“…[A]pparently it's more important to like your father's memory than to like your father,” writes David Levine for Triple Canopy. In case you missed it, Levine gives an elegantly woven account of the avalanche that consumed his father following Mark Rothko's death. Partly in a malicious move against his own children, the AbEx ego left practically everything to the Mark Rothko Foundation. Levine's father Morton Levine, an anthropology professor, fellow painter Theodoros Stamos, and Rothko’s accountant Bernard Reis were named executors of the will. Levine describes the scandal that ensued when the executors sold the paintings to Marlborough for an extremely low price, which the gallery quickly sold at low prices but high profits. The inevitable suit from the children led to the utter chewing-up-and-spitting-out of Rothko's friends by the press, the art world, and investigators. Notably, his father's name appears nowhere in collective memory, history, or his article.
The facts of the case are still unclear, as evidenced by general inconsistencies and bias in most accounts. However, in comparison to David Levine's account of his father's legal punishment, most stories indicate that the Marlborough Gallery received only a gentle slap on the wrist while making massive profits. According to Roberta Smith's 1998 obituary of Marlborough Gallery owner Frank Lloyd, the executors and gallery were fined a total of $9.2 million; Levine states that his father ended up with $6 million in liability. The executors sold or consigned all 798 Rothko paintings (which could then sell for between $50,000 and $180,000) to the Marlborough Gallery at a drastic discount: 100 paintings sold at an average of $12,000, which was likely, in part, the result of Stamos and Levine's father's ignorance. Levine writes that, by the time the suit was filed, the gallery had sold thirty-six paintings, for a total profit of $2,474,250.
The children did win back half of their father's 2,000 paintings, but two years after the ruling, Lloyd was indicted for altering gallery records, to appear that he had sold paintings that he still owned. Lloyd remained a fugitive at his vacation house in the Bahamas for several years, putting gallery business in the hands of his son, until he emerged for trial in Manhattan in 1983. Instead of serving four years in jail, he was sentenced to set up a scholarship fund and give art lectures to high school students.
However light the sentence, Frank Lloyd and Marlborough paid severely in reputation. Fellow art dealers ostracized Lloyd; Richard Feigen, a longtime critic of the gallery, commented, “The whole case is bad for the art business and for the reputation of art dealers in general. Marlborough has besmirched us.” Once the facts of the case became unavoidable, the gallery was expelled from the highly prestigious ADAA (The Art Dealers Association of America), despite close professional ties to then-director Ralph Colin.
Decades later, the legacy continues to haunt Marlborough. Months after Lloyd's 1998 death, Judith H. Dobrzynski wrote a piece for the Times, titled: “A Betrayal the Art World Can't Forget; The Battle for Rothko’s Estate Altered Lives and Reputations.” In it, she asserted that, not only did Marlborough lose its pre-eminence in contemporary art, and that Frank Lloyd “never recouped his reputation,” but “even the public lost some innocence.”
In fact, the only person who did benefit, aside from Rothko's children, was Rothko himself. Dobrzynski and Levine both point out that the case only further cemented his place in history. William Powhida's recent performance at Marlborough, titled POWHIDA, seemed to poke fun at this history. When I visited the gallery the day after his opening, an actor portraying POWHIDA (whose name was painted in huge caps in the gallery entrance), was still in character, lounging with groupies on VIP-style leather chairs, in front of a larger-than-life self portrait, pounding beers. The actor, who wore Powhida’s signature Aviators, continually reiterated that he fired his ghostpainter, due to a clash of egos. At one point, he exclaimed with dismay at a miniscule stain on his button-down: “What is that? Better not be paint!” It was most important, however, that we all understood just how much money this person's indulgence was wasting; he kept asking the intern how much that morning's cab back from “bumfuck” cost the gallery, and assuring me that beers were on Marlborough. All I could think when leaving was that the show made a good story, but up close, a not-very-interesting experience. It was calculated, with one-liners and anecdotes tailored for the press. In theory, it was good move for the Marlborough Gallery to appear self-aware enough to get the joke, but I got the sense that most people weren't laughing.