The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 09-JAN 10

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DEC 09-JAN 10 Issue
Art In Conversation

DAVID ANFAM with John Yau

Portrait of David Anfam. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of David Anfam. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

While in New York for the opening of Norman Lewis: Pulse–A Centennial Exhibition at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, for which he wrote the catalogue essay, David Anfam, Commissioning Editor for Fine Art at Phaidon Press and author of Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: A Catalogue Raisonné (Yale University Press, 1998), among many other publications, met with Art Editor John Yau to talk about his life and work.

John Yau (Rail): I would like to begin with your first trip to America in 1977.

David Anfam: It was June of 1977. It was bloody hot, and I was 22.

Rail: And you were at the Courtauld Institute.

Anfam: I’d done a B.A. at the Courtauld and managed to get a first class honors grade, so I skipped an M.A. and went straight to the Ph.D. I was lucky because my supervisor was John Golding, who was an amazing teacher.

Rail: Golding was interested in the Abstract Expressionists. He also wrote about Duchamp and Cubism—his book Cubism: A History and an Analysis, 1907-1914 was seminal.

Anfam: Although there’s been oodles written since then, it was an epochal book. While Golding didn’t talk a lot, what he said carried enormous weight. He said, “You’ve got to go to America,” and I thought, “My god,” because I’d had fantasies of New York. For me, America was the movies. That’s another story. So I managed to go over. I stayed in the Vanderbilt YMCA, room 1307. Naively, I handwrote many letters while staying at the Y—and, amazingly, people responded. For example, I went to see Kate Rothko and her husband Ilya in Baltimore. As an undergraduate I thought Rothko was the tops, so it was almost an overwhelming moment for me. The difficulty was that when I graduated in 1976 the Rothko Trial was still winding up, therefore you couldn’t access the paintings. I wanted to do my dissertation on Rothko but then Golding suddenly said, “Well, Clyfford Still.” John held Still in the highest regard. Of course, I didn’t quite realize what I was letting myself in for. While I knew Still had a reputation, I hadn’t gauged the extent of his one-of-a-kind, daunting, outsider personality. Nobody could have chosen a tougher subject for a PhD than Still. My hope was that by choosing Still—he and Rothko were close friends for a brief period in the late 40s—I could in a sense, crucially, touch upon Rothko as well. The upshot is that, having written to all the major collectors and players, as well as Still’s friends, I actually managed to meet a lot of them—including Jon Schueler, Ernest Briggs, and Ed Dugmore, all painters who had studied under Still in California. I was just incredibly lucky.

What was really exciting was that Kate Rothko had said, “Come on down to Baltimore.” Here I’m skipping ahead because the bigger picture was that I’d decided to do a grand tour of North America. I couldn’t drive, and it was too expensive to fly, so I bought a two-month Greyhound pass in the days before the Internet changed everything. In retrospect, heaven knows how I even found out about these things. My journey started in the first or second week of November ’77 and I kept on the buses for two months. Somehow I’d managed to arrange this trip without even using a phone—nowadays it would take me more like six months to organize. [Laughs.] It took me to Buffalo because I had to visit the Albright-Knox. I decided I’d need a whole week to just literally study the 33 Still paintings there, but I had a problem because I wasn’t sure where to stay. Through another teacher at the Courtauld I contacted Reyner Banham, the great modern architectural historian, who was of course a Brit. I wrote him a letter, again by hand, and said, “Dear Professor Banham, I’m visiting Buffalo to study the Clyfford Stills at the Albright-Knox, can you recommend anywhere to stay?” And he very kindly answered, “Well, come and stay with us. We actually live not very far from Elmwood Avenue.” So I said, “That’s very kind of you,” and I got on a bus.

This was my first port of call. I reached Buffalo, stayed in Banham’s house while he and his wife Mary went to Pittsburgh to lecture. Then I did Detroit, Chicago, Boston. In fact I covered the whole eastern seaboard—Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., where I went to the National Gallery wanting to see one of the Stills in storage although I hadn’t made any appointments. To my surprise, down came the legendary E.A. Carmean himself, who explained, “Well I’m sorry but this Still is in storage, we can’t get to it.”

