American Masters


Rothko: Pictures Must Be Miraculous

Explore the life of the celebrated artist whose luminous color field paintings helped define the abstract expressionist movement, which shifted the art world epicenter from Paris to New York. Featuring original scenes with Alfred Molina.

AIRED: October 25, 2019 | 0:53:11


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Auctioneer: Lot 20 is next.

The Mark Rothko "Orange, Red, Yellow,"

and $24 million starts.

$24 million, $25 million,

$26 million, $27 million, $28 million,

$29 million, $30 million,

$31 million, $32 million, $33 million, $45 million,

$53 million, $56 million...

White: Typically for a high-profile lot that we sell,

you're looking at two to three minutes

would be sort of an average time frame,

and for the Rothko,

the bidding war lasted for seven minutes,

with over 50 bids made.

Auctioneer: $74 million.

What's that, $75 million?

$75 million, $77-million-5,

and selling to Brett Spitter.

Fair warning, all done at $77,500,000.

Brett Spitter at $77-million-5.

[ Applause ]

White: Not only was this sale the world record for the artist,

at the time, it was the most expensive postwar

and contemporary artwork ever sold

in the world.

Kate: I think he would have been appalled.

The auction prices now really reflect a culture

in which paintings are considered an investment

rather than something you really care about

and want to live with.

He often said,

"A painting lives in the eyes of a sensitive viewer,"

and I think that particular audience

was what he cared about.






Mancusi-Ungaro: I think Rothko is one of our great American artists.


Fujimura: A Rothko is deceptively simple

and yet profound.


Mancusi-Ungaro: There's nothing simple about Rothko's work.

It's actually very complex.

If you think it is simple, you should try to do it yourself.


Christopher: I think my father really communicated

the seriousness of painting.

The painting wasn't something just to look at.

It wasn't something that you appreciated

because it appealed simply to the senses.

Kate: I think he wanted the viewer

to look inside themselves

and see what the painting brought out in them.


Fujimura: I've known few people

who have sat in front of Rothko for an hour,

and it has literally changed their life.

Mark Rothko's work opens you up in ways

that you're not expecting.


Bickelhaupt: I used to think that Rothko paintings

were just these easy squares...

...and the longer I look at the Rothko paintings,

the more I see these worlds, these kind of locations

that he wants us to go to,

and I like that.

Then it's open, you know?

What is my experience going to be

is gonna be different than what your experience is gonna be,

and both of them are right.


Fujimura: It's very unusual that he created something cohesively.

A century later, it can expand into a language

that we didn't know that we needed.

This chaotic time that we live in,

the angst, the anxiety,

all of that is given a framework by Mark Rothko.

Today is a great time,

great context to revisit a Mark Rothko

and -- and sit in front of it for hours and hours.



[ Floor creaking ]

Molina: Well, I've -- I've played Mark Rothko on stage

a few hundred times now over the years,

and I don't think I'll ever play as deep

and as complicated a role again.

I think this is --

This is my King Lear.

Mark: L-Look at the tension between the blocks of color.

Molina: The first thing I connected with Mark Rothko

was the fact that he was an immigrant.

My parents were immigrants to the U.K.

I think that particular mind-set

of being taken away from your home

and going to a new country and all the issues and problems

that you have to confront with that.


Christopher: My father was born in Dvinsk,

which was then a part of the Russian Empire.

Margles: Dvinsk was part of the Pale of Settlement,

which was this wide swath of land

where Jews were allowed to live,

and anti-Semitism was rampant.

There was an incredible military presence in Dvinsk.

His brother Moise writes about the Cossacks

running through town on horseback

and whipping the townspeople,

and Mark actually suggests that he has a scar on his nose

that was caused by such a whip.

Christopher: My father's father and his two older brothers

were conscripted into the Tsar's army,

and they decided that they would rather flee than fight.

It would have been very unlikely that they would have seen

more than a couple of winters in the army,

so they decided to emigrate to the U.S.

[ Horn blows ]

Kate: My father left Dvinsk in 1913.

Christopher: And they came by steamer to the U.S.

and landed at Ellis Island.

Margles: Between 1880 and 1924, 2.5 million Jews

came to the United States from Imperial Russia.

Kate: They fairly immediately

got on a train to Portland, Oregon.

