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Long Live the Old Masters!

An Ode to Tom Luddy

Before leaving Palm Beach for Miami where I’ll fly to the West Coast, I called my friend Tom Luddy in San Francisco. How to describe this gem of a human being? On top of having created of the Telluride Festival and found for Alice Waters the name of her restaurant when she opened Chez Panisse, back in their leftist days on the Berkeley Campus (they were living together then), Tom is one of the greatest connectors in the world. He is bright, generous, fun and, wherever I travel, he always comes up with the right person, the right name at the right time. He thinks right, he eats right and he appears to me as the king of a global network of leftist creators -his family, his empire. Tom has created an alternate family, as was the case for other intellectuals, such as Sartre. Back in the nineteen thirties, Sartre had replaced traditional family bonds by open relationships, friends and ideological bonds. In a similar way, Tom keeps up with those rituals and immediately includes the ones he decides to elect into his life. In New York, he holds court at The Russian Samovar (52nd Street & 8th Ave), run by Roman Kaplan, which was the usual hang-out of Susan Sontag and Joseph Brodsky. In SF, it is the Cafe Zoetrope (in the Sentinel Building) ; at Berkeley where he lives, it is Chez Panisse, of course. In Paris, it is Semilla, 54 rue de Seine. Every February, on his way to the Berlin Festival, Tom stops in Paris for a few days and gathers his friends from the movie world, the literary world, the press world for a fascinating event which I try to never miss.

Peter Selz at the time of his Mark Rothko show at MoMA

“-Did you interview my friend Peter Selz about Rothko?”, Tom had asked me a month ago, when we last met on the rue de Seine. Peter Selz had curated the most important Rothko show at MoMA in 1961, just at the time when Rothko, distanciating himself from mainstream taste, was turning into a real pioneer, and decided to launch “a revolution in viewing” with his concept of “art as an experience”. –“No, Tom, I did not interview Peter Selz. I did not think that he was still alive”, was my answer, as I felt mortified by such a mistake on my part. -“You should send him a copy of the book and try to meet him when you come to SF”, he added. Now, I was about to fly to San Francisco and I did not really know how todeal with this embarrassing situation: how would someone of such importance in Rothko’s career who had not been asked his point of view react to the book? I managed to get Selz’s email and wrote a short note, hoping that he would come to the lecture or else that I could visit him. My surprise was total when, the next morning, I received the following impeccable message:

Peter Selz came on his own, by public transportation, from Berkeley to the JCC on California Avenue in San Francisco. He arrived, elegant, all dressed-up, in white shirt and white jacket. I decided to keep his name secret during my presentation, alluding to the MoMA who, of course, until I showed a screen shot of his email and invited him to join me on stage. I mentioned some of Selz’s essential dates: born in 1919 in Munchen, he visited the art scene as a child with his grand father who was an art dealer, before leaving Germany on his own, after the Kristallnacht. “We were totally secular. We hardly knew we were Jews,” he said about his past. In New York, he worked in a brewry, before being trained by Alfred Stieglitz, a distant cousin of his. Then, he started a Ph D. on German Expressionism at the University of Chicago, with a constant interest for the social aspects of art history. When Selz started to work as a curator at MoMA, he always focused on “artists out of the mainstream”, and organized provocative shows such as New Images of Man, with artists celebrating the human figure at a time when abstract expressionism was most in vogue. Then, in Homage to New York, Selz gave total freedom to Jean Tinguely to design a machine which bursted into flames and self-destructed itself in the museum’s sculpture garden. Later on, he curated Running Fence, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s first kinetic sculpture in California.

During our talk, Peter recalled his first live encounter with Rothko’s paintings during the 1954 exhibition curated by Katharine Kuh, at the Art Institute. As for the 1961 MoMA show, Selz told us about Rothko’s obsession to stage his own exhibitions with the most careful attention to details, and about the artist’s uneasiness with the market, when he was starting to focus on creating the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Towards the end of our talk, Selz added: “Some critics spoke about Rothko’s paintings as color-field. But they are not color-field paintings, they are human emotions.” I also included Selz’s remarks about the Rothko Chapel panels in Houston, which he described as “medieval altarpieces, /which/ really seem to ask for a special place apart, a kind of sanctuary, where they may perform what is essentially a sacramental function.” The audience was mesmerized by his testimony and many people came to congratulate him afterwards. Needless to say, we already planed to curate a few shows together, in the coming years…

At dinner, when we heard that Netanyaou got reelected, everyone was depressed ; in the taxi which drove me back from Berkeley to San Francisco, I asked the taxi driver where he was from. -“From Jerusalem ”, he said, and we exchanged a few words in Arabic. How sad to leave SF after less than a day ! How sad to leave behind the eucalyptus, my favorite tree !

How would LA react to Rothko?

After such a meaningful response in SF, I was kind of puzzled about the reaction to Rothko’s art and legacy in LA. Close to the Getty, the Skirball Center has an immense and modern theater, in which Amina Sanchez immediately sets the tone: this is a place in which “jewish values are integrated to democratic values”. She has prepared a beautiful postcard with Rothko’s N°10/ BROWN, BLACK, SIENNA ON DARK WINE (IUNTITLED), 1963 as an invitation.

I’ll be interviewed by Jori Finkel whose texts are right up my alley: she deals with collectors, art market, artists’ rights and once wrote a very provocative piece about private museums: “Will there be life after death for new private museums? , which I totally agreed on. Backstage, Jori requests my assistance for the translation of a paragraph in one of Emile Zola’s novels, dealing with auction sales in 19th century Paris for which she needs a very precise translation ; Jori is demanding and I already know that we’ll have fun. Someone takes out his camera when I show the Group of the Ten, but then he seems somewhat embarrassed about it. I click back on the picture, so that everyone can snap it and take it away.

The debate is excellent, very lively, and many questions relate to Rothko’s correspondances with contemporary artists, such as James Turrell. Nothing could make me happier, as I always felt that Rothko was a kind of mentor for the next generation of conceptual and minimal artists -Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Doug Wheeler, Fred Sandback. Is it not really ironic ? When, in 1962, Rothko decided to leave Sidney Janis who had made him rich and famous, it is simply because Janis had just exhibited some of those precise artists… Having left Janis, Rothko signed with the Marlborough Gallery, -a terrible mistake. After Rothko’s suicide on February 25th, 1970, Rothko’s children sued Marlborough and this turned up into one of the longest and most unpleasant law suit in the history of the art world.

In the airport, on my way back to the East Coast, some unexpected encounters, around St Patrick’s Day…

par Annie Cohen-Solal