From Washington I went to Detroit. I always stayed at YMCAs since they were cheap and okay enough. This time I had to catch a Greyhound bus at six in the morning for Chicago, so I left the YMCA at something like 4 a.m. Insanely, I walked through downtown Detroit on a December morning. It was a ghost town. After Chicago, the bus took me across America. My first sight of the Great Plains was eye-opening, I’d never been in that kind of flatness before. And in a way it dovetailed with a lot about Clyfford Still and his experience of the space of the West.

Rail: He was from a wide-open landscape.

Anfam: Yeah, he was from the Northwest—Washington State and Alberta. And so it felt as though I was traveling through the very subject I was doing. Eventually, I reached San Francisco and I’d written to Henry Hopkins, who was the director of the main museum there. Still’s gift to the museum had only recently happened. Again, to my astonishment, he said, “Come at closing time.” There were the great Stills on display plus many others stored in hollow walls. Hopkins pulled out one canvas after another. In other words, I had them all to myself. This was around seven in the evening. The experience of facing the Stills in Buffalo and San Francisco, and—this is all coming back to me now, it feels Proustian, but we’re lacking a madeleine! [Laughter.] And then I reached Los Angeles. Again, I’d written to Marcia Weisman. Now don’t ask me how I got from a West Hollywood YMCA to Beverly Hills, I don’t know.

Rail: A taxicab would have been too expensive.

Anfam: Especially for a student—I must have taken a bus because I found myself in areas of Beverly Hills where nobody goes on foot. I walked up to the doorway, rang the bell and there was Marcia Weisman. She had two of the greatest Stills, both from the late 40s; there was a big black and gray painting and an incredible red-brown one that blew me away. When Still was good, he was unimaginably good in a kind of visceral, gut-wrenching way that played to your deepest emotions. When I saw those paintings for the first time I just thought, “This is me. I’ve got to do Still.” But in the meantime I’d written to Still and gotten a terse reply from his wife Patricia referring to Mr. Still and thanking me for my interest in his work. However, at the end of the day when I went back to England in ’78 they never saw me. Clyfford Still never agreed to meet me.

Rail: He was famously impossible.

Anfam: Yes. First of all you’d get a reply which was encouraging and then when I contacted Patricia, Still’s wife, after I got here—previously in London, I’d got an encouraging letter, which made me think, “Oh boy, this is great. I’m going to meet Clyfford Still.” Yet, once I was in New York and wrote again to Patricia, here was the one person who didn’t reply positively. She said something like—I probably still have the letter—“This was definitely not what I meant. Mr. Still never gives interviews or involves himself with anything of this kind.” I thought, nonetheless, I’ve come here and I’ve been able to see all this stuff. Not having succeeded in meeting Still himself, I felt compelled to try to see everything else which was accessible, quite apart from the obvious museum collections, like those in Buffalo and San Francisco—the unbelievable big black painting in Chicago, which had belonged to John Stephan, who was once the editor of the Tiger’s Eye. Also, somehow I found time to travel to Rhode Island to go see Stephan, who was old and ill by that time. He was, as you know, a painter himself.

Rail: Tiger’s Eye was a very important and lively little magazine.

Anfam: They did a show up at the Yale University art gallery a few years ago and invited me to give a lecture. I spent nine months preparing the talk—totally, completely crackers. But I enjoyed it because this was material I wanted to research anyway about the Tiger’s Eye. In preparing the lecture I dug deep into the whole Tiger’s Eye subject.

Rail: John and Ruth Stephan published poetry, fiction, artists’ writings in the magazine—Barnett Newman’s writing, for example.

David Anfam, watercolor replica after Clyfford Still's
David Anfam, watercolor replica after Clyfford Still's "Untitled" (1945).

Anfam: That’s right, they were all in there. There was one issue on the sublime. The Tiger’s Eye was a nexus—many paths lead into and out of it. At one stage Stephan had been quite close to Still and he also owned two Stills then. I remember, because I didn’t have a camera, I made a watercolor replica of the earlier painting. I’ve still got it. It became one of the illustrations for my Ph.D. It was a Still that had never been reproduced. So I drew this pencil sketch and when I got back to my room at the Y, I filled it in with watercolor. What chuffed me was when, years afterward, I finally saw the painting illustrated, I found that my little sketch wasn’t too bad at all! [Laughter.] In fact, Patricia herself did small replicas to catalogue her husband’s work. She started the record by doing thumbnail-size sketches.

Rail: Did you meet Frank Lobdell in California?

