Marcus Rothkowitz emigrated with his family to the US from Latvia, son to Jacob and Anna Goldin Rothkowitz. His family was secular until some vicious pogroms turned the father toward Orthodox Judaism. He sent Marcus to cheder (essentially a class focused on religious studies) before departing for America and settling in Portland (some great people live in Portland 😉 ). Marcus attended Yale for a while and while beginning his career as a painter supported himself by becoming a teacher at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Over the years, Rothko’s work evolved, a process you can see in the National Gallery of Art’s brief overview of his career and work. Eventually, he came to be quite well known. As the exhibit at the National Gallery states (click that link for an informative journey through his life and career):

His vibrant, disembodied veils of color asserted the power of nonobjective painting to convey strong emotional or spiritual content. With an unwavering commitment to a singular artistic vision, Rothko celebrated the near mythic power art holds over the creative imagination.

I have no idea what the hell that means, nor will I pretend that I ever understood his multi-form paintings. BUT, I love them. They touch me deeply. I think the first time I ever saw one was in Toronto and if memory serves it was in the Art Gallery of Ontario. Standing there for the first time in front of a Rothko, I recall letting out a gasp. What power and beauty! There was something elemental and profound about that simple looking painting called Number 10 or Number 7 or something numerical like that. It was huge, in a way that thumbnails on the Internet cannot represent, and it was stunning – transformative for a young guy who was just beginning to discover art.

Anyway, this post is not posted to note that Mr. Rothko’s son has graciously sponsored a show of his father’s work that is currently on exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum. This post is being posted to note that Rothko’s painting White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender) sold tonight for a ton of money. Around $72.84 million was paid by an anonymous bidder for this painting. Why?

An abstract painting by Mark Rothko, the American artist who committed suicide in 1970, sold in New York last night for $72.84 million (£36.4m) a record auction price both for the artist and for any work of art made since the Second World War.

White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender) is a seminal work by the artist, made at a crucial turning point in his career. Almost seven foot tall, it was made in 1950 when Rothko first developed his trademark use of horizontal bands of colour. After the 1930’s, Rothko moved away from figurative painting to find another way of expression”. By 1950 he was exploring what he described as “an unknown space,” in which bands of colour replaced the human figure. “I think of my pictures as dramas,” he said. “The shapes in the pictures are the performers.”

“Every great artist has one painting with which he is most closely associated, and for Rothko, this is the one,” said Tobias Meyer of Sotheby’s, who auctioned the painting last night. [ed. note: Sotheby’s pre-auction estimate was around $40 million]

The painting was being sold by the 91 year-old American philanthropist, banker and politician, David Rockefeller, who bought it in 1960 for $8,500 (£4,282) and hung it in his office at the Chase Manhattan Bank, where he was chairman. Better known as a collector of Impressionist paintings, it was his first purchase of a work of more radical modern art.

That’s right, Mr. Rockefeller, WHO IS NOT JEWISH*, doesn’t need any more money, but while some people in 1950 might have bought a house for $10,000 that they can now sell for $500,000, he bought a Rothko which he has just sold for $73,000,000. Plus he got to hang that gorgeous 7 foot thing on walls that he owned for 5 decades. That’s why he’s a Rockefeller and you’re not.

Congrats to the anonymous bidder, to the Rockefellers and their foundation, and to the Rothko family which should be justifiably proud. After all, seen in a different context White Center is just a piece of canvas with some dried oil paint on it.


* Information for basement dwelling antisemites who blame everything on Jews and always, ignorantly, point to the Rockefellers as an example of Jewish control of this thing or that thing, especially banking. This might also come in handy to Walt & Mearsheimer in case they end up doing their research and fact checking for their upcoming book about the “Israel Lobby” on anti-Israel or Left-wing sites on the Internet (which is the impression I received about where they did their research for their article on the “Israel Lobby” last year).

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  • Great post, Middle. I share your enthusiasm for Rothko. It’s really hard to articulate that enthusiasm without lapsing into pretentious, fatuous-sounding prose like that you’ve quoted. Some things are best left unexpressed, I suppose.

    Some art-world types I know have disparaged Rockefeller for auctioning the piece, but it must’ve been hard to ignore the pressure to sell in today’s overheated art market. Let’s hope a museum came away with it (rather than some billionaire in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur).

    ps– drop out of Yale, and you become a great painter (Rothko) or vice president of the USA (Dick Cheney).

  • One of the great things about Rothko is that, despite his short career, he was incredibly prolific. There are copies of his work in the Met, MoMA, and many private collections.

  • Oh, come on, Tom! Drop out of Yale and become VP. Graduate from Yale and become President. Cheney’s a loser. 😉

    Drop out of Harvard and you become founder of Microsoft. Didn’t Michael Dell and Steve Jobs drop out of school as well? I’m never going to show this post to my son.

    I can’t imagine that too many museums can afford $70 mil. I would guess this is a private investor.

  • Bill Gates has Microsoft; Conan O’Brien’s got a TV show. Hmm.

    At least Al Gore invented the Internet.