Kate Rothko is the eldest child of painter Mark Rothko, a prominent figure in the New York School of artists, poets, dancers, and musicians active in the 1950s and 1960s. Picking up where the Surrealists had left off, its squabbly cabal of painters broke from figurative convention in an attempt to create the purest expression of human emotion ever seen. Pollock did it by “action painting” with splatters of color; Franz Kline did it with violent slashes of black on white, and Rothko did it with hypnotic “multiforms” and “color fields”, luminous windows of the purest, deepest hues with blurred edges that hypnotized the receptive viewer, providing a portal to the beyond. Together, these artists gave birth to the first American fine art movement, Abstract Expressionism, turning New York—and the somewhat cluttered Rothko family home in Manhattan—into the center of the art world. “I was so, incredibly proud of my father, from an early age,” says Kate, on the phone from Baltimore. “I looked at him and thought there could be nothing in the world greater than to be an artist. The art world seemed the most idealistic, magical world, to me.”
The magic faded in 1970 when 66-year-old Rothko, troubled by illness, alcoholism and depression, committed suicide—a tragedy which exposed a then 19-year-old Kate to the shadow side of the “magical” art world. The noble ideas given form by her father on canvas were reduced to dollar signs, as the glittering, larger-than-life artists she had once idolized revealed themselves to be vultures, as exposed in “The Matter of Rothko”, the "most spectacular and complex court case in the history of modern art in this country” according to the New York Times. A David and Goliath court drama, it placed Kate, then a shy Brooklyn medical student, against a slick, perma-tanned art world kingpin Frank Lloyd, once quoted as saying “I collect money, not art”.
Lloyd was perhaps the world's first international gallerist, head of a growing empire of Marlborough galleries in London, New York, Rome, Zurich, Toronto, and Montreal. He had, through contractual and emotional manipulation, gained control of Rothko’s entire body of work—798 paintings—and within three months of Rothko’s death had already begun to cash in, selling painting after painting. He might have sold them all, had Kate been any less brave, tenacious, or persevering. By the end of the trial, she had blossomed from shy teenager to formidable woman. Those who had underestimated her forgot how close the apple sometimes falls to the tree—Kate may not have been an artist, but when it came to defending that which she believed to be right, she was very much her father’s daughter.
Kate Rothko was born in New York in 1950 to Mark Rothko and his second wife Mary Alice Beistle, an illustrator known to everyone as Mell. Little Kate adored her father and remembers how each night he would come home from his art studio and tap “hello” on the basement kitchen window, his face in a broad smile. The Rothko of Kate’s childhood was a loving, jovial man, who taught her how to ride a bicycle in Central Park, played Mozart records all day long and rarely cursed, except when hanging Christmas lights and other difficult household tasks. He didn’t like the subway but was too frugal to take cabs—their car’s door was held closed by a string.
Mell called him “Bunchie”, and he was the love of her life. She was his too — aside, perhaps, from art. Kate cringes at some contemporary depictions of Rothko as a bombastic, glowering alpha male, based more in the public’s imagination than in reality. “Those Rothkos are wonderful characters,” says Kate, “but they are not my father.” That being said, it’s easy to understand why writers might focus upon the dramatic, irascible, tortured aspects of Rothko—those things were very much part of his personality. "What I want,” Rothko had once said to a friend, “is for people to cry when they experience my paintings.”
Rothko was notoriously protective of his work—he thought of his paintings as children, and could not bear to be parted with them, often turning away buyers whom he thought did not fully understand his work. His paintings were quasi-sentient beings, as far as he was concerned. He wouldn't dream of splitting up various groups of works, nor would he ever sell his work to unworthy owners, for fear of dulling the energy that seems to pulse within the brushstrokes. “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eye of the observer,” he once said. “It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky act to send it out into the world."
