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Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel on Mark Rothko

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One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Mark Rothko’s signature style helped define Abstract Expressionism. After a screening of the new American Masters documentary, Rothko: Pictures Must Be Miraculous at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Rothko’s daughter and son, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, sat down with series executive producer Michael Kantor and director Eric Slade to discuss their father’s legacy.

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Michael Kantor: Hi I’m Michael Kantor. This is a special bonus episode of the American Masters podcast. Today we talk to Eric Slade, the filmmaker behind American Masters’ Rothko: Pictures Must Be Miraculous and also talk with artist Mark Rothko’s daughter and son Kate Rothko-Prizel and Christopher Rothko.

Christopher Rothko: I think my father really communicated the seriousness of painting. T he painting wasn’t something just to look at. It wasn’t something that you appreciated because it appealed simply to the senses.

Kate Rothko Prizel: I think he wanted the viewer to look inside themselves and see what the painting brought out in them.

Michael Kantor: Welcome to the American Masters podcast. You’re joining us at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where we’ve just screened the film Rothko: Pictures Must Be Miraculous. Joining me today to talk about the life and work of the artist Mark Rothko are filmmaker Eric Slade from Portland, Oregon. Rothko’s daughter Kate Rothko Prizel, a retired physician who worked in the Baltimore-Washington area, but throughout her career was involved in preserving her father’s legacy. And Rothko son, Christopher Rothko, a writer and psychologist who’s written essays on the paintings of his father, as well as creating the book Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, which was published in 2015. Eric, we think of Rothko with his bold work as a kind of quintessentially New York artist. But he grew up in Portland, Oregon, where you hail from and I’m curious how you think his childhood there, after leaving Russia, of course, might have affected his work.

Eric Slade: When I was growing up, most artists would leave Portland as soon as they could because there was no art scene. I mean, I think in the film we see how hard that transition was to move to Portland where he knew knew almost nobody and he couldn’t speak the language. So I think that sense of being an outcast stuck with him for the rest of his life. And made it more able to approach Art in a way that was completely different from anybody else. I’ve heard people actually say that the Pacific Northwest palette you can see in his paintings. I don’t know if that’s true but I’ve heard people say that.

Michael Kantor: Christopher, the film touches on it but the abstract expressionists in New York are such a famous group of people and it would be great if you could help us understand their dynamics a little. I think of, you know, the hard drinking Cedar Tavern crowd. Where did your father fit in with the Jackson Pollock and France Kline and the folks who he was a part of this movement?

Christopher Rothko: Well, I think Harry Cooper from the National Gallery refers in the film to just how small the art world was when our father arrived there. He was certainly new to all those painters of what would become the abstract expressionist movement and was really friendly with all them. But there was ultimately a divide between the downtown guys at the Cedar Tavern drinking themselves to oblivion every night and the more uptown crowd, which tended to include Gottlieb, Barnett, Newman, my father and Motherwell as well. And there were some who floated in between. But they all got together on frequent occasions, and certainly looked at and supported each other’s work.

Michael Kantor: And Kate, tell us when you had a sense of your father’s importance in this art world when you were growing up. When did you get a sense that you had a famous dad?

Kate Rothko Prizel: Well, I think maybe the pivotal moment for me was when my father had a one man exhibit at MoMA in 1960. And first of all, I remember in person going to that exhibit frequently. At the time we were still living about a block and a half from MoMA. We lived at fifty fourth just off Sixth Avenue. And I can only say that my father was probably there several times a day because he couldn’t agree with the curator on the lighting. And it’s interesting to me now because museums are really based on a certain amount of natural light now. And my father always saw his paintings under relatively dim incandescent light, and he was constantly coming in to turn down the lights on his paintings. I think at the beginning of every morning when they turned them up and at the end of the day before they departed. So I vividly remember that show. And I also remember traveling to the White Chapel Gallery in London subsequently. In fact, my my parents traveled there. I remember being left at home. For them, it was about a three week journey because my father refused to get on an airplane and therefore they went by boat, I guess spent about a week in London and left me at home. But I think that was probably the turning point for me when I realized that, to some degree, he was becoming known. After what had clearly been a very long struggle.

