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 hearings and litigation, the Orphans won. The court issued a crushing verdict. The executors were thrown out for “improvidence and waste verging upon gross negligence.” Reis and Stamos were found to have been in conflict of interest; as executors they could not bargain honestly with Marlborough, since Reis was a salaried employee of the company and Stamos under contract to it as an artist. All contracts between Marlborough and the Rothko estate were voided. The judge assessed fines and damages of more than $9,000,000 against Frank Lloyd, Marlborough, and the executors. Then there were the legal fees. No art dealer had ever suffered such catastrophic punishment at the hands of the law.

Lloyd went back to Nassau and immersed himself in Caribbean real estate deals, never to be seen in New York again. Bernard Reis sank into bankruptcy; Stamos, his career a wreck, returned to Greece. Marlborough Gallery is still in business, but it lost more artists than Rothko; Lee Krasner, for instance, broke off relations with it and took with her the estate of her dead husband, Jackson Pollock. The winner, apart from the Orphans, was the Pace Gallery, which got the rights to the Rothko estate.

The only journalist who followed the whole labyrinthine course of the trial, Lee Seldes, wrote a detailed book on it. The paintings behaved as they were expected to, whatever the verdict: they doubled in price, and doubled again, so that a large “prime” Rothko from the Fifties would now routinely fetch anything between $150,000 and $250,000. The market does not think the only good artist is a dead artist; but it knows that the best sort of artist is a dead good artist. Corpses do not paint; and as Arnold Glimcher, the director of the Pace Gallery, delicately put it during his two days of testimony for the prosecution, death creates “a finite commodity, where there once existed an open-ended one.” At present, quite a lot of the finite commodity—a retrospective of Rothko’s work—is to be seen at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, accompanied by a monograph written by the museum’s curator of exhibitions, Diane Waldman.


In all its initial secrecy, mazy wanderings, and unpleasant moral implications, the Rothko affair was frequently compared to Watergate. As Tristan Tzara observed, the politics of art are a diminutive parody of the politics of real power. Just as the fall of Nixon filled the press with sanguine hopes of an end to corruption on the banks of the Potomac, so it was widely thought that the Orphans’ victory might provoke an appearance of a new morality in the art world. A cleansing wave would scour it, dealers and executors would become, in a collective ecstasy of self-criticism, as scrupulous as gynecologists, and a new age of ethical candor would dawn over Soho and 57th Street.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. The Rothko affair was no Watergate; rather it resembled the Profumo Scandal that so entertained England fifteen years ago. After the execrations heaped on Lloyd, Reis, Stamos, Levine, and the staff of Marlborough, after the evidence, opinions, moral judgments, and ritual démentis ejaculated by the art world at large, everyone went back to doing exactly what he had done before, though perhaps a little more cautiously: just as the British parliamentarians and Beaverbrook hacks, having nailed the guilty Profumo for whoring and lying, went back to their own lying and whoring with the gusto of those who have just enjoyed a cleansing sauna.

For despite the peculiarly American illusion, enshrined in museum practice and art education, that contact with works of art is good for the morals as well as pleasurable and interesting, the ethical level of the art world is no higher than that of the fashion industry. The problem is not that some dealers are crooks. It is that the whole system of the sale, distribution, and promotion of works of art is a terrain vague. Art dealing aspires to the status of a profession, without professional responsibilities; and it is against this background that the sins of Marlborough must be seen.

Professions are, in essence, self-regulating. They have strict codes of conduct and ethics. Their willingness to stick by these codes, enforce them on errant members, and expel impenitent ones is what distinguishes professions from trades. But there is no agreement in the American art world on how critics, museum curators, or dealers should behave. What are the limits of cupidity and influence? How far do they mask themselves as normal? The question of where self-dealing and conflict of interest begin is very rarely asked: the boat must not be rocked. Thirty years ago, if a critic owned (say) a de Kooning and wrote lyrically in support of de Kooning’s work, nobody minded; the painting was only worth a few hundred dollars. Obviously, since the price of de Koonings has multiplied (in some cases) by a factor of 1,000, to own the same painting today and still write about the artist may present grave conflict-of-interest problems.

The flight of speculative capital to the art market has done more to alter and distort the way we experience painting and sculpture in the last twenty years than any style, movement, or polemic. It has shifted the ground rules of museum-going: what was once a tomb becomes a bank vault, as every kind of art object is converted into actual or potential bullion. (Strangely enough, this phenomenon has not yet found its Walter Benjamin, although the subversion of aesthetic experience by monetary value is by now as pervasive and visible as the alteration of unique objects by mass reproduction.) Colossal sums of money are exchanged, every day, on the art market. But the market remains wholly unregulated, and almost uninspected. It is the last refuge of nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism, in all its self-sufficiency and arrogance. If the units of value traded in the world’s galleries were debentures or commodity futures, the Securities Exchange Commission would be watching; but there is no regulation of the American art market, nor is there likely to be.