Anfam: No, I didn’t. I wish I had. In the time available, I tried to do as much as possible. In retrospect there was considerable research on Still I could have followed up, but I just never had the chance. I know if I’d have returned, I could have gone to Washington State and Alberta. In the late 70s, early 80s, there were still people living who had known Still when he was teaching there. Those were tracks that went cold because I could only do so much.

Also, I traveled to Martha’s Vineyard. What I cannot remember is how I arranged these things logistically. This is before the Internet and I couldn’t hear on the phone. Speaking of which, I guess it must have something to do with being deaf. As I couldn’t do things in the conventional way, I was more compulsively driven to accomplish them. The point I’m trying to make is that I visited Lois Katzenbach on the Vineyard—she had known Still, and her husband, William Katzenbach, had given her or bought an early figurative canvas. Locating early figurative Stills in those days was like trying to find hen’s teeth. This was a singular painting. It’s been reproduced since. It came on the market and went to a private collection in LA—two intertwined figures done around 1936. That was my first glimpse of an entire body of early work which basically no one knew about and I thought I had to grasp the whole development of Still’s vision—that was the first step. Lois Katzenbach was very kind and she gave me lunch and so on. I must have taken a boat out there.

Rail: You had to have taken a boat.

Anfam: Lois had known Still and reminisced a lot about him. I was really fascinated to meet such people, and make discoveries. Did you know that Still, while at Washington State College, wrote a remarkable long essay on Cézanne? That was one of the reasons I went to Washington D.C.; the typescript of that M.A. was in the Archives of American Art. I sat down with file cards and copied the entire manuscript by hand—maybe 45, 50 typescript pages –because they didn’t allow Xeroxes. I still have those file cards. It took about eight frantic hours.

Rail: What did you do after you finished your dissertation on Still?

Anfam: Doing my Ph.D. coincided with the appearance of Margaret Thatcher. She came into power in 1979, and it was a terrible turn.

Rail: Why?

Anfam: It was the beginning of the end of publicly funded education in the UK. These days, if I were now in the same economic situation as I was then, I wouldn’t be able to afford to study for a Ph.D. Once I was doing it though, I also started teaching. My first teaching outside the Courtauld was a course in Abstract Expressionism at University College, London. Lynne Cooke invited me. However, when I completed the Ph.D, I found I couldn’t get an academic job at all. There were lots of jokes then about people having Ph.D.s and not being able to find a job. Having just gotten a Ph.D. from Courtauld, which was no meager achievement, I found the only job I could land was delivering Volvos. Now that was a great job since I went for one year of my life without a thought. [Laughs.] Not a single thought. Just driving the Volvos from the factory, from the garage, to their new owners. It was a blissful nirvana of thoughtlessness—no soul-searching, no worries, just doing the work mindlessly and on time. Still, that ended when I took up more part-time teaching. I was lecturing at what were then called “polytechnics”—they became “universities.” By the second half of the 80s I found myself doing close on three part-time jobs that paid less than one whole full-time salary. That’s the trouble with part-time teaching.

Rail: Were you writing about art then?

Anfam: Yeah, I started writing about art fairly early on with a review of a Kitaj show, but hadn’t really gotten into it until Nikos Stangos turned up.

Rail: The poet and editor at Thames & Hudson.

Anfam: Nikos was a remarkable chap and a sharp commissioning editor for Thames & Hudson. After I finished the Ph.D., he snapped me up for a World of Art book.

Rail: Is that when you wrote the book Abstract Expressionism?

Anfam: Yes, the little 1990 volume. The facts about that book are that it was written during quite dark days, personally speaking, during a period when I was partly unemployed, partly slaving away on three different lecturing gigs—one on the history of architecture. I wrote the book on an Adler typewriter, which my grandmother had given me as a 16th birthday present. I mean, I look back and in retrospect it’s funny to think it was done on a small, old typewriter. Honestly, I sweated blood on it, and I know I couldn’t write that book again because in 40,000 words I had this incredible, preposterous challenge of trying to condense one of the most complex single modern art movements, alongside Cubism and Surrealism. How could a first-time author do a book on such a formidable subject on an Adler typewriter? The bottom line is that I bought industrial-scale quantities of correction fluid. [Laughter.] Not just one little bottle, I bought Tipp-Ex packed in boxes. On large pieces of card I mapped out each chapter in pencil and pen. I think the broader significance is that this was configured before the computer. Even with the most sophisticated software—and basically I’m a Luddite—I doubt that even now I could organize a chapter in that same material pattern. You see, this goes back to the thing about handwriting a letter. Writing is a physical activity. I converted to computer when I moved to the U.S. on the first of March 1989 to start on the Rothko catalogue raisonné. To their credit, the National Gallery of Art forced me to use a computer—I was deeply resistant to it. Nevertheless, what I did once I became used to a PC was to re-revise the handwritten and typed manuscript on Abstract Expressionism. So that little book spans two different paradigms.