Rothko almost always painted alone. Sometimes, if Mell had an appointment, she would drop Kate off at his studio for the day. Rothko would sit Kate in her own corner with some paints or some crayons and paper, and face her away from him — he hated to be watched, even by his young daughter. As he painted, Kate would make uneven shapes in vivid colors on her little canvas, and when she thought her father wasn’t looking, she would peek over. “I liked to observe him from the corner of my eye,” says Kate.
For years, she thought she would become a painter like her father, but those were some big boots to fill. “I got so upset walking into every class and being asked about him. It eventually turned me off to the idea of being an artist.” Rothko was supportive when she eventually decided to focus on science. “He had been incredibly good at math and science as a younger person, and when I needed help in math it was just always my father I came to. He was happy that I had something I was enthusiastic about doing.”
When she was 16, Kate and her dad took a cross-country train journey from New York to Berkeley. The trip was spent largely in awkward silence even though there were so many things Kate wanted to ask her father, about his art and philosophy. Of course, she had no idea how little time they had left. “It’s painful to think about that because I feel it would’ve been a wonderful opportunity as an almost-adult to have had those conversations,” she says. One thing is certain, she’ll never forget sitting next to her father watching the sun set, as the train passed through Utah in a miraculous explosion of red, amber, and violet.
Two years later, in the spring of 1968, after completing a series of 14 huge, monumental paintings for the interdenominational Rothko Chapel in Houston, Rothko suffered an aortic aneurysm and was advised to stop painting and clean up his habits. But he continued to drink and smoke, and became dependent on sleeping pills. “He was probably overmedicated and that really affected his mood, as well as other things,” says Kate, remembering the shift in her father’s temperament. Coming so close to death had shocked him into a state of panicked, clinging insecurity. “Certainly, the frustration of being told he basically should go home and work on a small scale must have been particularly difficult,” says Kate. Rothko’s work became darker than ever, and he created a series of foreboding black on gray canvases. Despite the few pastels he also created in this period, there was no denying the gloom in Rothko’s studio.
Kate remembers her father as withdrawn, irritable and world-weary during this time. The dour abstract expressionists were falling out of favor as the bright and shiny pop artists - Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein — became the art world's new darlings. His marriage to Mell had all but crumbled, and on New Year’s Day 1969 he walked out of the family home and never came back. He lived at his art studio and became involved with Rita Reinhardt, the 30-something widow of fellow artist Ad Reinhardt. Friends said Rothko seemed rageful, frustrated. He weighed 154 lbs; he had a hernia, gout, and emphysema from smoking. At night he downed blue chloral hydrate tablets with scotch — his homemade Mickey Finn sleep remedy was as powerful as any date rape drug and more dangerous (this same cocktail caused Anna Nicole Smith's death just a few years ago.) He was vulnerable to anyone, anything that made him feel strong again. When Bernard Reis, his accountant, offered to handle his increasingly complicated financial affairs for free, he was relieved.
Kate had just started her undergraduate degree at Brooklyn college, majoring in science. She remembers her father being completely out of reach. “Communication was hard,” is all she says of that era. She immersed herself in her studies to escape the chaos of her parents’ life, engaged in a "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-esque saga of drunken spousal warfare. Mell had devoted her life to Rothko, Rothko had devoted his life to art, and both journeys were at dead ends.
One afternoon, Kate came home from school to a phone call from her mother — Rothko was dead. She was shocked, but not surprised—her father had been so sick, after all. “I knew he had been extremely sick, and we knew it could recur, so, in that sense, it wasn’t an absolute shock on my part.” What she did not know until she got to her parents’ house was that it was a suicide. “I was glad my mother spared me having to ride the hour and a half on the subway with that information,” says Kate. “Because from the moment she told me, it was a nightmare.”
Her father had sliced into the crooks of his arms with double edged razor blades and bled to death in the kitchen of his Manhattan studio. The water was running in the sink when he was found, by his assistant. In the studio was his last canvas, a large unfinished study in reds. Rothko’s friend Theodoros Stamos, who was among the first to arrive on the scene, begged a neighbor to photograph the body surrounded by the artist’s blood. The neighbor refused; Stamos took Rothko’s paint-splattered fedora as a memento.