One of the reasons why dealers are so resistant to the idea of inspection lies in the inherent irrationality of art prices. No work of art has an intrinsic value, like a brick or a car. Its price cannot be discussed in terms of the labor theory of value. The price of a work of art is an index of pure, irrational desire; and nothing is more manipulable than desire. It is no accident that the immense fetishism which sustains the art market should have reached its peak—a delirium whose only historical parallel was the Dutch tulip mania of the seventeenth century—at the moment when the old purposes of art, the manifestation of myth and the articulation of social meaning, have largely been taken away from painting and sculpture by film, TV, and photography. Only when an object is useless can capitalism see it as priceless. The desire for all commodities, and hence their price, is affected in greater or lesser degrees by manipulation—but art is the only commodity whose price is purely and intrinsically manipulative and has no objective relationship to any social machinery except that of “rarity” and promotion.


That is why Frank Lloyd could buy a Rothko for $18,000 and, two years later, offer it to an acquaintance of mine in Paris for $350,000: 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. The idea that Marlborough violated the nature of the art market, however, is an illusion. Naturally, it was also an illusion that every other major dealer in American or European contemporary art was anxious to propagate.

Lee Seldes’s book adopts the posture of a hanging judge. It is a thoroughly researched and minutely observed account of the trial, the evidence, and the twistings and turnings of an extremely turgid case. There are, it is true, moments of laziness—how on earth did she get the idea that Matisse, who died in 1954, sent a telegram of congratulation for the opening of the Rothko Chapel in Houston in 1971?—but when functioning as a court reporter she does well. As a sociologue of the art world, she is quite inept. Her view of Rothko’s role in the Sixties is very simplistic: she presents him as a sort of Fisher King, ritually sacrificed by ignoble acolytes for the good of the market. She rightly points out the secretive and unregulated nature of the art market, but presumes that it is an immense hive of conspiracy—a Mafia. In fact, it is not a Mafia, merely a throwback to the days of Andrew Carnegie.

In a throughly discreditable chapter, she even manages to suggest that Rothko did not commit suicide at all. She quotes the painter Agnes Martin as saying Rothko was murdered: “I wish you could publish,” Ms. Martin informed Art News from her remote fastness in the South-west, “that I don’t believe for a minute that Rothko committed sucicide. Nobody in that state of mind could. He was done in, obviously…by the people who have profited or have tried to profit.” Seldes quotes this bit of gossip without producing any support for it, as though it had some evidential value in itself; and she even manages to imply, without openly stating it, that one of the trustees was the hit man. One would need to be obtuse not to grasp her drift: Marlborough, by some unspecified means, assassinated one of its most profitable artists, presumably to create that “finite commodity.” Paranoid styles of journalism could hardly go further in brutal unfairness.

It is true that Rothko was a victim of the system, as some other artists are. But he was also, in every sense but the posthumously financial, his own victim. Rothko’s terminal act was the climax of a long, troubled preparation for a failure that eluded him. He believed he was misunderstood. He thought the art world was out to get him. The more he railed against the misunderstandings to which he thought he was subject, the more he voiced his distrust of the art world as system, the more praise and money were decanted on him. He could deal with the praise, but not with the money.

Li medici,” Leonardo opaquely scribbled in the margin of one of his manuscripts, “mi creorono & distrussono“: “the Medici” (or “the doctors,” since the initial is in lower-case and the phrase must remain ambiguous) “created me and destroyed me.” This lugubrious remark could well be the epigraph to Rothko’s entire management of two subjects that obsessed him, patronage and health.

He managed neither well. Rothko was physically infirm, and his temperament unstable: sweetness, benevolence, and a desire to please those close to him would alternate with fits of irritability and paranoia. (He especially feared younger artists, and, unlike Barnett Newman, who enjoyed the role of artis pater, could be crushingly rude to them.) He was not a happy drunk and toward the end of his life he drank most of the time. He therefore lived surrounded by those modern New York equivalents of the comic and dangerous clyster-wielders of seventeenth-century farce: a retinue of doctors and shrinks who listened to his self-pity, took their fees, and prescribed in relays various combinations of upper and downer, Elavil, Librium, Equanil, Sinequan, capsules to make him sleep, pills to get him up, boluses to fix his ruined digestion and stop him accusing old friends of imaginary slights. There was very little contact between Rothko’s mind and his body. “He” treated “it” as though it were an appendage.