Rail: The typewriter and the computer.

Anfam: It spans the paradigm of pre-computer, pre-cyberspace and then the first dawn of doing something on a word processor. There are two different interfaces for that book—which doesn’t, I hope, show.

Rail: It doesn’t.

Anfam: Thinking back to that period, I was actually in the kitchen preparing dinner one fine summer evening when the phone rang. I picked it up and the voice on the other end was Jack Cowart calling from the National Gallery and I, never terribly confident of my hearing, said, “the National Gallery London?” And he said, “No, this is the National Gallery in Washington D.C.” And I thought, “Oh, wow,” and he continued, “We’d like you to write a catalogue,” and I replied, “Well, that sounds very interesting.” Still, Jack hadn’t really explained much more about it. And I said, “Well, who’s the artist?” and he said, “Mark Rothko.” And I said, “I think I’m going to have another glass of wine.” [Laughs.]

What had actually happened was that Kate Rothko, whom I met down in Baltimore in ’77, had very generously shown me slides and maybe some photo printouts of all of the works that were in the Rothko Estate. To me, this was like manna from heaven. When I first started to study Abstract Expressionism, I came to it through Irving Sandler’s book The Triumph of American Painting published in 1976. From another angle, the book which to me was very vital was Dore Ashton’s Life and Times of the New York School.

Rail: Oh, A Cultural Reckoning.

Anfam: That’s right, A Cultural Reckoning. It’s a fine book. It’s not done in a rigorously historical manner; it’s conceived more in terms of Dore’s personal understanding and acquaintance with the artists. Yet in some respects it still brings the atmosphere and the life of the mind of that period alive. The key issue is that I came to Abstract Expressionism through the canonical, signature style works—you know, Rothko’s rectangles, Pollock’s skeins of paint, Still’s abstract cartographies, but for me the really urgent question, and I feel John Golding pointed me in that direction, was to learn about what preceded those works. Even then, early Abstract Expressionism was a closed book. It was only after, I seem to recall, Robert Hobbs and Gail Levin’s show—

Rail: At the Whitney?

Anfam: Yes, in ’78. It opened shortly after I returned to London from that first study trip. I immediately wrote to the Whitney and they mailed me a catalogue.

Rail: It’s very generous because it shows an early work, a late work, and a very concise paragraph on the left.

Anfam: That’s right. It was designed in an engaging way. In that book were numerous early works, which were something of a revelation, especially as Irving’s account tells a fairly well-established narrative going from the 30s Depression and the WPA through Surrealism and then Abstract Expressionism gelling in the late 40s or early 50s. By comparison, for me the terra incognita was what happened before that stage—I mean not just the WPA stuff, but the kind of early output that simply wasn’t known, partly perhaps due to the fact it wasn’t valuable on the market. The Whitney catalogue started me thinking along those lines. Looking at all the early Rothkos dating back to the 20s—I saw something like 300 slides, if not more—down in Baltimore on that winter’s evening in December ’77. And that was a glimpse of something astonishing. There, for the first time, one could begin to see the trajectory of an entire artist’s odyssey.

Rail: Which almost no one knew about.