[ Train whistle blows ]

There was a relative, the Weinsteins,

who had already settled there,

and therefore it seemed like a likely place

for my grandfather to decide to try to settle.

Molina: "My mother fixed me up

with one of those Buster Brown suits.

You don't know what it's like to be a Jewish kid

dressed in a suit made in Dvinsk,

not an American idea of a suit.

Traveling across America,

not able to speak a word of English,

I could never forgive transplantation to a land

where I never felt at home."

Guenther: Rothko arrives in this country

as Markus Rothkowitz.

[ Bell dings ]

It's an event that shapes his being his entire life.

Kate: And within less than a year

of my father's arrival,

my grandfather died, quite young, of cancer.

Rabin: And Mark had to raise money for the family

by selling newspapers.

This was something that a lot of the immigrant kids did

and would come home beaten up

because the other guys didn't want another corner taken up.


He also got a job in his uncle's store,

the New York Outfitting Company in downtown Portland.

Things sometimes got quiet,

and Mark would doodle or draw

on New York Outfitting wrapping paper.

His uncle happened to come by one day and say,

"Mark, what are you doing?"

and Mark would show him.

He says, "Uh-uh, you're not gonna be able to earn

a living that way."

Guenther: In high school, Markus Rothkowitz

is a bit of a troublemaker,

moody, intellectual, politically interested.

He's very aware of workers' rights,

fair salaries, decent housing,

and he becomes known as a mouthy young man.

Mark Rothko graduated in three years from Lincoln High School,

and there was an article in "The Oregonian"

that noted that three young men had gotten full scholarships

to go to Yale University

from the graduating class of Lincoln High School.

The scholarships are withdrawn the second year

because Yale wasn't ready to have verbal, accomplished,

politically inclined Jewish students

in the middle of the bastion of WASP culture.

The second year, he supports himself

by working in a laundry downtown,

and he works in a dining hall with all the swells.

He gets through his second year and decides that he can't go on,

and instead of coming home, he goes to New York.



Cooper: In the art scene in New York in the '20s,

it's unimaginably small.


I think everybody knew everybody,

and to study modern art in any sense,

you really went to the Art Students League.


It's a place where there were open studios

and modeling sessions,

and artists dropped in and connected,

got to know everybody on the scene.


Molina: "I went to New York to wander around,

bum about, starve a bit.

Then one day, I wandered into an art class.

All the students were sketching this nude model.

I thought it was marvelous.

I was intoxicated by it,

and right away I decided that was the life for me."

Kate: I think my father's approach

was really a philosophical one

when I look back at how he made his decision

to become a visual artist.

I think he was really searching around

to look for what medium he could use to express the ideas

and the emotions he wanted to convey to the public.

Christopher: My father became very friendly

with Milton Avery, starting in the 1920s,

which was essential for him both to have a mentor,

as an artist, someone he could really look up to and learn from

and spend time in their studio

because he'd had no experience with that.

The Averys actually fed him a great deal

when he really had barely 2 cents

to scrape together in those early years

and particularly during the Depression.


I think that if you look at my father's figurative work

from that period, you can see a lot of indebtedness to Avery,

who was painting figurative paintings,

but highly abstracted, highly stylized,

not looking to depict visual reality as we see it,

but to capture a feeling and emotion of time and place.

There are hundreds of early figurative works by my father,

both on canvas and on paper.



Cooper: His first paintings,

that we know of are from those early years,

were not terribly promising.

He doesn't seem to have a lot of facility

right out of the gate.

He sticks with it for some reason,

and it's a long career with wonderful twists and turns

until he -- he becomes Rothko,

until he finds himself, you could say.


Rabin: In the summer of 1933,

Mark and his new wife, Edith,

hitchhiked across the country to visit with family in Portland.

And where did they stay?

Not with his mother, no.

With his sister? No.

They camped in the West Hills,

somewhere in the West Hills,

overlooking the Willamette to the east side.

While they were up there, Mark painted the landscape.

We saw an east side that had trees,

and he gave these very sweet watercolor paintings

to members of the family.

Reiter: My family thought he was a little crazy [chuckles]

sleeping out on the hillside and hitchhiking across the country.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

Rabin: Whenever they came, I would have a brunch.

