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Mark Rothko: An Exchange

In response to:

Blue Chip Sublime from the December 21, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book, The Legacy of Mark Rothko [NYR, December 21], Robert Hughes employs revisionist propaganda techniques which serve to justify and belittle the corruption, fraudulent dealings and practices in the international art business that were clearly revealed for the first time in the Rothko case and are documented in the book. By false and misleading analogy, inaccuracy, serious omission and distortion of crucial facts, Hughes not only minimizes the important revelations about Marlborough’s dirty dealings with Rothko’s executors and his estate paintings, but the import of his review denigrates the judgment of three courts of law and thirteen justices and what he calls their “crushing verdict.”

Hughes calls the posture of the book that of “a hanging judge.” But then he admits that the book “is a thoroughly researched, minutely observed account of the trial, the evidence and the twistings and turnings of an extremely turgid case.” Isn’t a hanging judge one who sentences without listening to the arguments? After eight months of studying the credibility of the witnesses and the evidence, I spent two years examining documents and conducting interviews while writing the book. Judging from Hughes’s explanation of the case, he has not bothered to check even the basic facts. The Rothko children did not sue for “malpractice,” they not only sued the executors but Marlborough as well, and they never at the outset claimed the paintings were worth a given sum, much less $32 million (Ben Heller’s estimate in 1974). Hughes mentions only a sale between the executors and Marlborough wherein 100 Rothkos were sold for $1.8 million without noting that the payout was to be over twelve years at no interest (until 1982), with a down payment of only $200,000 ($2,000 per painting). By also omitting the fact that all the rest of the paintings, 698, were turned over to Lloyd on consignment for twelve years at disproportionately unfavorable terms, Hughes makes it seem as though the lawsuit only involved this one not-so-unusual-and-not-to-be-taken-too-seriously 100 painting transaction.

Hughes’s pro-art trade, blue-chip orientation, and manipulation of the facts becomes clearest when he states that “Lloyd could buy a Rothko for $18,000” (actually about $4,000) and two years later offer it to Hughes’s friend for $350,000; after all “…in art a fair price is what you think you can get. Every dealer observes this rule, since there is no other; but Marlborough was caught pushing it too far.”

Does Hughes really think that the markup was not a fraud upon the Rothko estate? Why does he not mention anywhere the following: the lack of arm’s length negotiation in the deals; Lloyd’s fraudulent bulk sales of more than 100 Rothkos after the lawsuit began which were parked with his European friends until after it ended; Lloyd’s laundering of art through myriad unaccountable Liechtenstein holding companies; Lloyd’s selling of many consigned Rothkos through shell companies, so that while the estate received paltry sums, Marlborough received millions of dollars; Lloyd’s violation of the court’s injunction by shipping Rothkos out of the US, and his secretive shipping of Marlborough’s stock of art to Canadian warehouses in order to escape paying the court’s judgment. By omitting any reference to any of this string of frauds and repeating his jaundiced opinion that Lloyd is no more culpable than other dealers, Hughes himself gets “caught pushing it too far.”

Hughes describes Lloyd as living in Nassau, “never to be seen in New York again,” as though Lloyd’s retreat were voluntary. The fact that if Lloyd returns to the US he may be jailed as a “fugitive from justice” is entirely overlooked. Why does Hughes not allude to the twenty-month-old criminal indictment against Lloyd on three counts of tampering with evidence in the Rothko case?

While adopting a cynical lofty position about the lack of regulation in the art trade generally, Hughes deplores “the execretions heaped upon Lloyd, Reis, Stamos, Levine and the staff of Marlborough” since the judgment. He rejects the commonly quoted parallel of the Rothko coverups to the Watergate coverups and somehow equates the scandal—dealing with millions of dollars worth of irreplaceable art that a painter had spent a lifetime creating—with the Profumo call-girl affair in England. His reasoning: “having nailed the guilty,” the art world has gone back to its “own lying and whoring” again with “gusto.” Thus, without openly pinpointing any frauds, he implies that the art world is rife with scandals of similar proportions, that the Rothko case was merely par for the usual course in dealer corruption.

It is apparent that Hughes’s view of Lloyd as “the copywriter’s dream” has not changed since 1973, when the art section of Time, of which Hughes is and was the editor, devoted three pages to a take-out on Lloyd and his success at “turning pictures into gold.” The article also contained a serious inaccuracy about Rothko’s will, and the issue appeared in the midst of the pre-trial hearings.

Hughes declares pityingly: “Stamos, his career a wreck, returned to Greece” when actually Stamos is teaching at the Art Students’ League as usual. Last month he attended the private opening of the Rothko retrospective at the Guggenheim.

Hughes also makes false accusations that are without substantiation in the book and must be attributable to his own suppositions. He charges that I, on the basis of “gossip,” state that Rothko did not commit suicide but was “assassinated.” Neither of these charges is true. I believe that Rothko’s death almost certainly was self-inflicted and much of the book is devoted to the many reasons for his suicide. The major pressure on Rothko was, as I state repeatedly, “the forced selection and sale of his paintings to Marlborough” scheduled for the day of his death. (Hughes, though he has chosen to adopt much of my biographical and medical research on the matter as his own, neglects to mention this crucial motivation.)