The reaction among Rothko’s friends was one of complete shock. As the painter Hedda Sterne put it: 'Who was this man, Rothko, who killed my friend?’ Why would he take his life now? The chapel murals were yet to be installed, his infamous Seagram murals were about to be installed at the Tate museum in London, the historian Robert Goldwater was working on Rothko’s definitive biography…there was so much yet to do. It seemed to make no sense that he would take his life at this moment—although, Rothko, who had been drinking himself into daily stupors, was not making much sense either.
Once the police realized how much Rothko’s paintings were worth, they placed the studio under round-the-clock watch. Not that it mattered—unbeknownst to them, calls were already being placed to Palm Springs and Venice and Monte Carlo by Frank Lloyd. “Rothko is dead, buy today while your discount is good…tomorrow these prices are about to rise.”
Kate has vivid memories of her father’s funeral as being “kind of a circus.” People lined up on the street, trying to be part of this art world “happening”. “Not even close friends, just people who wanted to see what was happening.” Inside, a number of “friends”, whom Kate later learned may not have been very close to her father at all, tearfully eulogized Rothko. Rothko’s closest friend, his financial advisor, and executor of his will Bernard Reis, bizarrely, had brought a lawyer to the ceremony. But the strangeness had just begun.
At the will reading, Kate found out she and her six-year-old brother Christopher had been written out of Rothko’s two-page will, which had been written at the height of Rothko’s drunken depression, under the guidance of Bernard Reis. Mell had been given an allowance of $250 a week and the family home. And Rothko’s entire body of work—more than 1000 paintings—had been valued at an outrageously conservative $2million. “My father’s will was very strange and very brief, and basically said that everything was going to the (Rothko) foundation,” Kate recalls. The foundation had been set up a year before Rothko’s death, and the three executors of the will — 70-something accountant Bernard Reis, tweed-wearing anthropologist Morton Levine and mustachioed Greek-American painter Theodoros Stamos — were all members of the foundation. “They wanted to exclude the family, most notably my mother, from what would happen to my father’s estate. She didn’t know what was going on, and there certainly was no effort to reach out to me at that point.”
Kate’s mother Mell had noticed more oddness. “I think there is some real hanky-panky going on with my husband’s estate,’ she told a friend. “Someone came by to pick up some paintings which she (Mell) wanted to put in storage, and they had mentioned they just picked up twelve Rothkos someplace else,” says Kate. “My mother had no idea how this person would have owned them.” Mell decided to hire a lawyer, but kept her suspicions from Kate, trying to shield her daughter from any further upset. “I really knew nothing of what was going on,” says Kate, who had taken a summer job as an insurance adjuster to make ends meet. “My mother did not share how upset she was with me, even though she was very depressed at the time.”
Within five weeks of Rothko’s death, a brass plaque was affixed to Rothko’s studio, reading “Marlborough Studio”. The inside was painted, new lighting and comfortable seating installed, and a slide projector set up to project images of Rothko’s paintings to buyers. First in line was Frank Lloyd, who purchased 100 of Rothko’s most treasured paintings en masse for $1.8million, payable without interest over 12 years. He planned to launch a Rothko retrospective in Venice later that year, and knew that after the retrospective, Rothko’s prices were sure to soar. Which was great for him—he had already negotiated with the Rothko estate the right to sell all remaining Rothko paintings on consignment and collect a higher than usual commission of 50%. Some years later, New York state’s highest court would rule this transaction “manifestly wrongful and indeed shocking.”
On August 26, six months after Rothko died, Christopher was watching cartoons in the living room, next to the bedroom. Mell awoke, made some coffee in the electric pot near her bed, crossed the floor to the bathroom and collapsed. She was only 48, and except for her heavy drinking, was apparently in good health—hypertension due to cardiovascular disease was listed as the cause of her death. Kate was in Vancouver vacationing with friends when she found out she was now an orphan.