We had a deck outside of the house,

and I'd gather all the family that I could,

and it was just a nice warm gathering.


Christopher: I think my father's family

never quite understood this whole idea of being an artist

or certainly what his artwork was about,

and yet he remained very close to them.

They were central to his life.


Reiter: That's my father, Moise.

This is Albert, and this is Mark.

I felt very close to him,

even though I didn't see him very often

because he lived in New York,

but I used to write letters to him.

My mother used to complain that he never sent home any money.

[ Laughs ]

But he was a poor starving artist.

Christopher: My father's brothers

were far more practical than he was,

and they went on to pursue careers

as pharmacists, which was the family --

the family business for a few generations,

and they were sometimes resentful

that the youngest child went off in pursuing this crazy career

as an artist when he had a mother to support.

Reiter: Part of the family used to make fun of his paintings.

Rabin: His eldest sister

honestly said to him at that time,

"I don't understand a thing about your art.

Mark, paint me a picture that I can understand."

So, as a dutiful brother, he did paint her a picture

that she could understand, a small picture.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

Christopher: It's always been remarkable to me

that for the first 25 or 30 years of his career,

my father created so much artwork,

but it was all done nights and weekends

because he had a day job as a teacher,

and he was selling essentially zero paintings.

I think he must have questioned many times

whether making art was going to be the answer

to what he was gonna do with his life.

Kate: We believe he struggled with depression,

from everything we can piece together,

in the very early 1940s.

We know he had a period, really at least a year,

when he did not really paint.

We also know at that time

that his first marriage was not going well.

She viewed herself as a jewelry maker, as an artist.

I don't think my father really considered her an artist,

and I think that was actually a source

of a fair amount of tension between the two of them.

She wanted him to help her with her arts,

and she felt she was the one who was supporting the family,

and he was set in pursuing exactly what he was doing.

So I think it was a tumultuous relationship,

but his level of depression seems to have gone beyond

just being a reaction to what was going on around him.

[ Indistinct conversations ]



Well, in the late '30s,

my father was working on a series of paintings

related to the New York subway.

It's a very strange and lonely scene in many ways,

and, you know, that may reflect how he felt.

In one way, New York was treating him well,

but in another way, it was a place

where he was really struggling at the time.


Cooper: They are very moving and disturbing images...

...figures almost hiding between and behind the columns,

very elongated, emaciated.

There's a sense of maybe being in a catacomb.

Christopher: And you can see almost the geometric configurations

that he's looking at and playing with, that he will be doing

in a purely abstract way 15 years later or so.



Krueger: What we do here at the National Gallery,

we're caring for handmade objects

that have ended up here in Washington, D.C.

This incredibly rare treasured collection

is ours to learn about, to study, and to take care of.


The challenge of working with masterpieces

is that they're irreplaceable.

There's a lot of responsibility on the conservator

making right decisions, using the right materials.

The picture I'm working on today

is a late picture of a Rothko, late 1969.

Picture sustained a few impact cracks from the reverse,

so the canvas was flexed

and the slightly more brittle paint on the surface cracked.

The cracks have slightly raised, and you can begin to see

the white ground below this dark black paint.

What I am doing is just flowing

the right black color into these cracks

so that you don't see them anymore.

The cracks just -- I mean, they haven't physically closed,

but you no longer see the white of a crack.

Reversibility is a key tenant of modern conservation,

with the idea being that everything we do

can be safely undone.

So if you apply retouching for a loss,

you want that material to be very soluble 50 years from now

if somebody ever needs to remove it.

A lot of what we do is, if you can get a picture

to present well in the gallery

so that your eye keeps moving across the surface

and doesn't stop, you've accomplished a lot.

You've probably accomplished all you need to do.


Pretty much by the mid-'40s, Rothko evolved a way of painting

with very, very thin paint layers.

He stretches cotton duck canvas,

and he seals it with rabbit-skin glue,

but he pigments the glue first,

and then on top of that colored layer,

then he'll work with very, very thin layers of oil paint,

very thin layers of handmade paints,

where he's mixing pigment in damar resin

or he's mixing pigment in eggs.

If you look at any Rothko very carefully,

you'll start to see variations in matte and gloss,

variations in opacity,

and these all had to do with how he changes media.

Mancusi-Ungaro: I think the layering

creates an aura about them.

