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Photo: V. Lokotko

Rothko “Returns” to Daugavpils 0

A quick interview with Aleksejs Burunovs, head of the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center

“I tend to hang paintings lower, rather than higher. Especially the big pieces – I put them as close to the floor as possible, because that's the way they were painted,” said Mark Rothko (1903-1970) in 1954. Although Rothko himself decried the use of “labels” to classify artists, he himself was, undeniably, a world-famous representative of expressionism. In fact, his painting, “Orange, Red, Yellow” (1961), which was sold at auction at Christie's last May, has gained the subtitle of “most expensive piece of contemporary art ever sold”. It was one of the most heated struggles over a lot in Christie’s history, and as a result, the painting went for 86.9 million US dollars.

On 24 April, the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center ceremoniously opened as a multifunctional center for culture, art and education. From now on, visitors will be able to delve into biographic and chronological facts in the Center's library, watch films about the esteemed artist in the video room, and experience solitude in the Rothko “Room of Silence”. The Center will have a permanent collection of six paintings (which will be exchanged regularly) on exhibit; a section of the Center also contains equipped studios for student residency programs.

Beginning with 25 April already, the Center will be open for regular visiting hours, and all interested parties will have the opportunity to see for themselves how the paintings have been put on display – alongside 41 museum-quality prints, there will also be six Mark Rothko originals. The last time that Rothko's paintings could be seen in Latvia was ten years ago, at an exhibition celebrating what would have been the artist's 100th birthday, at the Latvian National Art Museum in Riga. For those who may not remember, the museum had provided a rather dark exhibition space for the paintings – per request of the Washington National Gallery, with whom the exhibition had been arranged. “The governing atmosphere in my studio makes one think that I am painting for a cathedral, rather than a restaurant,” Rothko once said as he was working on the murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. Four of the huge studio windows had been curtained shut by the artist in order to create a twilight-like atmosphere. Born in 1903 in the city of Daugavpils (which was part of the Russian Empire at the time), Marcus Rothkowitz came to America at age ten, after a 12-day-long passage by ship. The child had feared that they would never climb ashore. America became Rothko's home until 1970, when the artist and father of two decided to leave this life of his own free will.

Rothko's son and daughter – Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko-Prizel, will honor us with their  presence at the opening of the Daugavpils Center. It was thanks to them that the original paintings have come to Daugavpils. On opening day, 24 April, the lecture presentation “Opportunities and Challenges Facing the Return of Rothko” will take place at 14.30. In addition to the artist's offspring, presenters will include Ojārs Spārītis, Eduards Kalniņš and the local curator from Daugavpils, Farida Zaletilo – who is, in large part, responsible for the “return” of Rothko to Latvia.

Mark Rothko. Photo from Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center archive

For some historical background on the creation of the Center, you may recall that at the beginning of 2007, the Daugavpils City Council approved a plan for creating a Mark Rothko art center in the Artillery Arsenal Building. This building – a two-story brick structure built in the Empire Style – is designated as a state-level historical architecture site, and is located in Daugavpils Fort, at 3 Mihaila Street. Set forth by a decree of Russia's Emperor Nikolai I, the building was finished in 1833. It fulfilled its function as an artillery arsenal through the middle of the 20th century. The technical project, “Mark Rothko Art Center”, was designed in 2008, by the architectural offices of ARHIS. Construction began in May of 2011, and ended in December 2012. The historical building and its surrounding grounds, as well as the layout of the Arsenal Building, were conserved as much as possible during construction, which has resulted in the project being nominated for the “Latvian Award for Architecture”, for the year 2012.

Photo: V. Lokotko

Before the grand opening, contacted the director of the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center, Aleksejs Burunovs, to find out more about this new point of interest on the cultural map of Latvia.

Which original works have entered the collection, and how did they come into the possession of the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center?

I don't want to reveal the list of works at the current moment – so that there will be an air of surprise at the opening event. But I can say that they will be six originals from the collection of Kate Rothko-Prizel and Christopher Rothko. The works reflect all of the artist's creative periods. The Center has received the works on long-term loan, and our agreement foresees that they will be exchanged for different ones every three years. The project was formed, and the works were received, due to our very good cooperation with both of the artist's heirs – which started back in 2003, with the celebration of the artist's 100th birthday.

Besides the originals, what else will be on view in the Center's collection?

From the moment the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center opens, visitors will be able to view expositions set up in more than 2000 square meters of space: the Mark Rothko exhibition, the Center's collection, graphic artworks by Peter Griffith (Great Britain), paintings by Solomina Gershova (Russia), ceramics by Pēteris Martinsons (Latvia), and an exhibition featuring works by artists from the Latgale region of Latvia. All of the Center's regular services will also be operational – the conference wing, the residency programs, the Arsenāls cafe, etc.

Could you explain what the “Room of Silence” is, and does it have any connection to the “Rothko Chapel” in Huston?

The idea really was to create a meditative space with a similar atmosphere to that of the “Rothko Chapel” in Huston.

Photo: J. Dunaiskis

It was recently stated in the news that the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center has only received half of the sum that was promised to it by the Latvian Ministry of Culture. How would you comment on this? Will this influence the planned operations of the Center?

Of course, we would like closer cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, and we hope that this will happen in the future – because we think that the Center's investment in the development of art and art education will be considerable.

How often will there be public activities held at the Center, and what are the closest events coming up? Is the Center preparing to observe Rothko's 110th birthday in September?

In the span of a year, over 160 activities (not including exhibitions) have been planned. This includes more than 40 large-scale events, creative workshops, conferences, concerts and the like. On 9 May we will be hosting the conference “Rothko and Abstract Expressionism”. On 18 May the Center will take part in the state-wide “Museum Night” event. In June, there will be the concert series “Rothko's Favorite Composers”, as well as the City Festival events, and in July – the “Art in Focus” summer school for youths, and an evening of chamber music. And in September: the international residency program, “Mark Rothko”, which is still accepting applications through 20 June; a concert with Aivars Broks; and the celebration of Mark Rothko's 110th birthday. On this day – 25 September – the Latvian Postal Service will be releasing the new “Mark Rothko” stamp. 

Has news of the opening of the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center reached beyond the borders of Latvia?

Yes; the interest from foreign media is sometimes greater than that of the local media. We're expecting both foreign guests and the international press at the opening. 

How dotes the historical space of the Arsenal Building coexist with the Mark Rothko paintings and the spirit of expressionism?

Fantastically! The rooms and spaces are unique – they are not only suited for works of art, but it is also very pleasant to spend time in them... You must come and see for yourself!

How do you feel before the opening ceremonies?

Busy and excited!