Mell’s funeral was held at the same funeral parlor as her husband’s, with far fewer mourners present. Morton Levine was named Christopher’s guardian—the Levines immediately had his pet dog put down, for reasons of cold practicality. They told Kate she would have to schedule appointments well in advance should she wish to visit her little brother, who was now installed in a maid’s room on the top floor of their house by himself.
Kate, reeling from the loss of her parents, went to her parents’ brownstone to pick up some things and found the entire place had been ransacked, drawers emptied and their contents flung on the floor. Not by burglars—by lawyers from her mother’s and father’s estates, who were busy making an inventory of the Rothko assets. They took Kate’s birth certificate and passport, her ID cards, and all the paintings that had been in the house—including one gifted to her by her father on her 14th birthday.
“The first really real feeling I got that anything was amiss at all was, I think it was early October,” says Kate. “I had some bad feelings about Levine because of the way he was handling things with my brother. It was very uncomfortable. So I asked to meet with the executors, and we did, in Bernard Reis’ backyard.”
Reis was a super fan of the abstract expressionists who collected their work obsessively and managed the accounts of Kline, de Kooning and Motherwell amongst others. He had become deeply involved in Rothko’s personal affairs toward the end of his life, filing his taxes, establishing trusts, advising on the purchase of Rothko’s house on 95th St. Reis never accepted money from Rothko; he wanted his payment in paintings. In the backyard, Kate, wearing casual jeans and a t shirt, asked if she could have her inheritance in the form of paintings. At this point, the only Rothkos she owned were two museum posters on the wall of her tiny apartment. Reis and the executors dodged the question. “Because the answer was, there weren’t any paintings,” says Kate. “The whole interaction was so awkward, and they were so obviously trying to cover something, that I immediately became suspicious.” Before she left the meeting, she made Stamos give her Rothko’s fedora, that he had taken from the studio the day of her father’s death.
Reis had already convinced his fellow executors to allow Marlborough to buy Rothko’s works at below value prices; it was a no-brainer, as they were all set to benefit from any sales made from the estate, financially and otherwise. Levine had the greatest reservations about making a deal with Marlborough and challenged his co-executors on their obvious conflict of interest—but he had a pregnant wife and was cash-strapped at the time, and was easily convinced to go along with Marlborough’s plan in the end. Stamos, young and struggling to establish himself in the art world, wanted fame—and Marlborough, the most powerful gallery in the world, would represent him if he played ball. Reis, a well-heeled, affected accountant, did not need money, nor fame since he was not an artist. But he loved being around artists, and thrived on the reflected glory of the debonair Frank Lloyd. When Marlborough placed him on its payroll as chief accountant, he was somebody.
Word spread around the art world that Marlborough had bought 100 paintings—and Marlborough promptly resold them at six to ten times their value. Word was that he had exhibits planned in Berlin, and Dusseldorf, despite Rothko having publicly stated he would never want his work to be shown in Germany because of the Nazi atrocities. Kate, by this point, knew she had to act.
Because she was under 21, she had her then guardian, Herbert Ferber (himself deeply immersed in the art world) take Marlborough to court on her behalf. When she was of age, she took over the case herself, with a relatively unknown lawyer Edward Ross. “Here was just this array of lawyers all extremely, large, prominent firms, including an ex-Supreme Court justice, in New York lined up on the other side—and me,” recalls Kate. “I had a very good lawyer from a middle-sized firm in the city, but certainly nothing that could compete in power with the firms on the other side of the case…it was just sort of frightening.”