I think they enticed us visually to enter them.

The oil surface can almost push you away, the viewer,

whereas these layers that incorporate different materials

invite you in

because some are shiny and some are not

and some are moving and some are not, and it's a --

it's a much more engaging surface

than something that's just flat.

Krueger: For me, the best thing about working on Rothko

is having developed this connection

over many, many years, things I've worked on,

things I've instructed fellows and interns on.

He's a very special painter to me.


Guenther: Rothko changed his name in 1940

because of an offhand comment by his dealer,

who observed that she had too many Jewish artists,

and she couldn't offer him a show,

and he realized that he could solve this problem

by shortening his name to Mark Rothko,

American citizen.

Kate: My father and an Adolph Gottlieb

began to work on a series of paintings

which were highly influenced by Greek myth.


Guenther: Whereas traditional American painting

wanted to create the sense of depth,

the space of the real world on the canvas,

Rothko and Gottlieb abandoned that,

and they, in very modern, contemporary voice,

create a flat picture.



In 1943, there's a major exhibition

in which Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko participate.

It is the first foray by the modern painters of New York.

It is a gauntlet thrown down

against the establishment of American art.

It's reviewed in "The New York Times" by Edward Jewell,

a conservative art critic, who pans the exhibition,

who finds in these fledgling modernists

the immigrant voice, the non-American voice,

and he's very critical.

Cooper: Rothko and Gottlieb write a letter

to "The New York Times,"

which has now gone down in history

because it's really a manifesto and it's not just a complaint.

Molina: "We salute this honest, we might say cordial,

reaction to towards our obscure paintings,

and we appreciate the gracious opportunity

that is being offered us to present our views.

We do not intend to defend our pictures.

They make their own defense."

Cooper: "Times" publishes the whole thing,

and midway through, they articulate these five points.

Number one, "To us art is an adventure into an unknown world,

which can be explored

only by those willing to take the risks."

Christopher: Number two, "The world of the imagination

is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense."

Mancusi-Ungaro: Three, "It is our function as artists

to make the spectator see the world our way, not his way."


Cooper: Number four, "We are for flat forms

because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."

Christopher: Number five.

Mancusi-Ungaro: "There is no such thing..."

Cooper: " good painting about nothing."

Christopher: "We assert that the subject is crucial..."

Cooper: "...which is tragic and timeless."

Mancusi-Ungaro: "Sincerely yours, Adolph Gottlieb..."

Molina: "...and Markus Rothko."

Cooper: It's wonderful. [ Laughs ]

I think it tells a lot about that particular time

that it was written.

It introduces language which will become the common language

of art studios in New York.

Mancusi-Ungaro: They were breaking away from a tradition,

and in so doing, you almost have to destroy the tradition

you're breaking away from.


It makes perfect sense to me

that they would feel the way they did

because they were striking out,

doing something new and different.

They knew it, too.

Guenther: In the mid- to late 1940s in New York,

there was a new artistic movement emerging

that was uniquely American,

and it came to be known as abstract expressionism.

A group of artists that included Jackson Pollock,

Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Clyfford Still,

along with Rothko and Gottlieb,

and they were experimenting with the voice

and the look of art.

Cooper: Before this time, American painters,

they traveled to Europe,

then they went home, and nobody really heard of them again.

Right after World War II, all of that changes.

Mancusi-Ungaro: I think the abstract expressionists

were interested in big ideas, big concepts

based in human energy and human response.

They launched into the abstraction.

You're standing in front of a color

or standing in front of an abstract form

and standing in front of large paintings,

I mean, very large paintings.

I mean, it was just such a huge achievement

or a challenge, excitement to paint something that large.

Guenther: And this is the great moment for Rothko

in which the physical act of painting

becomes the picture the viewer experiences,

floating color, wiping it, re-layering it

to discover the elegance of reflected light and color.


Cooper: These painters are the talk of the world,

and, in some sense,

the center of the art world

shifts from Europe,

from Paris in particular,

to the U.S. and to New York.

It's a huge moment that we're -- we're still dealing with.


Christopher: In the mid-1940s,

my father moves into his first purely abstracted style,

which has come to be known as the Multiforms.


Kate: I believe my father in some way began to feel

that the human figure interfered with his ability

to directly connect with his viewer.


