via The New York Observer: ART
By Michael H. Miller 8/12 11:20am
An article by David Levine in Triple Canopy offers an account of the Rothko trial in what is perhaps the most clear, concise and detailed overview yet written about the scandal. Mr. Levine, the son of Morton Levine, among the first directors of the Mark Rothko Foundation, writes “I’m going to break this down very simply, and as nonlibelously as possible.”
The Rothko scandal is ones of those messy webs of unfortunate decisions and backstabbing that seems more at home in a Raymond Chandler novel than in reality. Shortly after Rothko’s suicide in February 1970, his estranged wife died unexpectedly of a heart attack. An inconsistency in Rothko’s wills split up his orphaned children. His 19-year-old daughter became the ward of Herbert Ferber. His seven-year-old son Christopher went Mr. Levine’s parents.
To make things more complicated, “Rothko died with his market value climbing and with 798 finished paintings in his studio,” Mr. Levine writes. According to Mr. Levine, a feud with his daughter—in which she announced she hated her father’s paintings—made Rothko decide to leave his work with his three friends, Bernard Reis, Theodore Stamos (a fellow painter), and Mr. Levine’s father. Within three months, the executors of his estate, and now the directors of the Rothko Foundation, sold the entire batch of Rothko paintings to Marlborough Fine Art for $12,000 a piece. Rothko’s prices at this time were often selling for four times that amount, sometimes even in the low six figures. Suspiciously, five weeks after Rothko’s death, Reis was named Marlborough’s director and Stamos joined the artist roster. Rothko’s children, under New York state law were entitled to half their father’s estate, despite his will. They filed suit on November 8, 1971. Marlborough had already sold 36 Rothko paintings at a profit of $2,474,250. Now things got even messier. The trial, Mr. Levine writes, hinged on a single question: “Was Mark Rothko an artistic genius?” A “parade of experts and luminaries,” including Arne Glimcher, Richard Feigen and Meyer Shapiro, all testified on behalf of Rothko’s place as a master painter. The court decided, after three years of testimony, that all Rothko canvases were valued at a minimum of $90,000.
Mr. Levine’s history is sharp and objective. It is hardly a defense of his father, who found himself unwittingly wrapped up in the affair (he resigned his directorship when Reis and Stamos decided to join suit against the artist’s children), nor does it cast Rothko as a hero who was posthumously manipulated by his friends.
Why are we all fighting so fiercely on behalf of bad fathers? Rothko was, by all accounts, a terrible parent, who alienated his teenage daughter to such an extent that she told him she hated his paintings. So he responded as any narcissistic, alcoholic, monomaniacal abstract expressionist would, and he left the paintings in the hands of his friends. Once he’s dead, she’s sorry, and she wants to take it all back. But by now the paintings are with others, who have their own interests and their own understanding of his priorities…Was my dad guilty? I think he was lazy; I think he was negligent.
It’s the stuff of great courtroom dramas. Read it all here.
EXCERPT below, via Triple Canopy:
matter of rothko
By David Levine
Fighting for Great American Masters and bad fathers—the mess Mark Rothko’s death made.
I’m going to break this down very simply, and as nonlibelously as possible.
On February 25, 1970, my mother received a call from Oliver Steindecker, Mark Rothko’s studio assistant, informing her that Rothko had committed suicide and was lying on the floor of his studio in a pool of blood. My mom took a cab from her house on East Eighty-Ninth to Rothko’s studio, twenty blocks south, and helped identify the body. She then took another cab uptown, to Rothko’s brownstone on East Ninety-Fifth, to tell Rothko’s estranged wife, Mell. She left a message with my father, who was, curiously, attending a funeral. Eventually he showed up as well, and helped to arrange Rothko’s funeral two days later. My mom was one month pregnant with me.
Five months later, Mell Rothko died unexpectedly of a heart attack, leaving their two children, Kate and Christopher, parentless. My mother was by now six months pregnant. Because of an inconsistency between the Rothkos’ wills, Kate, nineteen, became the ward of one Herbert Ferber, dentist-sculptor. Christopher, seven, became the ward of my parents. That arrangement ended badly. Christopher left my parents’ house the day before I was born.
Last spring, I did a performance at the Museum of Modern Art. In the weeks prior, I was obsessed with the “Sixteen Americans” show MoMA mounted in 1959. That era was in the air: Mad Men, Fred Kaplan’s 1959: The Year Everything Changed, a play about Rothko on Broadway called Red, Todd Levin’s “I.G.Y.” (International Geophysical Year) show at Marianne Boesky; and there I was, doing a performance at MoMA, the beating heart of artistic ’59. I’d go to the museum library every day and look at that catalogue and wonder what happened to the other twelve Americans, the ones who weren’t named Johns, Stella, Nevelson, or Rauschenberg, the ones who must have thought, “OK, MoMA; I’ve got it made.” Also-rans and bystanders are my artistic stock-in-trade—abandoned headshots, forgotten spectators in performance-art photos, performers performing for no one, people whose bones have been bleached in the sun of others’ fame.
OK, MoMA; I’ve got it made. Afterward, an older museum volunteer came up to me among the well-wishers and said, “You don’t know me, but I’m your stepmother’s best friend. Your father would be very proud.” By the time that last sentence registered, she’d disappeared. I stifled the echo and turned to someone else.
I barely remember my father. He died in 1981, eight years after my parents were divorced. He moved downtown, to a small one-bedroom in a high-rise on East Ninth Street. My mom stayed uptown in their brownstone. A concert pianist and poet, she always warned me not to end up a failure like him.
She still lives in that house. It’s like a New York School museum, full of posters and paintings and photos, as though time stopped in 1971. Prints and collages by Robert Motherwell, David Hare, Adja Yunkers, and Theodoros Stamos, and poster after poster by Rothko. Black-and-white photos of cocktail parties; that was their scene, those were the good times, when all the artists would get together and talk and drink every night, and Mom would visit Rothko’s studio every afternoon, and everyone lived in brownstones on the Upper East Side. There’s Mom hanging out with Rothko and Stamos in the living room; there’s Mom smoking a cigarette in Rothko’s studio; there’s Rothko sitting on the edge of his bed. I grew up in a house full of photos of Rothko, and not a single photo of my dad. He’s always out of the picture. He’s always the one taking the picture.
In the divorce, my mom wound up with all three of the paintings he’d given them, one of which had been a wedding gift. My dad wouldn’t pay child support, so she sold them to put me through school.