In the studio, Rothko was a man of resolution: one of the last artists in America to believe, with his entire being, that painting could carry the load of major meanings and possess the same comprehensive seriousness as the Russian novel. Outside its door, he dithered. The least eddy on the surface of the day, a misplaced phone call or a mislaid bank statement, could drop him into the Black Hole. Thanks to his inability to deal with anything except his art, Rothko’s last years were a tragedy of infantilism. Other than the central burden of his art, there was no responsibility he would not delegate to someone else: and one of the things he most feared and could least cope with was money.

The Abstract Expressionists, those quarante-huitards of American art, had conditioned themselves never to expect wealth. Until about 1950, the idea that more than a few dozen people could ever constitute an audience for their work was inconceivable to most of them: painters, in any case, did not get rich unless, like Salvador Dali, they betrayed their own talent. Their sense of their own worth as artists, their authenticity as men, was deeply entangled with this distrust of material success. Rothko’s, in particular, was predicated on it. Money seems to have retained for him its primitive symbolism as feces. It was a taboo substance and the idea of “handling” it alarmed him. Consequently, when the sluice gate opened in the late Fifties, as the market for modern American art entered its frenzied boom years and Rothko found himself potentially rich, he panicked.

Bernard Reis, the worldly old fox who understood the mysteries of money, therefore struck Rothko as a savior—the man who would relieve him of the odious task of even thinking about the stuff. So Reis did, to his own profit and Marlborough’s. But one may well suppose, without attempting any excuse for Reis’s delinquency as an executor, that he drifted into the habit of considering his friend Rothko as a dependent (the relationship Rothko invited), as a kind of legal minor in a world of financially adult minds, a person with the attenuated rights of a child, subject to parental control. Run along and play with your paints, sonny.

Because he could not resolve the contradiction he felt between the exalted aims of his painting and his material success, Rothko exaggerated his own sense of outsidership. This cannot have been easy to do because, from the mid-Fifties onward, practically no serious American critic had much doubt about the quality of Rothko’s talent. It was one of the few matters on which American critics generally agreed—so much so that Rothko, when he felt impelled to name his “persecutors,” could come up with no bogey more substantial than Emily Genauer, a newspaper critic whose work is virtually forgotten today and exerted little influence even then. He had no Ruskin bombinating against him. What generally greeted his work, especially from the art magazines, was a stream of transcendentalist rhetoric, of which this extract of Peter Selz’s catalogue essay for Rothko’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in the Sixties is a fair example:

…unlike the doors of the dead which were meant to shut out the living from the place of absolute might, even of patrician death, these paintings—open sarcophagi—moodily dare, and thus invite the spectator to enter their orifices. Indeed the whole series of these murals brings to mind an Orphic cycle; their subject might be death and resurrection in classical not Christian mythology; the artist descending to Hades to find the Eurydice of his vision. The door to the tomb opens for the artist in search of his muse.

And so on: reams of that, for years. Stuck in these “orifices,” burbling its muffled threnodies to the ineffable, the higher criticism may not have served Rothko very well: but it certainly was not his foe. Indeed, it faithfully echoed the statements Rothko made about his own art, in all their exalted ambition and frequent cloudiness. The effect was to set up a screen of Malraux-like incantation around his work. “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” “But will they come when you do call for them?” Shakespeare’s eminently practical question was not asked. The frame of language around Rothko saved his work from the kind of analysis which might have argued that Rothko, far from being Yahweh’s official stenographer (a role not entirely patented by Barnett Newman, despite his vigorous efforts), was a painter, a maker of visual fictions—better than most, but still prone to repetition and still able to fall victim to his own formulas and reflexive clichés. He got the same treatment as his old friend Clyfford Still. Everything Still produced, like everything Rothko produced, was widely assumed to contain the seeds of Infinity and the rudiments of Paradise: so that even Still’s worst paintings, as vulgar in their thumping Sturm und Drang as the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Disney’s Fantasia, tended to be assigned a spiritual value (reflected in price) which went far beyond the limits of ordinary modern art.

Rothko never went in for Still’s brand of romantic melodrama. He was an aesthete to the fingertips, the American prolongation of a line drawn from Mallarmé to late Monet. Kenneth Clark once remarked that Fuseli’s goal was to render the grandest scenes of Shakespeare in the language of Michelangelo: the ambition was also the problem. In the same way, Rothko’s dilemma was that he wanted to employ the vocabulary of Symbolism—the fluttering space, the excruciatingly refined, sensuous color, the obsession with nuance—to render the patriarchal despair and elevation of the Old Testament.

