function is as custodian of the work.


Christopher Rothko, with his sister Kate, are the caretakers of their father’s work. Christopher has written about his relationship to his father’s work in Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out; we spoke about this book for TAS in 2016. Our conversation continues here in 2024, on the occasion of these exhibitions. Growing up with Rothko’s paintings has given Kate and Christopher Rothko a distinctive relationship to his work, different even from that of those who know his work well. The artworks are part of their lives. They see these paintings while drinking a cup of coffee or walking from one room to another. That the paintings were made by their father creates a particular perspective and intimacy. After decades of living with this work, their connection to it is physical, visual, and emotional.

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Mark Rothko, No. 12, 1951, Mixed media on canvas,  57 1/2 x 53 inches 

Copyright © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Deanna Sirlin: Please tell us about the moment when you decided to change your vocation. Am I correct in thinking that you were first a fiction writer, then began studies to become a musicologist, wrote as a classical music critic, then as a psychologist, and now, with your sister Kate, head the Rothko estate and Foundation whose mission is to preserve and curate exhibitions of artwork of your father Mark Rothko? You also recently co-curated the Rothko exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.  


Christopher Rothko: The estate and Foundation are forty years closed, but we do work actively to shepherd the Rothko legacy. The sequence you outline above in terms of my is essentially correct, but there was no “moment." Kate and I always worked on behalf of our father’s legacy, and in my case, it was a gradual transition beginning in the late 1990s when I was recruited to help with a number of Rothko exhibitions and found myself over the next several years inclining more and more in that direction. After our move back east, I never applied for a New York psychologist’s license, so by 2003 I found myself doing Rothko work full time.


DS: Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper at the National Gallery of Art comprises more than 90 works, beginning with early paintings on paper he made en plein-air while camping in the hills above Portland, Oregon. To me, these works already show his sensitivity to touch linked to color. Perhaps the roots of his layering and touch can be seen in these works he created as a young artist (he was 30 years old)?


CR: I think you have beautifully answered your own question. The preoccupations are there from the beginning, both in terms of essential humanist content, and the means of expressing that through simple forms and broad areas of color. The figures are part of the composition, but hardly more than that.

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1951, 56 1/2 x 65 inches
Copyright © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

DS: Many of the later paintings on paper (there are over 1,000) were made at the end of your father’s life when he needed to adjust his physical process for health reasons. The works themselves are exuberant; is there a liberation in his process evident in these works?


CR: Each of my father’s relatively compact periods of working on paper are marked by a highly-energized, highly-concentrated, flurry of activity that produces some his very finest work, regardless of medium. But it is hard to determine, with the last groups of works, what aspect of water-based medium on paper generates the excitement. Some of the works use gossamer-thin layers of paint clearly painted rapidly and with great freedom.  Other times the paint is much more opaque, the application much more deliberate. What is clear, is that the movement of the brush very much comes to the fore in these works, having largely been subsumed into other priorities in the years prior.


DS: As someone that lives with Rothko’s paintings, has your relationship with the works changed and deepened over time?  Can you please describe how, in the case of a particular work?


CR: My relationship to the paintings changes constantly—it is situational. My perception and appreciation for the paintings change with context. For instance, seeing familiar works in the exhibitions in Washington and Paris, changes how they appear, the way I interact with them, and the way they interact with each other. And even a painting I am viewing in a familiar context will change each time I see it––that is, it appears changed, which is a reminder, in fact, that I am the one who has changed.

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Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969 ,acrylic and ink on wove paper, 72 1/4 × 42 1/2 inches

Copyright © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York  

DS: Is your connection to your father’s work intellectual, historical, visual or emotional when you are in the presence of one of his works? 


CR: My interaction with Rothko's paintings is not so different from my interaction with other artworks. It begins with what I call a gestalt. In others words, I stand back and take in the overall message and feeling of the painting. That level of engagement is essential. Only if there is a strong connection do I then look more analytically for what attracts or moves in the work. And even there, I am looking for the emotional impact of what I find.  If it's only visual or intellectual stimulation, I may admire the work, but it does not generate love.


DS: Currently, at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, there are three works on loan from you and your sister, Kate, because three works that are usually hung there are currently on loan to the Rothko retrospective exhibition in Paris at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Seeing these works from your collection in this space at the Phillips, do you have a new experience of them? Since many of his works have never been seen in Europe, do you think the works in Paris were received there with “new” eyes?  