Anfam: It was the difference between reading a map of New York State and then a map of North America. You realize what you’ve been looking at, in those famous Rothkos of the 50s, was just, well, New York State and Long Island. There existed a whole continental U.S., as it were, which hadn’t really been thought about. Although I don’t believe in reading history backwards, my feeling was you couldn’t make sense of the classic works without knowing what their matrix was, where they’d come from. I set myself to understand the entire curve of Rothko’s and Still’s work from early on. The only artist whose early art we’d already seen much of was Pollock—he was so famous, and the catalogue raisonné was published, if memory serves, in 1978. That was the stage when I began to realize how astonishingly atypical the early works often were. One of the most engrossing discoveries was going beyond the Greenbergian model—not simply assuming that the early sources were solely Modernist ones—Surrealism, Picasso, Cubism. Instead, a lot of the Abstract Expressionists initially became involved with pre-Modernist sources. Before Rothko was looking at Miró or Picasso or whomever in the 40s, in the 30s he was studying precisely what any artist of the period did—the old Masters. He was looking at Rembrandt, at Vermeer, and, as I tried to show later in the catalogue raisonné, there were various small early Rothkos based on Rembrandt reproductions, images he’d seen in old monographs. Those were the sources which emerging artists in the 20s studied. It was only later, of course, that they graduated to the School of Paris. For sure, we knew a bit more about Pollock—that he was exploring artists such as El Greco. In other words, this was the tip of an iceberg. And I believed that a truly exciting mission would be to reconstruct all this early geography, as it were. Obviously, the most unknown of them all was Still. At first, I couldn’t even begin to grasp what he had been into. It’s only recently that I’ve been fortunate enough to trace his evolution from his student days onwards, when I had the opportunity to view the awesome Stills in their warehouse a couple of years back. Finally, I was looking at the entirety of his development.

Rail: Which we still don’t know about.

Anfam: Still not known. Hopefully, once the Clyfford Still Museum opens—now set for spring of 2011—everything will change. The groundbreaking for the museum will happen next month. That’s a quantum leap. Essentially that vast body of extremely early work, 200 odd paintings, remains unknown. It’s deeply rewarding to find that of all the major Abstract Expressionists, Still worked his way through the history of art in a uniquely wide-ranging, eclectic fashion.

Even I haven’t seen the whole of Still’s output because there’s a heck of a lot in the warehouse, including over a thousand works on paper. And sculptures, lithographs too. There’s a huge variety there. The real crunch lies in grasping how Still, like an autodidact, thinks and learns as he goes along. By definition, autodidacts have to think for themselves. They can be wayward, they can be eccentric, yet they can also approach subjects from lateral directions in a manner that is the opposite of someone who’s been taught and imbibes their learning by following a straight and narrow path. On this score, my own situation comes to mind. At school, I couldn’t hear most of the teachers very well. Consequently, I was forced to learn things by myself, book reading, spending ages in the library, you know, it’s a different kind of education; and it can be more omnivorous than a traditional schooling where you’re taught things by rote. Still was the same. He had such a strong personality, so willful that you can’t imagine him ever being taught by another person. He taught himself. In so doing, it seems he ranged over a vast terrain. He starts by studying reproductions—what kind of magazines would a homestead in Alberta after the First World War get? I can’t even imagine the names of them, although one could easily do some excavating. They probably dealt with ranching and similar topics, they’re virtually Victorian in spirit. In those magazines, though, he would have seen reproductions of art and, I’m pretty certain, works such as Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, which was the most reproduced painting of the 19th century, and probably in black and white. Subsequently, I have argued that one of his canvases takes a detail of the monolithic cliff on the left of the Metropolitan’s version of the Isle of the Dead. It’s a source of which I feel fairly confident. The crux of the matter is that he would have seen things in a very heterodox way. He came to New York in ’24 and left the Art Students League after 15 minutes. Nevertheless, I have to say that in ’77 I went to the Art Students League on 57th St. Still’s name is registered for 1928-29 and that’s not in the official story, his story. Certainly, I’m not for a moment suggesting that Still is lying, yet I suspect there may be more to the whole picture other than what has officially been stated. My argument is that Still had such a multifarious habit of scrutinizing whatever took his fancy. Hence, he works through all the obvious sources of the School of Paris, Miró, Ernst, Picasso again and again in order to find himself. Also, some early pictures are based on the Picasso of the proto-Cubist period, primitive figures that almost seem hewn out of wood and have potbellies. Still is not just using the more obvious Picassos of the 20s, he’s searching further afield too.

Rail: When Picasso’s more raw.

Anfam: Yes, in short, it’s an incredibly gripping mélange.

Rail: It seems to compliment his own interest in Cézanne’s early paintings.

Anfam: That’s a good point, Still’s M.A. on Cézanne is a notable piece of art history, especially considering it’s done literally in the middle of nowhere in Pullman, Washington.

Rail: Yeah, how many Cézannes do you get to see in Pullman?

Anfam: He understands Cézanne as a rough, raw provincial who won’t fit into the academy in Paris. Thus, Cézanne becomes a kind of existential precursor for Still’s self-image as a species of pioneer of a new land. Really, it’s quite an existential notion of Cézanne. It touches on aspects of Cézanne that were only fully brought out much later by someone like Meyer Schapiro.