Molina: "It was with the utmost reluctance

that I found the figure could not serve my purposes,

but a time came when none of us could use the figure

without mutilating it."

Mancusi-Ungaro: There were a lot of ideas

that he was playing out with the Multiforms,

and I feel a certain exuberance, in a refined way.

I mean, I don't think he was an exuberant person,

but I-I feel a sense of excitement in them,

that he -- he was getting into something

that was beginning to work.



Fujimura: There's a technical term called Nihonga,

which is Japanese-style painting.

Feel the paintings done on paper, stretched over canvas,

starts with 80 to 100 layers of very thin mineral pigments,

just to get it started,

and, yes, I am directly quoting Rothko when I'm layering.

I think he would have loved the material of Nihonga.

[ Water splashing ]

It is slow art and slow work, but I think part of the layering

is to capture that sense of time in the layers.


Mark Rothko -- he not only painted in layers,

but he thought in layers.

It's very clear from his writings.

He was able to integrate

and even construct a way the color fields work,

and these layers work in very subtle ways

that allow for a new world to open up.

Just magical to me.

That doesn't make sense, but that's what you experience.

Mark Rothko painted the abyss,

and he's inviting us to stand on that abyss.

Now, you can say that is a despair-filled experience,

but I think it's also an invitation to hope.

I don't mean this sentimental feeling of hope,

but I mean that it makes me want to go into my studio and paint,

and that is my act of hope.



Christopher: My father met my mother

shortly after his first marriage ended.


Kate: Well, this photo, it's actually one of the few pictures

I have as a baby with my father,

and there he certainly looks like a pretty doting father.

Maybe even at the age of 47, 48,

he enjoyed having one of his own

instead of just teaching children.

I would consider my father a very concerned father,

certainly a very loving and involved father.

In some ways, he is my vision of the classical father,

who was gone 9:00 to 6:00

and, you know, came home for dinner

and spent a little time with me in the evening.

Some of my fondest memories

are actually Sunday mornings with him.


Christopher: My primary memories of them

are sitting in bed, reading the paper,

always smoking, always smoking,

and their sheets had multiple,

multiple cigarette burns and holes in them.

It's just -- It's, like, that's literally burned into my memory.

[ Chuckles ]



Krueger: In 1949, Rothko develops the style

that will make him one of the most recognized artists

of the 20th century.


Christopher: He finds a format where he can make full

and direct expression of the ideas

he's wanted to express for so long.

Guenther: For me, the excitement in '49 to '50

are the way he celebrates the edge.


Color blocks come together,

and they begin to sit in relationship to each other.

It is that gap between in which the magic begins to develop.

Fujimura: There's a turning point in your life

that you can just mark and say, "This is when I found my voice,"

voice that is a destination of everything

that you've done in the past,

and that is a fertile place for an artist.


He was always in self-doubt mode,

always struggled with his own internal voice.

So when Rothko found his style,

he settled in that place of belonging.

Guenther: It represented the penultimate expression

of that thing that Rothko had looked for his entire life.

He found a place to live and celebrate

and a vehicle for his anguish.



Christopher: My father and Pollock and de Kooning

and Motherwell quickly become household names

through articles in places like Li fe Magazine.

Suddenly, these were the wunderkinds at age 50

of the art world.

Guenther: By the '50s, when Rothko hits his stride,

he starts to sell.

Betty Parsons Gallery represents him,

and she does a series of five shows,

each of them more and more successful.

Mark: I was walking up to my house last week,

and a couple was passing.

The lady looks inside my window and says,

"Ooh, I wonder who owns all those Rothkos."

[ Laughter ]

Just like that, I've become a noun -- a Rothko.

Ken: A commodity.

Mark: An overmantel. Ken: A what?

Mark: The overmantels, you know,

those paintings doomed to become mere decoration

over the fireplace in the fancy-schmancy penthouse.

Oh, they say to you,

"I need something to work with the sofa."

You understand?

"Something bright and cheery

for the breakfast nook, which is orange.

You got something in orange or burnt umber or seafoam green?

Here's a paint chip from the Sherwin-Williams.

Oh, and can you chop it down to fit the sideboard?"