Michael Kantor: Christopher, I know your father taught and wrote throughout his life. Tell us a little bit more about his writings and what kind of theories on art he had.

Christopher Rothko: I think the easy thing to say about my father’s writings is they became fewer and fewer and less frequent as he went on. I think as he developed more as a painter and as it became more abstract and people were working very hard to understand his paintings, he tried to say as little as possible. However, when he was a younger painter and not in fact recognized at all as a painter, he was very involved with developing his own philosophy of art that would ultimately underpin his work. And I think have a great influence on what he would subsequently paint. So in the late 30s, through the early 40s, he worked on a book of philosophical writings about art. It actually began as a book about teaching art to children, which he was very involved with as a practitioner. But it grew into a book that examined: what’s the artist’s role in society? What what are the means by which he or she communicates the essence of what they’re feeling or believing to to the public? And i it was a book that I ended up taking the really the unfinished manuscript of in 2004 and editing and presenting to the public for the first time.

Michael Kantor: You mentioned that he taught children. Do you look at any of the work that either of you did as little kids and sort of see any of those teachings or influences?

Eric Slade: Not really.

Christopher Rothko: So one thing that’s also unique about my father is he never destroyed any of his own work. He kept it and moved it with him from studio to studio, home to home all those years. By contrast, I have destroyed everything I’ve ever painted.

Kate Rothko Prizel: If I haven’t destroyed everything, I’ve certainly lost it. I don’t know if I would see an influence. But I guess I could see some relation between the few works I, you know, ever attempted in oil and my father’s early works in the sense that I was certainly not cut out to be a super realist. I was much more interested in the impression of what I was seeing. But they’ve long since disappeared. They’ve not been destroyed.

Michael Kantor: Speak, if you would, to that idea of your father as sort of a 9 to 5 type dad who created these deeply powerful, emotionally moving pieces. On the one hand, it seems as though his work habits were like a banker or, you know, an everyday kind of worker but on the other hand, what he was turning out, you know, moves people to tears.

Kate Rothko Prizel: You know, I think that’s very true. I think in a way, he paced himself as an artist. You know, he wasn’t one of these people who was up all night. As far as I know, that was even true in his earlier days, although obviously I met with him, if you will, at the age of 47. But of course, that was about the period when he was beginning to make his major breakthroughs. And, you know, he certainly, when he was in his studio, was extremely concentrated. He usually went six days a week from 9 ish to 5:30 ish, and then almost always came home for dinner. And, you know, a lot of the time that I caught him in the studio was not just creating the works, but actually sitting and studying them and looking for the relationships. I think it was emphasized in the film that he did that, particularly with the murals and maybe more with the chapel murals than with anything else, but I think it was true to a great degree. Even with his earlier work that he would sit and agonize over each painting. So yeah, I do think of him as a, you know, reasonable classical father. He did devote Sunday mornings to me chasing after the bicycle and usually devoted Sunday afternoons to visiting museums, which I may or may not have accompanied him on probably more reluctantly as I got older and thought I could say no if I chose to. But I think he used those hours in a very concentrated way.

Michael Kantor: Christopher, who do you think were his big influences artistically? Who did he study and how did that channel into his work?

Christopher Rothko: He always cited Matisse as a tremendous influence. The red studio came to MoMA again, we were living just a couple blocks away, and he came and looked at that by his own report every day for months and months and months, and was just overwhelmed, not even so much by the color red that permeates that painting but more by the boldness to simply, really, create the form and obliviate the objects in the painting with this incredibly powerful red color. And he certainly found that a major influence on his own work. Most of the time, though, he was looking at much earlier work. He looked at Titian a great deal, Rembrandt a great deal. Loved many of the painters of the Italian Renaissance.

Michael Kantor: Turner. Am I wrong?

Christopher Rothko: Was tremendously fond of Turner, and that was a big influence on him deciding to make the gift to the Tate.