Rail: And Lawrence Gowing.

Anfam: And Gowing too. He was a remarkable art historian. To be honest, except in very rare instances, I could never read art history books for pleasure—Gowing’s monograph on Vermeer is the exception. Given the slightest chance, I always read poetry—poetry means more to me, almost, than visual art, it’s central for my life. Probably, I could just about live without Cézanne, but I couldn’t live without Wallace Stevens, or, say, Auden, and I know I couldn’t survive without Milton. One of the things I’ve tried to do is to memorize poetry. In fact, I can recite the opening lines of Paradise Lost now if you want them.

Rail: If you read poetry, you are likely to write criticism very differently than one who doesn’t read poetry. You think about language—music and structure—differently. 

Anfam: If there’s one business I take with absolute deadly seriousness, it’s every word committed to the page. This I say not with any sense of hubris whatsoever. With the Rothko catalogue raisonné, with its 830-something paintings and some 600 pages altogether, the part that counts most to me are the first 100 pages. Many people will probably never even read those pages of commentary. They’ll go through the 834 entries looking at the pictures. I’m sure every dealer does that because it’s a pragmatic, they want to know what this painting is, who had it, where it is, and so on. This touches on a delicate point. When I was researching Rothko—and, as I mentioned, I started on March 1st, 1989—I felt certain that I could not simply produce a catalogue without commentary. There are various schools of thoughts about catalogues raisonné. Francis O’Connor wrote a very positive review of mine. However, he took me to task for not having reined in my opinions—for instead writing the initial hundred pages of text. Francis felt that such interpretative text had no place in a catalogue raisonné. I sharply disagree. My view is that it’s the author’s, or, if you like, editor’s, job on such catalogues to set forth their findings. These shouldn’t just arrive as tablets of the law written on stone. You have to exercise a degree of transparency. One has an obligation, a scholarly duty, to explain the “raisonné” part of the catalogue, the reasoning, literally. And with Rothko, it was a massive challenge because you have an artist who pretty much kept no records—the exact opposite of Still. Still even recorded when things were shown privately in his studio to other artists, whereas Rothko, as far as we can tell, was systematically unsystematic: he kept no real records. It’s only recently that his typescript or book on art, written around 1939-40, came to light. I didn’t have that when I was doing my research, it surfaced afterwards. Instead, I found myself with more than 800 paintings, 400 of which had no dates. The task of trying to date 400 paintings was rather Herculean. The extraordinary thing, to echo what I said earlier, was that this catalogue was carried out in Luddite circumstances. Nowadays, there’s even a man who specializes in software for catalogues raisonné. By comparison, I had the most primitive of databases—it was a bit like flying in a plane made of wood and cardboard. Nonetheless, you still managed to get airborne; it still took off in the end. It wasn’t done in a high-tech environment, and the actual process was enormously convoluted. At one point, toward the finish, I gathered the Polaroids and photographs of everything I’d seen, and in my huge windowless office in the NGA’s West Wing, I laid out some 800 snapshots in four straight lines. It was a bit like a Richard Long. Polaroids starting from 1924, all laid out in exactly four square rows. The reason I had to do that was to visualize what kind of sequence all these works could form. And I’m saying this because a catalogue raisonné, as much as it strives towards scientific rigor—indeed an almost positivist attitude—it’s constantly coming up against a disorganized reality, one in which things have been lost, never known, not recorded, and so on. It’s an attempt to impose an idea of order and to recuperate events into a sort of imaginary museum without walls for the reader. Everything that Rothko had done in the circumstances of the everyday world had inevitably become scattered over time, like a diaspora of objects. Rothko had painted his first oil on canvas when he was living uptown near Columbia University and Central Park West, in 1924–25. He had given the canvas to his landlord in lieu of rent: I managed to track the painting down to a retirement home in North Miami, where it was still with the son of Rothko’s landlord. The Rothko catalogue raisonné, which was started in ’89 and published in ’98, took me nine years. So we’re talking nine years for more than 800 paintings plus 100 pages of text which themselves amount almost to the length of a short book, because they are double-sized pages. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it was not bad going to complete this huge project in nine years. However, I suspect the National Gallery wanted it finished quickly and there was always the feeling that there was no need for an introductory text. In a sense, anyone could do the cataloguing if they had enough application, stamina, time—but I’m certain that only I could have written that introduction. If you read nothing else, just please read that first page, because that first page took six years to write. For me, it had to be word perfect.