There was a deeply rabbinical streak in his character: he was a Russian Jew who wanted to be a great religious artist. “We assert,” ran one of his formal statements in the 1940s, “that the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” In effect, he wanted to recapitulate the sense of awe, dread, or numinous presence that had been associated with the human figure in art (and lost, he thought, in the Renaissance); but to do it in an abstract manner. “Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our drama; art’s most profound moments express this frustration…. For me the great achievements of the centuries in which the artist accepted the probable and familiar as his subjects were the pictures of the single human figure—alone in a moment of utter immobility.”

The “frustration” of which Rothko spoke was real, and it lies at the core of his art—lending it the exemplary air of cultural impossibility, a brave bet against loaded odds. His painting accumulated resonance by appealing to myth; but the myths were in decline, and could only be revived by painting. In this way Rothko’s art became more self-referential than a genuine religious art could ever be; but in its desire to raise the condition of modernist doubt to a mythic level, it could be (and still is) very moving indeed. In an age of iconography, he might have become a major religious artist (assuming that he had been able to overcome his limitations as a draftsman). He did not live in such an age.

Consequently, most of the vital relationships between myth, dogma, symbol, and personal inspiration that gave religious artists from Cimabue to Blake their essential subjects were denied to Rothko. Claud Cockburn, in one of his volumes of autobiography, recounts how as a reporter in the Thirties he had to interview a big American hotgospeller who had crossed the Atlantic to convert England. Cockburn pressed this mild and hearty soul for a description of God. What was his ideated form of the deity? The evangelist allowed that he never imagined God as an old man with a beard in the sky. “My conception of Him,” he told the reporter, “is something like a great, oblong, luminous blur.”

That was all Rothko had, by way of religious imagery. In anguish, the blur was dark; in repose and happiness, fluttering with the peachiest and most delicately tuned colors. In their similarity to landscape, the august blurs stacked up the canvas often connect Rothko’s work to an older American tradition, that of the Hudson River painters: horizon, mountain, and light seen as God’s handiwork, the Great Church of Nature.

His format, which he hit on in 1949 and repeated with minor variations for the next twenty years, gave him an excellent matrix in which to experiment with color. In effect, it abolished nearly everything but color. One does not read Rothko’s tiers and veils of paint primarily as form: they are vehicles for color sensation, exquisitely set forth in a technique which descends from Rothko’s watercolors of the 1940s—wash upon wash of thinned pigment soaked into the surface, filtering the light. There is a rhapsodic airiness to the best of Rothko’s paintings in the Fifties; perhaps no other American painter had ever devoted himself so wholeheartedly to the cultivation of feeling. On that score alone, Rothko was a major though uneven painter. But one may doubt if his achievement, impressive as it was and sustained against such crippling emotional debility, was quite enough to sustain the relentlessly sublime performance, the continuous production of awe, with which Rothko’s oeuvre is credited.

Diane Waldman is in no doubt about the matter. Her book provides a mass of useful source material on Rothko’s life and his stylistic relationships with other artists; but when it comes to interpretation, out come the violins, the woodwinds, the kettledrums, everything. Rothko’s Houston murals “create a total environment, a unified atmosphere of all-encompassing, awe-inspiring spirituality.” By the end of his life, the tragic hero of her text “had attained a harmony, an equilibrium, a wholeness, in the Jungian sense, that enabled him to express universal truths in his break-through works, fusing the conscious with the unconscious, the finite and the infinite, the equivocal and the unequivocal, the sensuous and the spiritual.” (No wonder that her essay, apparently in homage to Lesley Blanch’s The Wilder Shores of Love, is entitled “The Farther Shore of Art.”)

If one feels impatient with this fustian, it is not merely a dislike of vagueness. The language of Rothko-appreciation tends to be coercive, owing to a deep uncertainty about the nature of his art. Sublime, sublime, sublime, sublime: the reflexes go clickety-clack, all the way down the Guggenheim ramp. What role does cultural nationalism play in the persistent desire to treat Rothko as an American blend of Turner and Michelangelo? How far are the responses dictated by the uneasy feeling that if verbose obeisances to the Ineffable stopped, the work might suffer? To what extent did Rothko’s suicide confer a profundity on the paintings which, had he lived, they might not quite have had? But how can one dare think such things, in the presence of blue-chip masterpieces?

This Issue

December 21, 1978