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Home / Articles / News / Interviews /  SFR Talk: Revising Rothko
noah hopi painting

SFR Talk: Revising Rothko

With Noah Hoffman

May 12, 2010, 12:00 am
Noah Hoffman is an independent scholar and former private art dealer. After uncovering evidence that suggested a previously unknown 1938 trip to the southwest by the artists Milton Avery and Mark Rothko, Hoffman initiated an investigative project called “Rothko with Reservations.”

SFR: What’s the crux of your research?
NH: We know, based on published letters, that Mark Rothko was in Santa Fe and New Mexico in 1949. I’ve used iconographic analyses to demonstrate that Rothko and Milton Avery made paintings in New Mexico in 1938. It’s clear, for example, that Rothko painted the lobby at the Hotel La Fonda. Over the past five years, I’ve put together research showing that Rothko made trips to First Mesa, attended Native American dances and had the direction of his work profoundly influenced by experience with Native Americans and with Spanish Colonial artwork.

But no one believes you?
Well, I’ve created a new ethno-historic view of Rothko. Most of the scholarly work that exists attributes his development as an artist strictly to European influences. I’m not arguing against that; I’m just pointing out this previously unknown and, I think, key influence. I’m shifting the whole canon on Rothko…Frankly, I’m a little baffled that I haven’t had more interest from the Rothko family or the National Gallery or any of Santa Fe’s cultural institutions. Rothko was strongly influenced by Santa Fe and that could be a real cultural and financial engine for the town.

In lieu of institutional support, you’re researching one of the country’s most significant artists through Facebook?
Initially, I did it because I wasn’t granted institutional cooperation or access to the Rothko archives, but I’ve come to think it’s an important model for the future of research. In retrospect, if the National Gallery had come on board right away, I don’t think the richness of the work, the quality of the documentation or the key relationships that have formed…would have developed in the same way. Many individual Santa Feans have been very supportive and very helpful through Facebook.

Is interest in your theory growing?
Two weeks ago, I was invited to speak at Columbia University in New York at a symposium considering the relationship between the Native American and Jewish peoples. My assertions were very well received by academics, much more so than they have been by the art establishment. I think that walls are breaking down, though. I’ve received some powerful support and interest and I think it’s just a matter of time before the Rothko family becomes more interested.

Has anyone refuted your research and argued that you’re just plain wrong?
I’m getting a lot of silence but very few, if any, people are challenging me. No one has come out vocally and said ‘you’re wrong’ except for a 2007 exchange of letters in Art in America—it was my first shot across the bow to suggest that Rothko may have been working with Native American imagery rather than, say, Greek mythology. The magazine allowed a rebuttal to my letter. But that was the last time I was challenged.

What is the most significant evidence you have?
There is a Rothko drawing from 1949 that depicts a Native American ‘dance board’ and that’s probably the smoking gun that really nails it. It’s the same year that he really transitioned from figurative work to what we’ve come to know as iconic Rothkos. I can say with confidence that he looked at this specific object on a trip to New Mexico and his path as a painter was changed forever, and all of his work afterward followed suit.

So either art establishment scholars intensely resist revision or you’re just stone-cold crazy.
I don’t think anyone’s going to say I’m crazy at this point because what I’ve put together is pretty darn solid. I think there’s going to be some very loud silence, but it seems there’s going to be very little public disagreement.

 

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