[ Horns honking ]

[ Siren wailing in distance ]

Logan: In 1958, the Seagram's Corporation

finished constructing an amazing modernist building

on Park Avenue,

and within this modernist masterpiece,

there's going to be a beating heart

and it's gonna be a restaurant called The Four Seasons.

And architect Philip Johnson went to Mark Rothko and said,

"Why don't you create a series of murals

that could go in our dining room?"

The commission was $35,000,

and in 1958, that was a huge amount of money,

reputed to be the most an artist had ever been paid in America

for a series of works.

Mark: My first murals.

Imagine a frieze all around the room,

a continuous narrative filling the walls one to another,

each a new chapter, the story unfolding.

You look, and they are there, inescapable and inexorable.

Logan: I mean, of all the patrons

who could have approached Mark Rothko,

Philip Johnson was unique

because he was a provocative voice in American design

and American art, and Rothko admired him greatly.

So for him, it was the perfect combination of voices

creating modern art.



Mancusi-Ungaro: The Seagram paintings,

they're an artist experimenting with much less color.


This is an enormous challenge for an artist to take on,

an artist that's known primarily for color.

He's doing something very different,

and I think they must have been very hard for him.

Christopher: There is some question

about what he was told, what he understood

about what the nature of that restaurant was going to be.

Kate: His story was that he would be painting

for an employees' dining room

and, as an old Socialist, that made him feel,

you know, reasonably comfortable,

but I think he may have known more than that.

In the fall of 1959,

they were invited to dinner at the restaurant,

which since then had been completed,

but I remember their coming home.

My father was so upset by his visit to the restaurant

that he came in yelling, you know,

that he was absolutely going to withdraw from this,

and I'm sure my mother was trying to calm him down.

Mark: Philip?

This is Rothko.

Listen, I went to the restaurant last night,

and let me tell you, anyone who eats that kind of food

for that kind of money in that kind of joint

will never look at a painting of mine.

Now, I-I-I'm sending the money back,

and I'm keeping the pictures.

Ye-- No offense.

Yeah, well, this is the way it goes.

Good luck to you, buddy.

Logan: I think there must have been a liberation in that call,

in realizing it was the truest version of himself.


Christopher: My father was nothing if not principled,

and ultimately he cared more

about the well-being of his artwork

and the expressive message that he was trying to bring

than the prestige of having the Seagram commission

and even the $35,000, which he sorely needed.

Guenther: And so those murals,

which he had labored on for months

and started again and rebuilt

just went into storage.

They effectively were hidden.

I think the Seagram mural process

helped define Rothko as an individual.

It comes back to his questioning

his politics, and his reality as an artist,

the artist as underdog, as thorn in the side of society,

as observer.



Christopher: In 1964, my father was commissioned

by the de Menil family of Houston

to create what was then going to be a Catholic chapel

on the University of St. Thomas campus in Houston.

I think my father felt that John and Dominique

really understood his seriousness as an artist

and the -- the deeper meaning

or the deeper content behind his paintings.


Molina: "The magnitude on every level of experience

and meaning of the task in which you have involved me

exceeds all my preconceptions,

and it is teaching me to extend myself

beyond what I thought was possible for me.

For this, I thank you."


Mancusi-Ungaro: It must have been a huge compliment to him.

Not only, in this case, was he given a space

as he was at the Seagram's,

here he had an opportunity for the space

and the paintings to work together,

to take the works of art to another dimension.

Kate: In order to create this space,

he found a carriage house on 69th Street in New York.

It allowed him to re-create three walls of the chapel.

[ Hammering ]

I frequently saw him sitting and agonizing about the paintings,

and I mean down to the inch, down to every layering of paint,

the exact heights of the different panels.

Christopher: I visited my father in the studio

many times as a child,

and although I never saw him paint,

because he really did not like people to watch him paint --

it was really a solitary journey for him --

he set up long rolls of paper for me to paint on

and was very encouraging,

and I was just thrilled to be in that space

and spending time with him.

I remember his warmth and his enthusiasm

about me being there with him.


Mancusi-Ungaro: The Rothko Chapel

is very much dark paintings.

An urban legend is that he painted these paintings

'cause he was so depressed.

They were a sign, an omen of his upcoming death.


I don't think it was that at all.

I look at it that it was a natural progression

of where he was going.

He had done so much with color.

