Blue Chip Sublime

Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko; drawing by David Levine

On the morning of February 25, 1970, Mark Rothko’s body was found in his studio in New York. He had done a thorough job of killing himself the night before, like Seneca but without the bath; first gulping down an overdose of barbiturates and then hacking through his elbow veins with a razor. He lay, fat and exsanguinated, clad in long underwear and black socks, in the middle of a lake of blood; and this miserable death not only cast a lurid glare of publicity over his work, but seemed to write the colophon to a period of American art, marking the end of Abstract Expressionism. Now most of its major figures except Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Lee Krasner were dead, whether by their own hand (Arshile Gorky) or violent accident (Jackson Pollock, David Smith) or booze, old age, the usual debilities.

Less than two years later, Rothko’s children sued the painter’s trustees—an art world accountant named Bernard Reis, the painter Theodoros Stamos, and Morton Levine, a professor of anthropology—for malpractice, claiming that they had conspired with Marlborough Gallery Inc. to “waste the assets” of Rothko’s estate and defraud them of their proper share. The assets were 798 paintings, on which the plaintiffs set a value of $32 million—by far the largest estate valuation ever claimed for the work of an American artist. The plaintiffs contended that Reis, Stamos, and Levine had conspired to sell Rothkos to Marlborough at far less than their true market value—one parcel of 100 paintings went into the gallery’s hands at a round sum of $1.8 million, or $18,000 per picture.

Thus began the “Rothko case,” the main entertainment and font of gossip for the New York art world in the early 1970s. It was a Victorian melodrama of the fruitiest sort, and its characters could not convincingly be duplicated in modern fiction. Two Wronged Orphans (Kate Rothko was twenty when the writs went in, and her brother Christopher only eight), a trio of Wicked Trustees, the ghost of a Great Artist, a Good Judge, a revolving cast of art dealers, lawyers, critics, experts for the prosecution, other experts for the defense—and, most picturesque of all, the Foreign Plutocrat, seen by a delighted public as a combination of Fu Manchu and Gold-finger, Frank Lloyd, resident of Nassau, boss and founder of Marlborough Fine Art in London and its branches in Rome, Tokyo, Toronto, and New York, holder of mysterious brass plates in Liechtenstein with names like Kunst and Finanz A.G.: Not the richest dealer in the world, but one of the richest, and a copywriter’s dream. There he sat in his financial control booth, ticker tapes streaming through his fingers as the spotlights and writs sought him out: come il basilisco, as Machiavelli remarked of Cesare Borgia, soavemente fischiando nella sua caverna, like the basilisk whistling softly in its cave.

After four years of…

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