Mark Rothko

Why the Tate turned down Rothko’s offer of 30 paintings

Archives reveal the events behind director Norman Reid’s decision to accept only nine of the artist’s pictures

Mark Rothko once offered to donate 30 paintings to the Tate, but the trustees turned them down because of the artist’s conditions. These works could be worth $1bn today. The Tate instead accepted nine pictures to create its legendary Rothko Room.

With Tate Modern showing a special exhibition on Rothko, The Art Newspaper has delved into the archives to trace how former gallery director Norman Reid developed a friendship with America’s greatest modern painter. This story not only explains how the Tate acquired its Rothko Room, but it also sheds light on the complex personality of the artist in the years leading up to his suicide.

Reid first visited Rothko in October 1965. A few days later the artist wrote to him about a potential gift, explaining that “the whole idea sprang newly born as we sat facing each other”. Even following this encounter, the Tate director could hardly have imagined that Rothko’s 69th Street studio would soon become “more familiar to me than almost any other place in New York”, as he later recalled.

Reid returned to New York in February 1966. Rothko was offering to donate 30 paintings that had been in his 1961 retrospective, which had opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and gone on to the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. These included a number of the mural pictures commissioned in 1958 for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building. But Rothko pulled out of the project, saying the restaurant was ”a place where the richest bastards of New York will come to feed and show off”.

Following Reid’s meetings in New York, Rothko travelled to London in August 1966. Unfortunately, Reid was away for most of the week Rothko was in town. When the artist dropped into the Tate on the Friday, Reid had to attend a trustees meeting. Reid took Rothko to meet the trustees and showed him around the gallery, but it was difficult to have a detailed discussion on the proposed gift. Rothko left London feeling snubbed.

Near disaster

On his return to New York, the artist wrote a furious letter about the proposed gift: “Your complete personal neglect of my presence in London and your failure to provide adequate opportunities for these discussions poses for me the following question: Was this simply a typical demonstration of traditional English hospitality, or was it your way of indicating to me that you were no longer interested in these negotiations?”

Reid composed a masterful reply, apologising for “that wretched trustees meeting”. He then turned to the proposed gift: “Only Turner, Picasso and Matisse have a room to themselves in the Tate. In suggesting that there should be a Rothko room—where the pictures would be changed from time to time so that there would be new arrangements like music, playing a different tune, I had this in mind as the greatest honour we could offer an artist.”

Rothko was won over, thanking Reid for his “gracious and beautiful letter”. Reid returned to New York in February 1967, when the artist offered to donate 30 paintings, with 8-10 coming as an immediate gift and the remainder as an irrevocable bequest. But Tate’s trustees were worried that they might have to permanently hang all the works, so they decided to accept nine, a manageable number for a single room (one picture was donated in 1968 and detailed discussions continued on eight more). At today’s prices, a gift of all 30 might now be worth $1bn (a Rothko fetched $73m at Sotheby’s on 15 May 2007).

Reid later recalled in a private note: “Rothko told me that he had offered the whole of his Whitechapel exhibition as a gift to MoMA, New York, who had declined it. I do not know if his offer had conditions attached to it but he would certainly have required a [permanent] exhibition. He touched on the possibility of giving all the paintings to the Tate but my trustees thought this would raise considerable problems so we stayed with the idea of a single room.”

Rothko was developing medical problems and in April 1968 had a heart aneurysm. Relations with his wife Mel deteriorated and on 1 January 1969 he left home and moved into his studio. Reid was one of his first visitors, arriving on 7 January for a four-hour meeting.

The Tate director recorded in a memo: “I was extremely disappointed to find that his studio was completely disorganised by a programme of making photographs of all the works in his possession, many of which had been stored in warehouses for a long time. Rothko himself is much changed since his serious illness of a few months ago although he has since then produced a series of 40 or 50 paintings on paper, many of which are extremely beautiful.”

Reid returned to New York in November 1969. By this time, Rothko “was in a very depressed state of mind about his work, so that a lot of the time was spent reassuring him that the Tate really did want to have the paintings”. Reid had already sent Rothko a model of the room in which his pictures were to hang and the artist had produced miniature versions of the Seagram murals to position in them. (The model is part of the current Tate Modern show.)

The final agreement for the donation of the eight paintings was signed in a fish restaurant near the studio. As usual, Rothko had sea bass, washed down with a lot of wine. The eight works were valued at $330,000, a considerable sum for contemporary art at the time.

This was their final meeting. In the early hours of 25 February 1970, in his studio, Rothko slashed his wrists. Later that day his body was discovered in a pool of blood. Back in London, Tate curators were told that morning that the eight paintings had finally arrived in the gallery’s store. This was followed just a few hours later with a sombre message from Reid announcing Rothko’s death.


Rothko’s huge murals proved a logistical challenge for the Tate. Reid explained to Rothko’s lawyer Bernard Reis on 25 March: “We have a serious physical problem even in getting them into the building. Only the small ones can be got through our doors and none of the large ones will come up in our service lift...It is ironical that they should have come all this way across the Atlantic and now face this difficulty of actually getting into the building.” It was not until 22 April that they were successfully moved into the gallery.

Looking back on his five-year friendship with Rothko, Reid had some fascinating insights. Despite his success, Rothko remained insecure: “He kept expressing doubts about whether his pictures would be appreciated in London, in particular he seemed concerned that the young artists might feel antagonistic towards them.”

Reid recorded in a private note his thoughts about Rothko: “To me personally he was always warm and charming. Over the years his paintings became darker and darker in tone and he seemed pleased when I told him I liked the dark ones. ‘If this room is a success,’ he said, ‘I will give you another room of the light ones.’”

Sir Norman Reid died last December, aged 91: the Rothko acquisition remains one of his greatest triumphs. Achim Borchardt-Hume, curator of the current show, says the Rothko Room is “perhaps the most iconic group of post-war works of art in any gallery in the world”.

o “Rothko” is on view at Tate Modern until 1 February 2009.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 196 November 2008