He was a master of color and its ability to affect the viewer.

His next step was to take the challenge to eliminate it.

Could he still make paintings?

Could he still make works of art that had that effect?


Fujimura: To enter into Rothko Chapel

is to enter into a person's soul.

It's kind of a Zen experience.


To be surrounded by these works...

and feel your way into a painting

rather than seeing them,

you can directly go to the emotions, the feeling,

and that's a contribution

that I think very few artists have ever reached.


Christopher: The Rothko Chapel remains,

I think, a very difficult space for me.

It's one that I don't walk into

without thinking that I'm going to spend some time there.

The chapel doesn't just invite.

It really demands the viewer to spend time

and think about the big questions.

Mancusi-Ungaro: I like being in the chapel

because I like the sense of being with self,

and it's really a remarkable sensation

to go in the chapel that's quiet and cool

and to sit and to just look at these paintings

and to see the daylight moving through it.

They're not individual paintings.

The work of art is the entire experience.

It's the space. It's the light.

It's the paintings.


It's a wonderful experience.

I encourage everyone to do it.


Guenther: Rothko finishes the chapel murals in 1967,

and they go into storage.

The chapel won't open until 1971.

It was a moment at which he had completed

the most important work of his life, in his mind,

and then in April 1968,

he suffers a dissecting aortic aneurysm.

It is one of the most serious things that can happen to you,

short of a heart attack or stroke.

And for the next year and a half, he struggles.

His doctor doesn't want him to work on canvas.

Physically, he can't lift his arms over 40 degrees.

Christopher: It's actually a small miracle

that he -- he survived this because it was a significant --

It was a large rupture.

Kate: Only mode of treatment

was to lower the blood pressure fairly extremely,

and I think, you know, that not only exhausted him,

but, you know, may have contributed in itself

to his depression, as well.


After that time, he really was limited

in what he could do with his paintings.

However, it's interesting because that was perhaps his --

one of his most prolific six to eight months

of his entire career.

Christopher: He starts what have become known

as the Black on Gray canvases,

as well as a series of ambitious large-scale works on paper.

Kate: And then, surprisingly,

a group of large papers in pastels,

which is perhaps the most amazing,

a real departure also from what he had ever done.

I believe now, looking back, that he was struggling

with an underlying depressive illness.

Certainly there were family problems.

He had separated from my mother, which was difficult.

He was living in the studio,

which must have been a difficult setting,

I think a depressing setting in a lot of ways.

On February 25, 1970,

some time in the early hours of the morning,

as far as we know, my father took his own life,


and he was found the next morning by a young man

who had been assisting him in the studio during that period,

and, um...

only subsequently did my mother come to the studio and see him.

I was surprised, but not as devastated

as when my mother told me how it had happened.

My first reaction was that he had died

of something related to his illness.

Christopher: My father had worked for four years

exclusively on the chapel commission.

He did not live to see it.

He died just as construction was beginning.

So all plans had been completed,

but he never was able to see the space himself.

Mancusi-Ungaro: But he did have the experience

of the mural in his studio,

so he certainly had a sense of it,

and he was very proud of it.

He had his official portrait taken,

obviously satisfied with them.





Gale: People definitely seek out the Rothko room

here at Tate Modern.

I think we can confidently say

that it's seen by millions of people every year.


I think one would like to believe that there is a sense

of the longevity of the artist through this room.

It did become a space which is in tune

with Rothko's own wishes about it.

It is a place to decompress

and to think about bigger issues in life.


Molina: People are still obsessing about his work,

and his work is still being analyzed

and -- and re-evaluated.

I think he would have been very happy with that.

I mean, I think the fact that people

are still engaged in a dialogue, in a relationship with his work

probably the best thing any artist could wish for.


Fujimura: Part of what he wanted was future generations

to find his work so inspiring and challenging.


And that impossibility of Mark Rothko

is a puzzle that I want to be part of,

to open up, not to solve,

but to open up to the next generation and beyond.


Molina: "The most important tool the artist fashions

through constant practice is the faith in his ability

to produce miracles when they are needed.

Pictures must be miraculous."





Announcer: To order "Rothko: Pictures Must Be Miraculous"

on DVD,

visit Shop PBS, or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

This program is also available on Amazon Prime Video.








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