In the penultimate chapter of the book I have attempted to resolve public and private speculations about the circumstances surrounding Rothko’s death. That he might have been murdered had been voiced publicly, not only by Agnes Martin, but, as recounted by Paul Gardner in New York (February 7, 1977), by Kate Rothko’s lawyer, Edward J. Ross, and others. The subject of possible murder having been raised, it would have been irresponsible, I believe, not to explore the facts as fully as possible, which I did. Apparently Hughes did not read the detailed autopsy notes of the pathologists’ views that I quoted from, because he states that Rothko cut “his elbow veins with a razor.” In fact Rothko did not (that would have taken much longer). Having taken a massive overdose of drugs, he somehow managed to chop through the ligaments and the artery in his right arm with only the aid of a double-edged razor blade, one edge wrapped in Kleenex. According to a well-known surgeon this is not possible without the aid of a scalpel or a blade with a handle for leverage. The ligaments and the ante-cubital fossae are far too tough to be severed with just a razor blade. But, as I wrote, at that moment in his drive to die, Rothko must have possessed superhuman strength. Still the questions of how drugged he was at the time and how he performed all this without the aid of his glasses remain unresolved. Since the possibility of homicide could not be completely ruled out—however unlikely—I reported these facts in detail in what I believe to be a straightforward and unsensational exposition. It is my view, as stated in the book, that Rothko almost certainly committed suicide, pushed to the brink by the Marlborough deal. Nowhere did I suggest or imply that any individual was the “hitman.”

Between “lying and whoring” and this kind of justification of it at the expense of the truth, I fail to see any sharp distinction.

Lee Seldes

New York City

To the Editors:

I was shocked to read the disdainful reference by Robert Hughes (NYR, December 21) to my old friend and colleague, Emily Genauer. Such a gratuitous insult casts a far sorrier reflection upon Mr. Hughes than upon Miss Genauer.

When Mr. Hughes wins the Pulitzer Prize for “distinguished criticism” of the fine arts—as Miss Genauer did in 1974—his judgments may carry more weight. Meantime, he should mind his manners.

Harriet Van Horne

New York City

Robert Hughes replies:

Despite her stilted and bejargoned tone (“revisionist propaganda techniques,” indeed!) Ms. Seldes writes like a child banging a toy on a bedpost. If her jeremiad shows anything, it is that her ability to read a text is on a par with the grasp of art history that enabled her to have Matisse sending a cable to Texas seventeen years after he died.

Not one word of my article could be construed as an attempt to justify the frauds of which Lloyd, Marlborough, and the executors of Rothko’s estate were convicted. It was laced with caveats to prevent such a reading, as when I prefaced some remarks on Reis’s and Rothko’s friendship with the phrase, “without attempting any excuse for Reis’s delinquency as an executor….” I did not say Lloyd was “no more culpable than other dealers.” What I did say was that in a garden with no agreed ethical standards of dealers’ conduct, and no objective mechanism for determining fair prices, Lloyd was not the only toad. However, Ms. Seldes can brook no tone of voice short of frothing denunciation when the defendants in the Rothko case are mentioned. Thus, since I did not clog my article by once more listing every charge made or proven against them in the course of a four-year trial, she thinks I am whitewashing them. This is as obtuse as Ms. Seldes’s other fancy that I was praising what I actually, and at some length, attacked: the blue-chip investment system of the art trade.

Most of her objections are trivial, but one substantial matter is her defense of the chapter in which she strove, by innuendo, to suggest Rothko was murdered on behalf of Marlborough. “The subject having been raised,” she now claims, “it would have been irresponsible…not to explore the facts as fully as possible.” But who actually raised the subject? One magazine writer, who knew nothing about the matter; one painter, who knew less. If the lawyer Edward Ross did raise the question he showed no evidence for it. To slip a journalist your fantasies is not to offer proof; and that was all Ross did. The idea that Rothko was murdered was never considered by the court. It was not suggested by the forensic experts who examined his body. The autopsy produced no evidence for it. It was, quite simply, not an issue. Yet Ms. Seldes, using phrases like “If Rothko was not murdered, he was pressured into taking his own life…. It was at best a kind of remote control killing” (p. 317), saw fit to spend a whole chapter dragging this red herring to and fro, instead of giving it the brief paragraph it might have deserved. There was, I think, only one reason for her tendentious performance. She is so obsessed with the evils of the art world that her villains cannot possibly be black enough. They must be murderers as well as thieves. Ms. Seldes has the imagination, if not the language, of a minor Elizabethan playwright; she should sell her plot to the movies.

As for Ms. Van Horne’s loyal support of Emily Genauer, I can only remind her of the vast list of undistinguished writers who have won Pulitzers for journalism; to get one for “distinguished criticism” means, in my view, very little. I should add that I write as one who has served as a juror on that committee.

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