CR: I do very much enjoy the new, temporary Phillips room. In fact, I had never seen these three works together before, but in concert with the one Phillips work, it does make a satisfying whole, as my sister and I had hoped when we planned the installation. Our father and Duncan Phillips understood this and I think we can all be grateful that they pursued the idea with great focus to make a room that welcomes, but challenges.  As for Paris, one of the primary intentions was to present not simply great works, but ones that most Europeans never would have seen.  And I do think that is a major contributor to the power of the exhibition. Unconsciously, there is a refresh, a reshuffle of our understanding of what a Rothko painting is.  


Arnold Newman, Milton Avery, 1944, Gelatin silver print, 7 11/16 × 9 11/16 inches

Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of R. Sturgis and Marion B. F. Ingersoll, 1945

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Adolph Gottlieb (left) and Mark Rothko (right) at an unknown art opening, March 6, 1961, Photographer: Fred McDarrah.

DS: Milton Avery, an artist who currently is ignored in the critical art dialogue, is recently being slowly rediscovered. Avery was a good friend and mentor to your father and artists such as Adolph Gottlieb, Barnet Newman, and other artists of this generation. They all went together to Lake George (NY) and Gloucester (MA) to paint by day and talk about painting in the evenings. Avery and your father were of different generations (Avery was almost 20 years Rothko’s senior). Do you think this relationship was significant for Rothko? Can you see a connection in their work? 


CR: Milton Avery was extremely important for my father. First, in showing him the power of the simple form, and honest straightforward artistic expression. Beyond that, however, he showed my father the viability of painting as a profession, taking it out of the realm of the ideal and making it an attractive reality. I cannot emphasize enough the kindness of the Averys—Milton and Sally—to my father. Welcoming him and opening their home/studios at a time that I think he was often isolated and not so well nourished.


DS: The upcoming Venice Biennale’s title is “Foreigner Everywhere,” which focuses on artists who are foreigners, immigrants, expatriates, diasporic, emigres, exiled, or refugees. Did your father, who emigrated from Russia (now Latvia) at the age of ten, see himself as a foreigner in this country? Do you think this was liberating for him as an artist, or was it painful? Or perhaps he did not believe that the identity of the artist is crucial to understanding the artwork? 


CR: The transplant from Imperial Russia to Portland, Oregon at age ten was both liberating and painful for my father. He once remarked that he never felt fully at home in the US. That said, to be painting outside Europe undoubtedly gave him greater freedom to pursue his artistic vision

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Mark Rothko, Self Portrait, 1936, Oil on canvas, 81.9 x 65.4 cm

© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko - Adagp, Paris, 2023

DS: In an early self-portrait, Rothko depicts himself with glasses that hide his eyes—I think you described this as “Look at me, don’t look at me.” Can you describe how Rothko felt about his own work? 


CR: Actually, no. But he had enough confidence in it that he kept on painting, despite little attention and no sales for roughly twenty years. And then once he is “discovered” he both relishes and distrusts the praise. He knew his art should always be difficult.


DS: Do you remember your father expressing how his day at the studio went after he returned home? Please share a memory of your mutual interest in music, his painting, or ideas.


CR: I was too young to remember the daily routine, but my sister tells me he kept more or less banker’s hours, 8:00-6:00ish, six days a week. He was home for dinner with the family most nights.

My father played a great deal of classical music on the phonograph for me, encouraged to play more by my clear enthusiasm. I remember getting him to play the Schubert Trout Quintet for me again (my absolute favorite at the time) and rewarding him with an interpretive dance—no doubt too close to the large paintings in the living room, but he never admonished me. He was too happy to have found (or rather, created) a convert.


Mark Rothko in his West 53rd Street studio, circa 1953 
Photo: Henry Elkan Artwork © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), 
New York

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Christopher Rothko, the second of Mark and Mary Alice Rothko’s two children, is a psychologist, writer and for the last thirty years, the custodian of the Rothko legacy in partnership with his sister, Kate. He is editor of his father’s book of philosophical writings, The Artist’s Reality. His own book of essays, Mark Rothko from the Inside Out, was published in 2015 by Yale University Press. Rizzoli published a new landmark monograph on Rothko in 2022, created by the two Rothko children. Dr. Rothko has helped prepare more than two dozen Rothko exhibitions at museums and galleries around the globe. He is Past Chair of the Rothko Chapel Board and is currently head of the Opening Spaces Campaign, guiding the restoration of the Chapel and enhancement of its campus.

Christopher Rothko 

At the Fondation Lous Vuitton 

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Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

Deanna Sirlin

Photo: Marie Thomas

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