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The legacy of Mark Rothko - a book review

Hardly any other artistic works of the 20th century are presently as much in demand as those of Mark Rothko. Just this May, his painting "No.15" from 1952, red colourfields on yellow background, achieved an incredible auction price in the amount of 50.4 million dollars at Christie's. No more than one year ago, Sotheby's star auctioneer Tobias Meyer managed to acquire "White Center" - a 1950 piece of around 2 x 1.4 meters - for 65 millions dollars. With the commission, its new owner had to shell out 73 million dollars for it. These sums make the art market analyst shudder.

The work of the most important representative of Abstract Expressionism, along with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, is very popular and in high demand - notably popular with innumerable art fans appreciating particularly the abstract works that were produced after 1946, and highly in demand from financially powerful art collectors who would like to possess a prestigious brand - such as the one Rothko now represents - as well as by speculators who know that, in the foreseeable future, Rothko's abstractions will not lose, but on the contrary, rise in value.

Until 24 August, everybody who is interested in the work of this artist can use the wonderful opportunity to enjoy over 70 paintings and about 40 works on paper in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, on the occasion of the first Rothko retrospective in Germany since more than 20 years. But for those who are more interested in the market development of this master painter, especially after his suicide in 1970. I would recommend a book that Berlin-based Parthas Edition has published this spring in german: "The Legacy of Mark Rothko" by the journalist Lee Seldes.

It is an excellent researched art investigator that has not lost anything of its contemporary relevance - a must-read for everyone who is interested in Rothko and an insight into the mechanisms of the international art trade with its ability to override an artist's will for the sake of profit maximisation. This book was first published in 1974 in the United States; a revised paperback version followed in 1996 and is still available.

In the first third of the book, Seldes traces the artist's path of life: he was born as Marcus Rothkovich in 1903, in the Russian province Vitebsk; with his mother and his siblings, he followed his father who was already living in the United States to the very same country in 1913. Using Rothko's artistic education and development, his marriage with Mary (Mell) Alice Beistle, an illustrator of children's books, and the late birth of his children Kate and Christopher as a framework, the author of the book sets value especially on a detailed treatment of the price development of his works, the slowly growing interest in them and the artist's will to be able to decide where and how his pictures should be shown ideally. For the subsequent events, it is not insignificant to know that Rothko preferred to renounce exhibitions, including those in important museums, and to buy his works back when they were not presented according to his ideas.
This consistent behaviour is even more remarkable in the context of his earnings that were still low in the mid 50s - in spite of the artist's growing importance. Only in the last decade of his life could he stop worrying about money. It was exactly during that decade that powerful dealers began courting his favour. In 1962, Rothko left the gallery of Sidney Janis as it was precisely focussing increasingly on Pop Art, which Rothko despised. Through the intermediation of his friend and financial advisor Bernard Reis, he started an intensive collaboration with Frank Lloyd and his gallery Marlborough. Lloyd was a smart dealer, with galleries and companies in Liechtenstein, Switzerland, London, Toronto, Rome, and New York. And it was Lloyd who rode roughshod over Rothko's will, and who debased him to a bare commodity.

The actual story of this book begins on February 25, 1970 - the day when the extremely depressed Mark Rothko took his own life with a razor blade. It was Rothko's last will that his pictures should remain in possession of his Foundation which was supposed to conserve them for educational purposes. Eventually, he wanted his works to be given away to important museums as thematically linked convolutes. His wife Mell would then receive the residential house with its inventory - to which some paintings belonged as well - along with a lump sum.
But this wish was never fulfilled. Bernard Reis and Rothko's artist friend Theodoros Stamos were, among others, the administrators of the estate and directors of the Foundation; they executed their roles jointly. At the same time, they were both in contact with Frank Lloyd. Because of his good contacts with New York's art scene and the high society, Reis was on the gallery's payroll. Stamos had ambitions to be represented by Marlborough (which turned out to be the case eventually). Thus it is not surprising that this obvious conflict of interests led to a situation where, within only three months, the Marlborough Gallery got hold of Rothko's complete legacy.
The scandal was not only that Rothko's will was completely ignored, but also that, meanwhile, his friends were so corrupted that they were acting exclusively in Frank Lloyd's favour, taking part in sham business and cover-ups, thus doing enormous financial harm to the Foundation and betraying its original objective. The plaint of Rothko's still young daughter against the Foundation finally put an end to this ado. But it took several years before the Foundation could retrieve most of the paintings or, in some cases, a reasonably market-appropriate compensation, and also before a judgement was pronounced against the corrupted administrators, the hitherto incumbent directors of the Foundation and Frank Lloyd.

Lee Seldes deserves much recognition, as the only journalist who has followed this long trial, studied all available documents and made numerous interviews in order to understand this spectacular art market scandal that is also referred to as the "Watergate of the art market", in all its dimension and importance, and in order to finally write a book about it. But for the enthusiasts of Rothko's paintings, it should be mentioned that this extremely exciting book is, spanning across long passages, primarily a pleasure for jurists and people who are interested in the art market. If someone wants to learn more about the paintings, he or she should read a monograph about the artist or look at the works in one of the museums that preserves Mark Rothko's legacy. The Foundation has given all the paintings in its possession as donations to important museums in America and abroad. The National Gallery in Washington DC alone received 285 paintings, and more than 600 works went to 25 museums in the United States, four in Europe and two in Israel. In the end, Mark Rothko's last wish was fulfilled.

Jens Pepper
Translation by Artfacts.Net

Lee Seldes
"The Legacy Of Mark Rothko"
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press; Updated edition (August 21, 1996)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0306807254
ISBN-13: 978-0306807251
Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5 x 1.1 inches

$19.00 / 14.99


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