I have been hot on the trail of Mark Rothko for over five years. I have been amazed at how much information he left us about his critical time in the southwest. He didn’t write on it and there are only a few published comments and letters that refer to these trips to New Mexico and Arizona. However, there are hundreds of images, drawings and paintings, that provide a narrative which speak in great detail about where he was and what he saw. His first time there his name was still Marcus Rothkowitz and he had not yet adopted abstraction. He was certainly beginning to think about it. He was still under the tutelage of Milton Avery with whom Marcus accompanied on the earliest southwestern adventure.
Rothko’s visit to a Hopi village marks a very significant event in his life and not to include it in his biography and interpretive work on him is to present a very incomplete and distorted view. This is one main reason I continue to research and write on Rothko. This is a very tricky business. Rothko visited Hopi and observed Niman ceremonies. These ceremonies were open to tourists until the 1970’s. These, now closed ceremonies, are sacred rituals and even though Hopi artists continue to depict aspects of these ceremonies such as Hemis katcinas, it is a very sensitive issue with traditional Hopi and this author is attempting to navigate respectfully through this complex situation.
I am approaching this project, trying to come at it from Rothko’s point of view, that of a secular Jew seeking spiritual meaning and inspiration from other cultures. I continue to seek guidance from the diverse and dynamic American Indian community which has been so helpful to me in recent months. They have sensitized me to a number of issues far more universal than Rothko including the matter of racism which is a conversation in the art world that needs to happen. Writing on Rothko on Facebook has been one method to provoke that needed conversation and I will address the topic of racism and curatorial bias in future writings. I have shared much of my research with all those that need to know and only hope that the new view on Rothko begins take hold with those institutions that drive the scholarship on this important artist, Mark Rothko.
I have included some visuals from my “Rothko on Route 66: The Road To Abstraction,” project, four images. The piece in the upper left is a detail of a painting by the famous Hopi artist, Fred Kabotie. It is of Hemis Katcinas who are a major part of Niman ceremonies. Kabotie was a major figure and was responsible for the Kiva mural recreation that were exhibited at MoMA in 1941. Fred’s son, Michael, is also a multi-talented artist and has expressed interest in my work. He pointed out to me that Rothko was just one major artist to visit Hopi and reminded me that Andre’ Breton also did the same. Fred Kabotie’s image of Hemis Katcina’s suggests that Rothko was depicting similar subject matter. Rothko titled his piece, “The Source.” I have also included a Rothko triple portrait. I have identified the three figures from left to right as, March Avery,(Milton’s daughter,) legendary Hopi potter, Nampeyo, and Rothko who is comically modeling Indian jewelry and clothes. It’s important to note that Rothko’s first wife, Edith, was a silver jewelry maker with a successful business in New York. They stand in front of Hubbell’s Trading Post at Keams Canyon. I include an archival photo of the trading post for the purpose of iconographic recognition. Enjoy and comment!
Noah G. Hoffman