Arts / Museums

Growing Up Rothko: A Famous Artist’s Son Speaks Up, Sheds Light On The Man

BY // 09.03.15

This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is the sole American venue for the retrospective of Mark Rothko (1903-1970); he and Jackson Pollock are considered the most important abstract painters of the modern era. A half-century ago, patrons Dominique and John de Menil recognized Rothko’s greatness and commissioned a series of paintings for the Rothko Chapel, which opened in 1971, inaugurating what would become the campus of The Menil Collection. Catherine D. Anspon talks with the artist’s son, Christopher Rothko, about his role as keeper of the flame.

Most indelible and cherished memory of your father.
Without question, his voice. It was round and warm and usually singing Mozart.

Best art experience with your father growing up.
My father and I discussed music constantly,but never discussed art. When I would visit him in his studio [the huge carriage house he rented to produce the murals for the Chapel in Houston], however, he would unfurl a seemingly endless roll of brown craft paper on the wall and let me paint as much as I wished.

Most influential thing you learned through your father’s written notes and works of art.
The power of abstraction. It was the universal language that he used to shape and communicate his own personal vision of the world, his philosophies — what he felt were the true essentials of human existence.

Why your father’s work resonates so powerfully today.
Because of the sincerity with which he speaks through his paintings, and the deep human connection he actively seeks with each viewer through each work.

Painting by your father that moves you the most.
A 1963 work at the Kunsthaus Zürich. It is four black rectangles on a black background, and yet each sings out with a unique voice. And just above the uppermost black rectangle is a band of creamy, almost fleshy white. It softens anything that may have seemed forbidding about the painting, and in fact, fills it with light.

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The artist and his son, Christopher, circa 1968
Mark Rothko and his son, Christopher, circa 1968

What makes the Rothko Chapel commissions unique in terms of your father’s oeuvre?
The Chapel finally gave my father the space to create a holistic experience from his art, and as an installation, it gives his work the time to speak deeply with the viewer.

Do you live with work by your father?

Do you collect contemporary art?
Yes, but in a relaxed, personal way. I love art, and from time to time I buy things that move me, but I have no involvement with the market and the names or any isms.

Did you attend the opening of the Chapel?
No, I was only 7. But my sister, Kate, was here.

When did you become involved with the Rothko Chapel and step onto its board of trustees?
In 2004. I had always loved the Chapel, but my increasing focus on my father’s work in the 1990s made me realize its importance. It was in discussions with the director Suna Umari at the time of my father’s centenary celebrations in 2003 that I really felt a strong pull to get involved and put myself forward for election to the board.

Trajectory of your professional life.
I worked as a classical music critic for a number of years (still my first love). I am a clinical psychologist by training and practiced for several years. Throughout, I have tended my father’s legacy, which has been my exclusive work for the last 15 years — organizing exhibitions, writing and lecturing about his work, archiving and editing and publishing his written work, supporting scholars and curators in their researches and occasionally curating myself.

Hometown? Personal stats?
Manhattan. Married 21 years. Three kids.

Your involvement in the upcoming Rothko retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
I have been in close contact with curator Alison Greene for several months. I have worked with her around a few questions of painting selection and helped her find essays for the catalog (as well as contributing one of my own). I will be giving a talk with [MFAH director] Gary Tinterow on November 16. I made similar contributions at the exhibition’s first stop in The Hague and, to a lesser degree, in Seoul.

On your upcoming volume: Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out.
I came up with ideas for nearly all of the essays in the volume in a single moment about 12 years ago. A couple trickled out as catalog essays or lectures, but most were written in the last two years. It’s intended as a pretty comprehensive discussion of my father’s work, what makes it tick and what can get in the way. It draws on my 25 years of hands-on experience with the paintings and my unique perspective — to some degree as his son, but primarily as someone who looks carefully at only one artist’s work. I understand the connective tissue between the different periods, the patterns and the exceptions — this is my inside-out point of view.

Take us back to the beginning of the Rothko Chapel. What’s the anecdote about John de Menil coming up with the idea while stuck in Houston traffic?
It’s come down to me as [John de Menil’s] moment of epiphany [which arose when he was stalled during rush hour]. [He believed] that what Houston needed was a place for respite, for contemplation. A sacred space that would help people move away from the mundane — such as traffic — to deeper things.

On the architecture of the Chapel: Is it true that your father took over as architect after Philip Johnson left the project?
That evolution happened over a number of years, but it is in essence true. Johnson was very responsive, even when reluctant, to my father’s vision for the Chapel — the octagon, the simplicity, the apse for the north triptych. They could not agree, however, about the ceiling height, skylighting and (lack) of tower, and Johnson left the project when the de Menil’s supported my father. The firm of Barnstone and Aubrey helped realize my father’s plan, allowing further simplifications so that we have today an unimpeded ground level experience of my father’s murals.

Was the Rothko Chapel originally planned to serve the Catholic faith?

When did this change to become nondenominational?
In the late 1960s before the actual construction.

Photography by Max Burkhalter.
Christopher Rothko contemplates his father’s work. (Photography by Max Burkhalter)

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Do your father’s paintings allude subtly to the Stations of the Cross?
There is no explicit discussion of this, but he knew he was [originally] creating a Catholic Chapel, and the 14 panels seem an unlikely coincidence.

What is the story about a carriage house and the Chapel skylights?
My father rented a large carriage house on East 69th in NYC to make a mock-up of the Chapel. He painted all the Chapel works there and was able to spend a considerable amount of time on their exact proportions and arrangement, since he was creating a space. The central room of the studio was skylit, and he came to love the low, diffused light it gave to the room. It sparked his wish to have a skylight in the Chapel as well. So the studio was chosen to model the Chapel, which in turn was modeled on the studio.

Current lighting changes planned for the Rothko Chapel: Will the baffles be removed?
We want to get as close as we can to my father’s ideal for the Chapel. It is an experiential place, and the light is a key element in how it is experienced. We will be working to improve the lighting and to create the more open feeling that comes from a skylit space, while also maintaining the diffuse light and the seasonal or daily changes that are a part of a naturally lit environment.

Plans for the Chapel’s approaching 50th anniversary in 2021 and beyond.
We will be celebrating an important milestone, but more importantly, we will be celebrating the Chapel’s continued relevance and modernity. And the Chapel thrives because it is a living institution that reaches people not only through the artwork, but also through a rich series of programs and outreach. The questions of human rights and interfaith dialogue that we raise are every bit as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.

On how to read the Chapel canvases.
The paintings provide only a suggestion, an invitation to look at bigger things. The actual direction — toward the inner, toward the beyond — must be taken by the viewer and will necessarily be personal and will change on every occasion. But the Chapel, as a work, remains insistent on the essentialness of that task, and more than perhaps any other place I have encountered, effectively gets out of the way of each person’s journey. It is present enough to focus you but quiet enough not to distract.

How does Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk sculpture, dedicated to Martin Luther King and in the Chapel courtyard, figure into the plan?
Dominique de Menil spoke of the essential relationship between contemplation and action. The Broken Obelisk, although it invites contemplation as well, stands strong and resolute and seems to spark our motivation. There is something about sculpture that makes all those ideas concrete.

Were your father and Newman friends?
Very close for much of their careers, although they fell out in the latter part.

How many Rothko Chapel paintings were originally commissioned? Is it true that a few did not fit and are now in The Menil Collection?
There are a number of “alternate” panels housed at The Menil Collection. These were part of a different, almost certainly earlier, conception of the Chapel. They were not intended to fit with the current installation — they were a different idea.

[This article was originally published in the September 2015 Houston edition of PaperCity Magazine.]

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