Kate Rothko Prizel: And I think he very much enjoyed being in that old building next to Turner. So, you know, it’s a little l hard to see him now in, you know, in Tate Modern. But, you know, that Turner connection was very important to him.

Michael Kantor: Speak, if you all would, about the chapel. I’ve never visited the chapel. And the sense of spirituality that comes through in the paintings and your own experiences there.

Eric Slade: No. You know, I actually didn’t get a chance to visit. We hired a crew and I directed them by Iphone so I can’t speak to it.

Christopher Rothko: That sounds like a spiritual experience.

Kate Rothko Prizel: You know, I think it is an amazing experience. One thing that I’ve always found difficult in visiting the chapel is to find that quiet moment by myself. And, you know, that is certainly what is most important in terms of sitting with those paintings and feeling how they speak to you. I think my father, you know, one of the reasons he thought this was sort of the pinnacle of his career was that he was so interested in spirituality and a general sense. And then the idea that he would be able to create a spiritual space, I think was extremely important to him. And I think it was so important to him that even though he knew it was going to be a Catholic chapel, he felt this was something he really wanted to go ahead with. And I’m sure that was influenced by the open mindedness and really ecumenical spirit of Mrs. De Menil. Even though the chapel was going to be Catholic. But one thing my father never got to learn was that the chapel was later made into an ecumenical chapel, which I think he would have been extremely pleased by.

Christopher Rothko: And I’ve been deeply involved with the Rothko Chapel now for the better part of two decades, including spearheading the restoration of the chapel that is actually in process right now, hopefully will be open again in less than a year and also an expansion of our campus to see through much of our mission that’s involved with human rights and interfaith work. But the chapel certainly has been a very profound influence on my work with with my father’s oeuvre. I think it is unique in that it remains such a modern spac.e 50 years after it was created, It continues to surprise, It continues to challenge people and it feels thoroughly needed and modern. When you walk into that space, you have a place to put aside your phone and put aside some of the things that preoccupy you that maybe are not so essential. It’s really a gift to be able to have that moment and that sense of privacy and an invitation to look inward. That, again, I think is timeless in a way.

Michael Kantor: Kate, at the beginning of the film, you mentioned that given the kind of contemporary mania over abstract expressionism, that your father might have been appalled at the way the art world works. Can you speak to sort of what he really hoped for and what might have upset him?

Kate Rothko Prizel: Well, I think he was always looking at the most comfortable home for his paintings, if you will, and to him when he had a relationship with a collector or he made a sale, he often wanted to meet the person, wanted to see where the painting would hang. He was very concerned with who his, you know, viewer was going to be in any setting. And I think, you know, first of all, an auction house scene totally negates that. I think my father also never fully realized how well-known he had become during his lifetime. There was a certain aspect of him that was kind of caught in the late 40s, early 50s, where he had maybe just about to make a breakthrough but hadn’t really become that well known. So there was a certain lack of realization and a certain I think, therefore, reluctance to become involved with the direction the art world was taking. And, you know, I think this auction just might have been the ultimate representation of the commercialism, which has overtaken art in many ways and I think would have been very upsetting to him. You know, the idea that one of these buyers might buy the painting as an investment, for example, and put it in a vault and not have it seen for 20 years and, you know, I think that would have been the ultimate insult to his work, if you will. So I don’t think he ever attended an auction and I think that’s probably a good thing.

Michael Kantor: Is there anything in your father’s work where you look at and go, “Well. That didn’t work.”

Christopher Rothko: Actually, many. He would have said the same thing. I mean, his he was constantly seeking new ways to express the ideas he had. And if you look through a suite of paintings, you’ll see him go down a blind alley, try something, never goes there again and moves in another direction. I think that was simply part of the process for him.

Michael Kantor: But he kept them all.

Kate Rothko Prizel: But he kept them all.

Christopher Rothko: But he kept them all. Absolutely.

Michael Kantor: When you think about trying to ensure his legacy and the future of your father’s work, what’s important to you all?

