T he son of the great Russian/American artist Mark Rothko, Christopher Rothko is a great connoisseur of his father’s work. Before the current Mark Rothko retrospective at Fondation Louis Vuitton opened, he spoke to us about staging this expansive presentation of his father’s work, the artist’s evolution regarding Abstraction, as well as their shared love for classical music.
How did you and Suzanne Pagé, the artistic director of Fondation Louis Vuitton, approach this exhibition to tell story of your father’s career?
I brought my years of experience to the hanging, lighting, and arrangement of the space. Through the years, I have learned which works have the most impact when viewed together and show the artist in his best light. This retrospective shows how he managed to communicate his art in ever purer, more powerful ways. There are also many works that my father executed before he established his style and signature, and they are also very compelling. They tell the story of his reasoning and the development of his art. That is true for every period, always seeking to shed light. It is fascinating to see how he worked – both in his compositions and his application techniques, how he scraped and rubbed the paint – to attempt to create something that would move the viewer as much as possible.
'He chose this type of rectangle because it resembles our field of vision: rounded at the edges and a little vague. This shape imitates our visual field and suggests what could lie beyond that scope'
In your book, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, you describe the haziness of the rectangular shapes that your father painted. How did he arrive at those shapes?
What I believe is that he chose this type of rectangle because it resembles our field of vision: rounded at the edges and a little vague. This shape imitates our visual field and suggests what could lie beyond that scope.
The inner glow of his 1950s paintings followed a period of much darker colours. You describe those as being more 'challenging' for viewers. How did that use of colour evolve?
He entered the art world at a time when Bauhaus was still active. Josef Albers and other artists approached colour from a perceptive, scientific, structural point of view. Rothko, however, was not interested in the relationships between colours, but rather the use of colour as a means of expression. We tend to believe that his famous classic works from the 1950s are the ones that are colourful and appealing. But his paintings from the previous decade largely share the same palette. At the end of the 1950s, his colour schemes began to darken, and he slowed the pace of production. He intended for fewer viewers to stop to examine them, but for those who would, potentially experience a more powerful interaction.
Contemporary Conversations: The Rothko Chapel
In his manuscript from 1940-1941, The Artist’s Reality – Philosophies of Art, Rothko identified himself as being an abstract artist. Much later, however, he declared that he was not an “Abstractionist”.
What fascinates me about that document, which he wrote during his Surrealist period, is that he already considered himself an abstract artist. When the 1950s arrived, and he executed the works for which he is best known, he insisted on the fact that he was not interested in Abstraction. I believe that in his pursuit of a truly universal language, he made a discovery: that the more he managed to eliminate and to merely use the power of colour in simplified shapes, the more he could directly speak to people’s hearts and touch our inner beings.
'He made a discovery: the more he managed to eliminate and to merely use the power of colour in simplified shapes, the more he could directly speak to people’s hearts and touch our inner beings'
Rothko considered Leonardo da Vinci to be the first artist who discovered light as a means of expression. How did he himself handle light?
Light, to Rothko, didn’t necessarily translate into bright painting. He saw it as a means for expressing an emotion – a way to powerfully communicate – if only through a small, light band in the middle of a dark painting. Some of my favourite paintings, three of which are in this exhibition, were executed in 1963; in each, he added an orange, red, or white band to a rather dark composition. He understood the power of that band in bringing light to the precise spot where, without it, the work would appear completely dark.
Your father sought to establish an intimate relationship with the viewer, particularly through his very large formats. How did you go about recreating that intimacy in the exhibition?
There are two galleries that are extremely powerful. One features the Seagram Murals [initially designed for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York's Seagram Building] that my father donated to the Tate Modern in London. These nine paintings will be presented in a gallery with identical proportions to those of the Tate Modern. In another gallery, we display three of the four works from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where my father worked with the collector Duncan Phillips to create a gallery specifically dedicated to his work.
There is also a very large gallery showing his works from the early 1960s which was, to me, the peak of his career. His works are spaced farther apart, in a very subdued atmosphere which allows viewers to enjoy an individual experience with each work.
You spoke about the emotional impact of your father’s paintings, and you have seen certain viewers being brought to tears by them.
I do occasionally see people crying as they admire one of my father’s works. Many have told me that they stepped into the gallery, stopped in front of a painting, and began to cry unexpectedly. These paintings grab you just when you least expect it, touching something deep inside you that you didn’t know was there. I truly believe in the power of art, despite the current obsession with science and technology. It is important that something as simple as a painting by my father can have a much more powerful effect than extremely complex images generated by a computer.
'These paintings grab you just when you least expect it, touching something deep inside you that you didn’t know was there'
Does your reaction to the works change according to your mood, or to what is happening in your life?
Absolutely. I have had that experience in exhibitions, at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and even in my own home. Sometimes a painting calls out to me; other times it only grazes me. Even with the same lighting, the same room, the same arrangement. The only thing that is different is me.
Could you tell us about your first trip to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, commissioned by the collector Dominique de Ménil?
I wasn’t really prepared for the immense power of that chapel. It is a sensation that you can only experience once in your life. Each successive trip reinforces my perception of the spot as a powerful place, one that encourages introspection. There is no direct documentation explaining how my father chose the colours, but those monochrome panels hold a great dramatic power. My father designed the entire chapel; he considered the dimensions of the walls together with those of the paintings.
Your father had a passion for Mozart. What resonance do you see between his paintings and classical music?
Music is the thing we shared more than anything else. We only spent six years together [before the artist’s suicide in 1970], but he had me listen to so much music that he turned me into a lifetime fanatic. I love visual art, but music was my first love. And I think it might have been his, too. Part of the power of his abstraction stems from the fact that music expresses something unutterable, and yet it evokes feelings and places that we recognise. When you enter complete osmosis with my father’s work, it offers the same type of experience that you can get from music.
In your opinion, what other contemporary artists have the same ability to move viewers?
I wouldn’t want to play favourites, but the first name that comes to mind is undeniably James Turrell. You could say that Turrell took over where my father left off, that he intensifies aspects of certain works by my father. Likewise, his work does not seek to grab viewers in the moment, but rather to establish a longer conversation with them. I hope that I will still be alive when James Turrell’s visionary project Roden Crater [a work situated in an extinct volcano in Arizona] will be complete, so that I may view it in its totality.
In 2013, the Daugavpils Mark Rothko art centre was inaugurated in Latvia, where your father was born in 1903, as Markus Yakovlevich Rotkovich. What does that mean to you today?
My sister and I have known the curator for a few years, since she organised an event for the centenary of our father’s birth. It is important to us that, a century later, his work may continue to resonate in the place where he was born. There is this idea that Abstract Expressionism only took off in the United States, and that may be true; but it manifests itself in very poignant ways elsewhere in the world.
You and your sister won your forgery lawsuit against the executors of your father’s estate and the Marlborough Fine Art gallery. Do you believe that today’s artists are better equipped to handle the same kind of situation?
My father took no interest in the financial side of the art world, but he did believe that artists should be able to make a living from their work. It is encouraging to see that today’s art schools offer training to raise awareness about such issues. Artists are now more conscious of the conflicts that can arise, and they understand how to deal with them better. The dispute over my father’s estate, and my sister’s remarkable efforts to recuperate his paintings, provide an example for them.