Rothko's daughter reconnects with Daugavpils

  • 2006-04-19
  • Interview by Paul Morton
It is unlikely that Mark Rothko, arguably the most famous cultural figure ever to be born within Latvia's modern-day borders, would ever have considered himself Latvian. He was the son of a middle-class family from Daugavpils, then known as Dvinsk, an oasis of Jewish cosmopolitanism in Czarist Russia. In 1913, with tensions mounting from the pogroms, his family emigrated to the United States. The young boy grew up to become one of the great painters of the 50s and 60s. His giant canvases of reds, blues, yellows and greens, separated one atop the other like the clear cut of a horizon line between flat desert land and expansive skies are among the greatest works of American art of the 20th century. But there was no way anyone thought his work would make it to his birthplace within his lifetime. (He died in 1970). At one point some of his work made it to Moscow during the Khrushchev era as part of an exhibit of modern painting. The reception was hostile.

In 2003, on the occasion of the centenary of Rothko's birth, Daugavpils sought to reclaim its native son by setting aside a room in the city museum to house first-rate reproductions of his work. Three years later, Rothko's two children, Kate Rothko Prizel, 55, and Christopher Rothko, 42, are watching as the city builds a cultural house in their father's name to commemorate his work and promote that of younger Latvian artists. They are also funding the restoration of a major synagogue in Daugavpils, which was built in 1850 and functioned continuously until World War II. On April 12, at the end of her visit to Latvia, Prizel talked to TBT about her father's relationship to Latvia and her foundation's plans for Daugavpils.

I read somewhere that your father pined for Dvinsk, or Daugavpils, as an adult. Did he ever talk about it with you?
He told anecdotes mainly. I certainly had the impression that he had no negative feelings towards Dvinsk, whereas his parents may have been more anxious because of the political situation. My favorite story was about him ice-skating on the Daugava River. I'm sure the river was frozen, but I can't imagine my father being athletic enough to ice skate.

Did he ever talk about anti-Semitism in his hometown?
Well, I was certainly aware that my grandfather was affected by the pogroms of 1905. I don't think they reached Daugavpils itself, but they certainly were close enough that people were very scared. And I understand they had a great affect on my grandfather, who had been a pretty secular man. The whole thing drove him to become a bit more religious.

After your grandfather became religious, did the son follow suit?
He was the only one of four siblings who was brought up with any religious education. My grandmother was very secular. When my grandfather died, my father was 10 or 11 [and though he had two older brothers, he was the only one in the family with any religious education] so he felt obligated to go to synagogue and say the traditional prayers. So you could imagine it must have been a very lonely experience. He went to say the prayers for 11 months of the required year, but could not bear another moment. As far as I know he never entered a synagogue after that, and I don't remember him being very religious.

The colors of his later paintings are separated by a horizon-like line. Could he have been influenced by the flat landscape of Latvia's countryside?
I don't remember him mentioning that. But having traveled in Latvia myself now, I can certainly see that as a potential influence. I remember traveling in the United States with him, and I remember seeing the same flat expanses in New Mexico, with a different color range.

While he was in America, how conscious was he of what was going on back in Latvia?
Well, I think he saw himself as coming from the larger Czarist empire. Certainly his parents spoke Yiddish at home, but they spoke Russian as well...I don't know how much I can comment on [his views of Latvia]. I can say, he knew there was a Latvia. He taught me the name of the country. He showed it to me on the map. He certainly disliked the Soviet Union, though I don't know if I could have seen him as a Baltic nationalist, as he was from a Jewish family.

Did you decide to restore the synagogue in Daugavpils for religious or historical reasons?
I think it was more of a historical desire. But what stirred up our interest in Daugavpils in the first place was one incredible individual, Farida Zaletilo, who decided to research my father's origins in Daugavpils. She was the one who put together the centenary celebration. [And then], President Vaira Vike-Freiberga came to Washington D.C. She wanted to see his works at the National Gallery, but we had one of Washington's more well-known snowstorms that year, so she ended up coming to our house instead. We cleared a path for her. I can tell you that our reception was incredible in Daugavpils. We just fell in love with the city and the population. So I would say [our interest in the synagogue] was more historical, cultural. I don't consider myself terribly religious.

As a child, did you hang around your father in the studio and watch him work? By the time you were born he was known for being rather shy about discussing his craft. At that point, he wasn't writing letters to various publications about his philosophy of art, as he did throughout the 40s.
Well he never liked to be watched. I did come to the studio, but I was shoved off to a corner with my own paints so that I wouldn't be watching him. I don't know if he was shy talking about his art. But [maybe] he felt that once he had achieved what he wanted to achieve, he could say what he wanted to say through his art. Perhaps he didn't need to talk about it because he had achieved some level of success.

As someone who spoke English as a fourth language (after Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew) was painting his way of talking in America?
It was the best way to communicate what he had to say. Still, he was an incredibly verbose and talkative man. He also did a fair amount of writing. My brother published a book of his essays that talks all about his philosophy of art. So I don't know if it has to do with language, as finding his way to express what he said.

He didn't like being labeled an abstract painter.
He didn't want to strictly distinguish himself in the movement. He often said, 'I am not a colorist.' I think that statement is his way of saying he didn't want to emphasize an aesthetic stance - an emotional one perhaps - but not an aesthetic one.

Will his work take on a different meaning when it's exhibited in Daugavpils?
The museum certainly has an appeal like the Chagall museum [the House Museum in Vitebsk, Belarus], in that you will be displaying his work in his place of birth. I don't know how similar it will be to the Chagall museum. This was not something he ever expressed a wish for. So in some ways, this museum has really grown out of [mine and my brother's own] relationship with the city. Now the museum that we are planning is really not a Rothko museum. They'll have Rothko's works and reproductions. But they'll also have local artists and they'll have workshops. So it's a more ambitious project. It won't just be focused on Rothko, but it will have the Rothko name associated with it.

His work is pretty widely exhibited in America. There's the Rothko Church in Texas and of course, the collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Did he take an interest in making sure his work was widely exhibited?
I don't think he took any interest from a geographic standpoint of where his work would be exhibited. He was very concerned that his paintings would end up with people who wouldn't care about his work. So he would certainly screen his buyers. So I heard many stories of people being turned down. One time, he notoriously bought his work back, because he wasn't happy with the way people were exhibiting them. I think it was a significant hardship for him to buy his works back, so he must have felt very strongly about it.

How would he feel about his work being shown here?
I think on balance he would feel good about it. Obviously, any Jewish immigrant from this part of the world will always have some issues. But I think he would have had the same reaction to the people of Daugavpils that we had. It was very welcoming here. Still, I'm sure he would have had mixed feelings. We had mixed feelings coming back as well.

You exhibited his work in Germany.
Not in his lifetime. My father refused to travel in Germany. Of course, from what we know now, there are many other places he might not have traveled. But we felt [when we decided to exhibit his work in Germany] that though Germany had not quite made its reparations, it had come a long way.So I think some of these issues overshadowed some of how my father felt about bringing his work [to this part of the world]. Some of the most famous individuals of their time here were Jewish. Some left. Some became part of the Soviet Union. But the fact is there weren't that many left here.