Rothko Bridge? Another thought…and a proposal

I see that Jeff Jahn has repeated his thought that the new bridge be named for Mark Rothko. On PORT he says:

I’ve updated the both very popular and controversial post on the Rothko bridge naming. I see it as cutting a provincial gordian knot… so many (especially those who have been in Portland a long time) put a lot of effort into denying that the city’s most famous and accomplished resident ever lived here or had any real connection. The sentiment doesn’t hold up to the facts and illustrates why Portland has a hard time acknowledging highly ambitious people (provincialism). It is a good thing to get over.

That has led me to think further about this idea.

I don’t know who those “many” are who would be silly enough to deny “that the city’s most famous and accomplished resident ever lived here or had any real connection.” Why would anyone deny that Rothko lived in Portland from 1913-1921, from ages 10-18 and that he went to Shattuck School, now Shattuck Hall at Portland State University, and Lincoln High School, now Lincoln Hall at PSU? The evidence is clear in James E. Breslin’s authoritative Mark Rothko: a biography (“an excellent resource,” as Arcy Douglas said on PORT , June 17, 2009). Who could argue with that?

Perhaps it could be claimed that it was Portland, the city and its resources that gave the foundation for Rothko’s life after he left , but I have seen no compelling evidence of that (Later in life Rothko claimed that had he “remained in Portland, he would have been a bum,” [Breslin]). Perhaps Dvinsk, Russia should name a bridge for Rothko. As Breslin says:

Rothko’s desire to create artistic works that would provide a place for him, his difficulty in accommodating these creations to the real world of restaurants, museums and viewers, his combativeness, his prophetic ambitions, his intense desire for success, his guilt about success, his uncompromisingness, his compromises, his propensity to isolate himself, his wish for community, his mixed feelings about both wealth and poverty, his suspicions, his suspicions about himself, his vulnerability to despair—all these conflicting feelings in the Mark Rothko of the early 1960s had their origins in the life of Marcus Rothkowitz, born in Dvinsk, Russia, a despised Jew in the infamous Settlement of Pale, in the first years of the twentieth century.

If we look for the Mark Rothko who said, “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. … The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them” —those years in Dvinsk could easily be seen to be the root. Again, as Breslin says:

When Rothko himself recalled the first ten years of his life, he was most likely to remember Russian persecution. He was “very strongly interested” in “his Russian background,” according to his friend Herbert Ferber, and often repeated stories of his childhood—”being carried in the arms of his mother or a nurse at one time when a Cossack rode by and slashed them with a whip. And he had a scar on his nose which he claimed had been caused by the whip of a Cossack.”

I have yet find where anyone who knew Rothko said that Rothko was very strongly interested in his Portland background.

We could wish that something “Portland” influenced Rothko, but there is no significant evidence that Rothko found anything here that he would not have found during his elementary and high school years in a supportive Jewish community in any other city.

Of course it has been pointed out that Rothko came back to Portland several times (1933, 1944, 1949, 1967). He came to Portland to visit family. There is no evidence that the city itself had anything more for him.

And, there might be speculation about the landscape, but speculation is not clear evidence.

Jahn says that “Portland has a hard time acknowledging highly ambitious people.” I don’t quite understand what Jahn means by acknowledging in this regard. For me this whole thing still smacks of “grabbing at the coattails of someone who became a great artist.” Our ancestors (he left 92 years ago) had damn little to do with the success of Mark Rothko. This bridge naming thing remains something like getting one’s picture taken with a celebrity so you can claim a connection.


Beyond the question of how Rothko related to Portland there is another important question:

How did Portland relate to Rothko?

Looks like the answer is:  With indifference.

Yes, Rothko showed some of his work, along with some works by his students, at the Portland Art Museum in 1933.  But now, 80 years later,  the Portland Art Museum has yet to acquire a significant work by the artist. The collection, according to the online search tool, contains two modest works on paper by Rothko.

Over the past 80 years, Portland has not acknowledged Mark Rothko by doing the one “art” thing that artists will recognize: buying the artwork.

So, here’s my modest proposal: I will support the naming of the “Rothko Bridge” when there is an acquisition by the Portland Art Museum (or any other public entity) of a major work by the artist.

Otherwise we would be doing the one easy thing that costs nothing and we do not deserve a Rothko Bridge.

From what I’ve read of Rothko, I think he would agree: Money talks, bullshit walks.


One thought on “Rothko Bridge? Another thought…and a proposal

  1. Paul, good to debate this further. We both care about the seriousness of Rothko and Portland’s arts and discussing it fleshes out the shape of the problem. Those interested for or against can read the post that touched it all off: The following is a good-natured rebuttal on some finer points:

    Paul, I see you’ve changed your position slightly because it has already been proven that Rothko did indeed take his first art classes at the museum school before going to Yale, then had his first solo show in 1933 at the Portland Art Museum. Both facts disprove your earlier thesis that somehow Portland had no consequential role in his life as an artist. Beginnings are important and nobody is claiming that somehow Rothko didn’t need to leave to reach his potential. The bridge naming proposal is simply one way to let go of the provincial, “He Left So We Should Forget Him,” style arguments that your earlier position hinged on.

