Writing as Thinking: Rothko Bridge Redux

Something that I’ve told students for a long time is that you never know what you really think until you write it down. After writing two posts about the Rothko Bridge proposal and considering the ideas of others who have discussed the concept, I think I’m getting a better focus for myself as to the sides of the argument and what causes the position that I’ve instinctively taken.

Many years ago I was an art critic. A good friend and once editor told me that the fundamental question for criticism is: What causes this? It is important not to be satisfied with the initial like/don’t like reaction, but to think further to try to figure out what it is in the work that causes your feelings.

As I look back at my posts, I can see myself trying to put my finger on what has caused me to feel that something was really wrong with the Rothko Bridge idea, and with this post I hope I can pin that down.

I think this is the crux of the matter:

Those who promote the concept see it as finally recognizing someone who is somehow a hometown boy— “Portland has a hard time acknowledging highly ambitious people,” says Jeff Jahn (BTW, I have no idea what he is talking about here). We could note that Rothko hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged by Portland since he and some of his students had a show at the Portland Art Museum in 1933. Naming the new bridge after Rothko would somehow make up for this slighting.

I see the bridge naming as too big, too irrelevant, and too late.

The Portland Art Museum has not managed to acquire a major Rothko painting in the 43 years since Rothko’s death. There was a time in the last four decades when a major Rothko could be had for less than 30 million dollars. Probably not now. The opportunity for meaningful recognition in the “art” sense has passed. (Note invitation to MAJOR DONOR.)

And Portland State University could have named something for Rothko as he attended Shattuck School and Lincoln High School buildings now part of the PSU campus. But they didn’t.

The Park Blocks near these buildings could have been renamed “The Rothko Blocks,” but they haven’t been.

So, Portland has dissed Rothko by 80 years of indifference.

But now we want to USE HIS NAME. That’s how I see it. If we pretentiously use the name of Mark Rothko for this bridge that has no significant relationship to him it will be to aggrandize Portland through the Rothko brand.

So the supporters see the idea as a sign of respect—and I see it as an ostentatious lack of respect. I agree that we will disagree.


Barry Johnson has posted Naming the new Willamette River bridge after Mark Rothko isn’t such a good idea on Oregon Arts Watch (www.orartswatch.org/news-notes-passes-on-the-rothko-bridge/). An important point that Barry makes is that the bridge isn’t much in a forward-looking design sense, so why saddle the Rothko name with it?


A late thought that I had was about the dispersal of Rothko’s work after his death. So I came across an article from the New York Times: ROTHKO FOUNDATION GIVES 1,000 WORKS TO 19 ART MUSEUMS by Michael Brenson, May 4, 1984. The main facts:

The National Gallery of Art in Washington [received]… 285 paintings and works on paper, as well as 500 to 600 sketches, drawings and other study materials…

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art [were given] between one and five paintings…

The other institutions that [were] given between 1 and 15 works are The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Art Institute of Chicago; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass.; the Yale Art Gallery; the Tate Gallery in London; the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; the Louisianna Museum in Denmark; the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and the Tel Aviv Museum. (www.nytimes.com/1984/05/04/arts/rothko-foundation-gives-1000-works-to-19-art-museums.html)

What’s missing in this list? Yup. The Portland Art Museum. The Rothko Foundation gave 300+ paintings to art museums, but didn’t think enough of his “home town” to place any significant works here.