Christopher Rothko: I mean, really, to continue where Kate was, having the work before the public is really the top priority. Having them have a chance to really experience the paintings firsthand, as Eric noted. They really become just decoration when they’re seen on a screen or on a postcard or what have you. You really have to experience them directly and feel the power of that interaction. So I think first and last, we’re looking to have them before the public and in settings that are sympathetic to the paintings and where people really can have that experience.

Kate Rothko Prizel: And I guess I would add that one of the things that I was particularly happy about was the decision to give the large body of works to the National Gallery in Washington. I think they have facilities, which other institutions might not, to maintain a large group of works. And one thing I’ve also been very pleased with is, much more than other art institutions, they are willing to make loans, which means that the paintings can go both around the country and to smaller museums and often around the world. And that is, you know, expanding the audience. But again, I think expanding it to a very, you know, interested and sensitive audience often when I look at the shows that the National Gallery has put on.

Michael Kantor: Well, that’s a perfect segue way, because we have an interested and highly educated audience, I know there’s a number of art historians and other folks here and we’re happy to field any questions.

Audience Member 1: Is there any painting that either of you or any of you think is particularly miraculous among his work?

Eric Slade: I like that you’re tying in the title of the film. I really appreciate that.

Christopher Rothko: You’re asking us to choose one?

Kate Rothko Prizel: I don’t think I could put my finger on any one work because it’s the most miraculous. I mean, I have works which emotionally may mean more to me than another work, but I am sure that’s influenced by my relationship with the painting growing up or whatever. So no I don’t think I’ll hang my hat on the single miraculous work.

Christopher Rothko: OK. I’m going to choose one only because Carol Mancuso-Ungaro, who’s featured quite a bit in this film, backs me up on this one. We agree–we love to talk about this painting. There’s a painting at the Kunts museum in Zurich, which is from 1963. It is four black rectangles on a black background with a small white band at the top. And the miracle of this painting, in addition to the fact that it gets in your insides in a way that no black painting should be able to, is that he manages, through this thin white band that occupies maybe 5 percent of the painting space, to make it not a dark painting. The painting is actually full of light and as you look at the different black rectangles, each one of them has a different level of reflections. It’s a different black. So it’s, first of all, structurally and compositionally, a masterpiece. But he manages to get this painting that should b,e on some level, very off putting or very challenging, to actually be quite warm and welcoming.

Kate Rothko Prizel: And I will venture a specific too. Maybe because of nostalgia, but also because I feel so badly that this painting is not in the public view. And that is a painting called Homage to Matisse. It’s the only work that was done after my father entered his mature period, if you will, which was ever titled and it is an amazing painting, which unfortunately was sold not so long after his death, went into a vault somewhere for about 20 years and then was eventually sold privately. Christopher and I got very excited because we saw in an exhibit, actually, at the Portland Museum, thought maybe it was going to be given as a gift to the Portland Museum and then it disappeared into this private collection. As far as I know, not to be shown again. So that is perhaps a painting, which I think is absolutely miraculous and I am very sad that it is not being seen by the public.

Audience Member 2: So could we perhaps consider your father’s perception of the world and the relationship of his art to the world by looking at the Seagram murals and then the chapel murals, both of which are sort of independently viewed as incredible works?. And I think he probably viewed it that way as well. But he was saddened by, I guess, the context in which the Seagram murals were to be used, almost as background for this dining experience versus the intensity of the chapel murals which were there and clearly the focal point of whatever the person in the room was doing and thinking about and looking at.

Christopher Rothko: Absolutely. First of all, I think he was aware that his his work was very sensitive to how it was exhibited because it so easily becomes decoration or wallpaper. He was always conscious of that but at the Four Seasons restaurant, he knew no matter how imposing how large he made these works. He was he was in competition against food, probably a lot of alcohol and conversation. It was a losing battle. It was not really a scene that was going to lend itself to serious contemplation of art.

