Rothko, the Tate Modern and my dad

Rothoko at SF MoMA, cc licensed by Notnarayan

Rothoko at SF MoMA, cc licensed by Notnarayan

Sometime during the mid-1970s, when I was a young teenager, Dad took us to see a Mark Rothko retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I must be cautious here in recalling the extent to which I was moved by a beginning-to-end look at the Russian-American painter’s work. “What you end up remembering,” Julian Barnes wrote, “isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

I’ve written before about being the son of an artist, the particular gift of viewing art as a verb – a thing not that has been done, but rather a thing that people do. But I came slowly to this notion, to thinking deeply about the connections between the things on the walls of museums and the act of painting that was so much a part of family life growing up. And so there was a time during my teenage years when I made the shift from what I remember as annoyance at being dragged through museum after museum of what I came to call “art by dead people” and the real living art in that Rothko retrospective. Never mind that Rothko was dead by that point. In its modernity, there was life, not a thing but a thing made by a person. You could see in the arc of time captured by the show, Rothko working out an idea. (Do I remember this? Did Dad tell me, show me this?) In the retelling of my life with art, that Rothko show stands out with a handful of other collisions between art and my youthful self.

Thus it was that I found myself last week in a dimly lit room upstairs at the Tate Modern, filled with paintings from Rothko’s famed Four Seasons commission, tears streaming down my face. Dad’s still alive, but in the twilight of his dementia cannot share things like this any more.

A few months ago, as I was wheeling Dad out of the hospital, he asked my sister, Lisa, who the nice man was who was pushing his wheelchair. Lisa, who has an easy grace about these things, cheerfully told him it was John, his son. He seemed delighted to know he had a son.


  1. Thanks for writing something so personal and heartfelt. My dad died in an accident. My mom died slowly with cancer. Faster is better. But I can only imagine the agony of losing someone who is still here. I’m glad you have such a grace-full sister.

  2. This is beautifully written. Thank you, John, for sharing so deeply with us. I too am going through a similar experinece with my Mom. It is tough to watch our parents decline. We used to joke that Mother could organize the Pentagon! Now she doesn’t even know who we are. I felt for you when your Dad asked who you were. That is so hard. I am glad you and Lisa have each other. Bless you, John, for sharing this.

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