She met her husband Ilya Prizel a month after filing the court case against Marlborough, just before turning 21. She had enrolled in a Russian class at school, hoping to learn her father’s native tongue. Ilya had spotted her outside the class and signed up for the class; even though he was already fluent in Russian. For him, it was love at first sight. He took her to the coffee shops in Greenwich Village, where her father’s bohemian counterparts—Willem de Kooning and Pollock—had lived, where Thelonius Monk still played on the streets. When Kate gained custody of her young brother, Ilya, 21, moved in with Kate to help take care of the boy. “Ilya and his parents, who I think knew nothing about modern art, were just incredibly supportive,” says Kate. “They basically adopted me once I started to date Ilya seriously. The whole family was just so supportive through the whole thing. I was lucky that they believed in me.” Halfway through the trial, Kate and Ilya married in a simple, traditional Jewish ceremony. Kate made her own dress.
Gustave Harrow, a brilliant lawyer and assistant in the Attorney General’s office, knew nothing about art, but had heard about Kate Rothko’s case, and wanted to help her. About 5’4” , he was “a very tiny man with this larger-than-life personality,” recalls Kate. “I think it was his sense that incredible injustice had been done as soon as he read the papers. What struck him most was why would the foundation automatically support the executors, when they potentially had a considerable amount to gain if we won the lawsuit.” Upon studying the details of the case, he decided to help Kate resolve the Matter of Rothko and would become instrumental in bringing Rothko’s “friends” to justice.
The case dragged on for six years. Bernard Reis claimed he could not testify because he was old and infirm. Frank Lloyd, ever wily, never personally signed any documents, and the few times he went to court, was cavalier enough to smile broadly at Kate. Hardest for Kate though, was having to listen to Marlborough “experts” try to diminish the value of her father’s work. They said his fame would not persist, they questioned his stature as an artist. “Marlborough tried to claim was that my father was really not a great artist and that his work would have rapidly declined in value, and therefore that the sales the estate had made to Marlborough was a wonderful sale, more than they could ever have gotten if they had waited longer because the paintings would simply have continued to plummet in value and no one would have wanted to buy them.”
Now their argument seems moronic, but back then, pop minimalism was in its ascendency and there were some who questioned whether the abstract expressionists would stand the test of time. “There was the feeling that their moment was tenuous. There was this feeling that they had had their moment in the sun and maybe it would only be that fleeting moment.”
In November 1977, seven years after Rothko died, Kate won the legal battle to reclaim her father’s paintings. Stamos and Reis were found guilty of conflict of interest—Reis because he was on Marlborough’s payroll and Stamos because he was now represented by Marlborough. “This has wrecked me, and my name,” was Stamos’ bitter lament—indeed, he would never be taken seriously as an artist again. Levine had distanced himself from his co-executors, claiming he had been pressured into signing the agreement with Marlborough—but was found accountable by the courts nonetheless. After the ruling, Lloyd, in his final duplicitous act, decided to haul Marlborough’s assets—seven truckloads—to Europe but was foiled when Gustave Harrow flew to Canada and tracked down the warehouse where Lloyd had stashed Rothko’s works, intending to ship them the next day. Upon finding the work, Harrow had Marlborough cited for contempt of court. Lloyd, who was in the Bahamas, remained there for several years and returned to the US in 1983 to stand trial. He was found guilty of tampering with evidence and could have faced up to four years in court, but miraculously was ordered to present series of art lectures and start a scholarship fund. He died in 1998 aged 86 and will be remembered both as a criminal and as the man who invented the multinational gallery system of today. As one of his employees told the New York Times upon his death, ''He put the business in the art business.''
Marlborough ultimately returned 658 Rothkos as well as 43 sold overseas. 97 paintings —including the piece Rothko had given Kate for her birthday, and ‘Homage to Matisse’, Rothko’s first multiform - were never returned. Kate didn't have any Rothko works in her home until years after the trial. For years, they made do with the posters. Eventually, she and Ilya had a home that they felt comfortable hanging her father’s work. “I like living with them at home better than anything because that’s the way I grew up. It’s amazing to me now, looking back, that my kids managed to grow up with the paintings just like I did, with nothing in front of them to protect them." Kate jokes that it's a miracle nothing ever happened to the paintings when her children were young and rambunctious. "We managed to have paintings hang floor to ceiling and have no disasters," she says. "But I always knew they would be alright.”