Rail: What are you working on now?

Anfam: Wayne Thiebaud. He’s got a show in London at Faggionato. By coincidence, I was in touch with Faggionato about something else. Meanwhile, they did a Thiebaud show and Gérard Faggionato emailed me saying, well, it’d be wonderful if you might be interested in writing on Thiebaud. Right away, I thought, yes—because what I want to tackle are things I haven’t done before. Although I’m not sick and tired of the obvious names, I always leap at the opportunity to brainstorm something different. The only issue is it must be an artist whose work I can, for some reason or another, love.

Doing the Rothko catalogue was life-changing. First, it was a very taxing challenge physically, since I made a point of wanting to view every single painting. There were people in Washington who basically couldn’t understand why. But the reason was simple—it was not to be a catalogue of photographs, of transparencies. This is a catalogue of things in the real world, and I don’t believe you can understand a work of art unless you physically examine it. One of my standard lines whenever I went to a museum or to a collector to see a painting was: I’m not too interested in the front of your Rothko, it’s the back I‘m after. It’s on the back that you have a material history of Rothko. The versos had obvious things, such as labels, but they also had lots of less routine details—inscriptions, often tiny writing or marks—so I’d always take a magnifying glass. I scoured the crossbars, strainers, and stretchers. I believe Marx once said, “You only find what you’re looking for.”

Speaking of which, one day I was in the Rothko warehouse and we took out a so-called Surrealist period painting. I looked at it and at the back for ages—it was on its original strainer—and I’m telling you this because it’s about minutiae, which are a key factor in doing a catalogue raisonné. I was about to say, okay, put it back on the rack, but then I noticed on the inner part of one of the crossbars something written in faint pencil. So I asked the Rothko registrar, Marion Kahn, what’s that? Marion said, oh, I can’t make much out of it. And I grabbed a flashlight and a magnifying glass—there was a letter that resembled a “K”. Suddenly it hit me. A thought I had kept in mind was there right in front of me. A catalogue for one of Rothko’s shows in the mid-40s listed titles of paintings, which no longer fit any existing works. In particular, one had stuck in my mind while I was doing detective work trying to coordinate the titles to the actual paintings. Once I noticed that “K,” I realized that the painting fitted the title of “Room in Karnak.” Karnak, Egypt, that is. Betty Parsons had written the title, “Room in Karnak,” on a checklist of one of her Rothko shows, a handwritten sheet. The moment I saw the “K,” I could make out the “Room” and the “in” and the “A-R-N-A-K.” Well, that was “Room in Karnak”—complete with pseudo-Egyptian borrowings in the composition, the primitivizing furniture leg shapes, bandings, the trappings of the style of the Tutankhamen period. The reason I’m telling you this is because if I hadn’t already been aware of the title, “Room in Karnak,” I would never have recognized that vague, faint, graphite inscription. On a broader level, doing the Rothko catalogue raisonné proved all-consuming, it took me into so many different spheres. On the one hand, there were some of the most illustrious, high-powered collectors in the world—the Mellons, David Rockefeller, Si Newhouse, Hubert de Givenchy. On the other, people like the son of Rothko’s landlord in the North Miami retirement home—totally impoverished, you know, and the couple were just living out their last days, but still with this little painting called “The Peddler,” of a Jewish Lower East Side peddler.

Rail: They held on to it all those years.

Anfam: He said how much is it worth? I said, well, I’m not a dealer, but I don’t think it could be worth too much. And they looked crestfallen. It was quite poignant, almost heartbreaking. That painting later came up for sale at auction, fetching a lot more than it was worth then, though not in the zillions, as it was just a small work. Tantalizingly enough, there’s a rectangle in this very first painting—a dark rectangle right up front on the side of the peddler’s cart.


John Yau

John Yau has three books that have landed or will soon land on earth: Joe Brainard: The Art of the Personal (Rizzoli, 2022); Tell It Slant (Omnidawn, 2023); John Pai: Liquid Steel (Rizzoli (2023). An exhibition, Disguise the Limit: John Yau’s Collaborations, will open at art museum of the University of Kentucky in Lexington in January 2024, curated by Stuart Horodner.


The Brooklyn Rail

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