Kate Rothko Prizel: Yeah. And I think that the murals were actually conceived for the Seagram buildings for a private dining room that was going to be in a slightly separate alcove, if you will, from the main dining room. But I think even there, he had perhaps deluded himself that anyone was really going to sit and contemplate the pictures. I mean, he was always interested in creating a space with multiple of his own pictures hanging. He always liked to create that kind of atmosphere and have people sit amidst his paintings. And perhaps he deluded himself into thinking what was supposed to be, he told himself, a workers dining room, probably an executive dining room. Maybe someone was going to be taking any interest in the pictures as opposed to the food.

Christopher Rothko: Just to connect to your original question about about the world. These paintings are not the end. They are a means to thinking about the world, experiencing the world. And so, ultimately you get stuck in the dining room with your, you know, half eaten food and your half drunk bottle of wine. And you’re not traveling anywhere beyond that room. The other paintings are probably otherwise.

Michael Kantor: So I’m curious about your own home. Were there lots of paintings displayed? Were his paintings featured? Was there a lot of art up in the house?

Kate Rothko Prizel: Yeah, I would say, you know, my memories and I guess I have memories of two different places we lived. There were always paintings displayed. I would say he hardly collected any other artwork. He very occasionally made a trade with another artist but that was really the exception. So by and large, it was exclusively his paintings hanging. And you sort of felt like you were living among them, because one thing he never did was set up the home in any way like a gallery. So, you know, we really had just ambient light, you know, thrown off the ceiling or whatever. So you really felt like you were living among the paintings rather than seeing them on display.

Christopher Rothko: And again, paintings of all periods. The biggest, most recent paintings, probably most prominently displayed, but figurative works, surrealist works in other parts of the house as well.

Audience Member 2: I remember reading that he had a dream– long before the Rothko Chapel–of having little chapels along the side of the road where you could stop and look at Rothkos?

Christopher Rothko: Yes. With a single painting. So you leave with that sort of contemplative experience of losing yourself in a painting and hopefully recharging yourself the rest of the drive.

Audience Member 3: In the film, you talk about his feeling that he never felt at home, that he was an alien and there’s a little in the film about his Jewish identity. But I’m wondering, did he ever speak about his Russian past, about the war, about his Jewishness and how that might have permeated some of his thinking about what he was doing?

Kate Rothko Prizel: He certainly spoke about his Jewishness in the sense that although I really did not grow up in an observant family in any way, I was well aware of his Jewish background. I was well aware of his family history. I remember his, for whatever reason, taking out the atlas and pointing out, you know, where Dvinsk was and the fact that it was now called Daugavpils because it had become part of Latvia and at the time, it was not. So, you know, there was certainly an interest in looking back. I do think he felt himself an alien to some degree in the U.S. and, without offending Portland, I always thought of my father as very comfortable in New York. He thought of himself as a New Yorker, but not such a comfortable American. And perhaps he felt very comfortable in the New York milieu because certainly, although not all his fellow artists were Jewish, there was certainly a group of Jewish artists. And I think he felt very comfortable as a Jew in New York City. But I can’t really say that he ever discussed in any direct way how his Judaism played any role in his art. He certainly made it clear that spirituality in a general sense was important to him. But I don’t think Judaism specifically.

Michael Kantor: Okay, we have time for one more question.

Audience Member 4: So in the film, he talks about how he believes– in The New York Times article– how he believes that the painting should speak for itself. Do you think that his paintings do speak for themselves or do you think that as a spectator, as someone looking at them, you should experience them individually?

Christopher Rothko: So as someone who has written hundreds of pages about my father’s work, I would like to emphasize very much that the paintings have to speak for themselves. It’s really the only way to understand a Rothko painting. In fact, I wrote my book of essays about about his work, very much writing to people who had already experienced the work. There is no substitute for having that kind of interaction. And he puts so much of himself and so much, if you will, of the argument of each painting that there is really the opportunity if you spend the time and you’re sort of giving of your own self, if you bring yourself to the painting to really have a very thorough conversation with the painting. And in fact, not just let it speak for itself, but to speak back as well.

Michael Kantor: Well, if you can come back to the brand, newly renovated Museum of Modern Art on the fourth floor, there are three incredibly beautiful and moving Rothko paintings. Thanks again. Good night.