    Still, you have pivoted your argument somehow to claiming a lack of exceptionalism in Portland’s Jewish intellectual community at the time? Respectfully, that is not a strong argument and your wish for solid evidence to the contrary already exists. If you looked at the revised PORT post you would notice that there is a link to this existing scholarship on Louis Kaufman, a crucial and lifelong friend that Rothko made at Lincoln High School ( ). Without Kaufman it is likely Rothko would not have entered Milton Avery’s circle or become the same artist we know. Avery was absolutely crucial. That Kaufman connection, refutes your claim that any other community would have been just as helpful and is an irresponsible historical assertion. Perhaps you just are not as up on the current state of Rothko scholarship? Are you aware that a top tier institution is producing something that looks a lot deeper into Rothko’s Portland years and paintings? It has been in the works for years.

    What’s more the Milton Avery painting that J.M. Kaplan (part of Kaufman’s circle) donated to PAM actually depicts Rothko on the beach ( ) . Perhaps the reason you cannot what you look for is you keep using the same lines from Breslin’s book, which is fine for what it was but he was not a historian and as I demonstrated in the previous post he absolutely missed the importance of Portland (the 1933 PAM solo show alone repudiates it). It was an importance that accompanied Rothko to the East Coast in the personage of Louis Kaufman. I’d argue that losing his father then finding Kaufman and in turn Avery were the most crucial events in Rothko’s life as an artist. As you wisely reiterated, Rothko is an artist of tragedy and Arcy’s article made the difficult to refute argument that the loss of Rothko’s father in Portland became the defining tragedy of his life. Rothko suffered here, he pulled himself up and it makes sense why Breslin chose to gloss it over. Portland is a very complicated part of Rothko’s early history. It is also crucial in a formative way and I dont want it to be construed as anything more or less than that. Adolescence and young adulthood cannot be underestimated in a biography.

    The bridge naming proposal is an attempt to simply acknowledge the hard times and hard work Rothko endured here, while stamping out the provincialism that feels he has no history in Portland. This isn’t coat tails (there no Disneyland like attempt to create a theme park here or build any kind of tourist industry… Im against that as well) but a simple and sincere dedication to the young man who grew up and got his launch into the art world partially due to the specifics of growing up here. I see the bridge as an alms. Obviously, Rothko had to leave Portland at that time to amount to anything and the city shouldn’t hold that against him… yet many clearly do because they repeat something akin to your earlier position of him leaving and had little to do with Portland. I’m arguing for a far more nuanced rapprochement and perhaps in acknowledging its most famous son, Portland can better appreciate all other cultural endeavors with a greater degree of seriousness and consideration?

    Lots of cities celebrate their most historically significant sons and daughters (Portland doesn’t). For example, Seattle has Jimi Hendrix and it is arguable that he received less institutional/community support in his development than Rothko did in Portland. I still think Seattle’s claim is valid because he grew up and picked up his first guitar there. Nothing else is necessary but to acknowledge the beginnings because a city is in many ways a record of those who called it home.

    As for your proposal, it is odd that purchasing a work would change your mind about a bridge naming after Rothko? The logic doesn’t work as Rothko abhorred the reduction of his work to commodity and such works would cost a vast sum 25-100 million+ in today’s market (generally out of reach to most of Portland’s collectors). As PAM already has a portrait of Rothko by Avery perhaps that partially satisfies you? Also, the fact that the Jordan Schnitzer Museum has had an mature work on display from time to time also already has satisfied the requirement? Im uncertain if it is on display or not right now. I will ask them.

    I’ve long wanted to see that particular Rothko work donated to PAM but once again a mature painting’s immense value makes that complicated. I wholly agree that the most ideal method would be the acquisition of a major Rothko by PAM but realistically it seems like a long shot. In fact, Tyler Green had an even better idea years ago that the National Gallery could lend just a few of its hundreds of works by Rothko to PAM on rotation. Once again, who has the kind of leverage to make that idea attractive to the NGA? My proposal is a modest, pragmatic and appropriate one and who knows a bridge might make something happen in the future? As it stands Portland’s neglect of its most famous son certainly isn’t putting a museum or wing devoted to his work on the front burner. If Portland cant quite address the work permanently yet (the Rothko family did give a small work, thank you), lets at least address the man in a way that wouldn’t feel token. There is nothing token about a bridge in an area he actually painted.

    A bridge naming makes historical sense as a way to honor a man who grew up under and later painted Portland’s bridges. If it happens great, if not its a missed opportunity. The bridge naming is a test of Portland not Rothko.

    My position is simply for redressing provincialism by acknowledging a simple fact, that Mark Rothko grew up here and went on to do great things. Perhaps by doing so it also acknowledges the plight of thousands of other immigrants and artists who have called Portland home.

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