The grave of Mark Rothko at a cemetery in East Marion, on the North Fork of Long Island.
By KATHRYN SHATTUCK
Published: April 8, 2008
For 38 years the body of the artist Mark Rothko has rested in an unassuming cemetery on the North Fork of Long Island, a quiet reminder of both the Abstract Expressionist legacy and one of the harshest legal battles ever to rock the art world.
Now, in a potential addendum to the history books that threatens to resurrect bitter memories of the long fight over Rothko’s estate, the artist’s daughter and son have petitioned a New York State judge to clear the way to have their father’s remains disinterred and reburied in a Jewish cemetery in Westchester County.
The request has met with resistance from the owner of the burial plot, the sister of one of Rothko’s friends. It also comes as a disappointment to some residents of East Marion, a hamlet of 800 nestled between Greenport and Orient Point.
The potential loss of the Rothko burial place “is a big deal,” said Nancy Poole, secretary-treasurer of the East Marion Cemetery Association. “He’s our only notable person.”
“There’s quite an artistic community out here,” she said. “And when this first started, people who knew who he was were quite alarmed that this was being contemplated.”
The cemetery association’s board voted nonetheless in March 2007 to allow the exhumation. (Ms. Poole cast the sole dissenting vote.) To protect itself against potential community wrath, board members decided to require Rothko’s daughter, Dr. Kate Rothko Prizel, to obtain a court order permitting the removal of the remains. She and her brother, Christopher Rothko, declined to comment on their legal petition.
Arthur G. Pitts, a State Supreme Court justice in Riverhead in Suffolk County, received the paperwork from all of the parties in recent days and has three months to reach a decision.
After Rothko’s suicide on Feb. 25, 1970, he was buried in a plot belonging to the painter Theodoros Stamos, a friend and one of three executors of his estate. The following year, guardians acting on behalf of Rothko’s children filed a lawsuit against the executors regarding the artist’s assets that would drag on for more than a decade.
Dr. Prizel and Dr. Rothko are also seeking to exhume the body of their mother, Mary Alice, who died six months after their father and was buried in Knollwood Cemetery and Mausoleum in Cleveland. Their goal is to reinter her remains with Rothko’s in Sharon Gardens in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y.
“Petitioners have long wished to reunite their parents in a final resting place consistent with their parents’ wishes and Mark Rothko’s Jewish faith,” their petition reads.
Mark and Mary Alice Rothko were estranged and living apart when Rothko died.
To remove Rothko’s body from East Marion, Dr. Prizel and Dr. Rothko need the approval of not only the cemetery association but also of Georgianna Savas, a sister of Stamos and the executor of his estate. Ms. Poole said that in October 2006 Dr. Prizel asked to have her father’s remains moved to another part of the cemetery so that her parents could be buried together but changed her mind soon afterward.
Ms. Savas has said that she would offer Dr. Prizel and Dr. Rothko an additional burial plot among the Stamos holdings.
According to Dr. Prizel’s and Dr. Rothko’s petition, the family sought to have their mother buried next to their father in 1970 “but this request was refused.” But neither Ms. Poole nor Ms. Savas said they had any knowledge of a request for Mary Alice Rothko to be buried alongside her husband at the time of her death. “Stamos would never have refused such an offer,” Ms. Savas said. “They were the very, very best of friends. This was only six months afterwards. The trial had not begun, and there was no animosity anywhere.”
There soon would be. Dr. Prizel was 19, and Dr. Rothko was 6 when their father died. In 1971 their guardians sued the estate’s three executors: Stamos; Morton Levine, an anthropology professor; and Bernard J. Reis, chief accountant of the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan. They accused them of selling or consigning paintings to the Marlborough Gallery at less than market value while collecting exorbitant commissions and dividing the proceeds. In 1975 the men were found guilty of negligence and conflict of interest, removed as executors and fined, along with Marlborough, $9.2 million.
As payment, Stamos signed over his Manhattan home to the Rothko estate but was granted tenancy for life. He died in 1997 on the Greek island of Lefkada.In a letter to Ms. Poole Ms. Savas recalls being notified in November 2006 by Lee V. Eastman, a lawyer for Dr. Prizel, that the Rothko children had decided to move their father’s remains and was asked if she objected.
“Feeling that I had no say in the matter, I agreed with their decision, and he told me he would send me a letter for my signature,” Ms. Savas wrote. She said she signed that letter.
But a year later, when she received a call telling her that another letter would need to be signed and notarized, Ms. Savas reconsidered.
“This is a very traumatic ordeal for me, reliving all of Stamos’s feelings and the suffering he went through with the suicide of his best friend,” she wrote.
Although her brother was shunned by the art world after the Rothko court case, Ms. Savas says her stance was not motivated by hurt or retribution but rather by the desire to preserve a piece of history. “Oh, absolutely not,” she said. “This is the Rothko history saga.” Regardless of whether the court rules in favor of Dr. Prizel and Dr. Rothko, she has two requests.
The first is to put a historical marker at the East Marion site indicating that Rothko was “buried there through the good graces and efforts of his best friend and artist Stamos,” she wrote to Ms. Poole.
“With all the agony and suffering Stamos went through,” she continued, “with the Rothko trial and his loss of everything including property, reputation, financial losses and failing health, in the name of justice, this historical marker will be a reminder of the Stamos-Rothko friendship that existed between two major artists, both pioneers in the Abstract Expressionist movement.”
The second request is the placement of a historical marker on land adjacent to the East Marion plot, an empty grave where she wishes her brother had been buried.
George Morton, the president of the East Marion Cemetery Association, said that in some ways he now regrets his decision to vote in favor of the exhumation.
“I knew nothing, really, about him,” he said of Rothko. “Since then, I’ve become more familiar. Now if we were to vote, I know my hand would go up to say, ‘Let’s leave him here.’ ”