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The following article first appeared in New American Review 12 (1971). Roy Edwards was Mark Rothko's art assistant and Ralph Pomeroy was a poet who wrote the text for Andy Warhol's portfolio, À la Recherche du Shoe Perdu.

Working with Rothko

A Conversation between Roy Edwards and Ralph Pomeroy

On February 27, 1971, the Rothko Chapel was formally dedicated in Houston, Texas. The Chapel, an ecumenical house of worship, was conceived by Mr. and Mrs. John de Ménil, who commissioned fourteen panels from the late Mark Rothko. The panels are housed in an octagonal structure designed by the Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubrey. There are three triptychs approximately twelve feet wide and fifteen feet high. They, together with the five remaining panels, are placed against pale gray walls and lighted from above through skylights. 

In 1966, a young painter, Roy Edwards, assisted Rothko in the preparations for these huge paintings. He remembers that there were “a couple of paintings” for the Chapel project already in the East Sixty-ninth Street studio when he began (Rothko had begun working on the commission in late summer of 1965), but that one of them- “not as dark, consisting of bright reds” - he never saw again. 

Although there was a mock up of the Chapel constructed in Rothko’s studio, the arrangement of the panels - all of them fields of deep color - underwent continuous revision. Completed in 1966, they were kept in the studio until the spring of 1968 when, following a serious illness, Rothko placed them in storage. During this time the design for the Houston Chapel also went through a number of changes, and construction was considerably delayed. If Rothko had lived, no doubt the arrangement of the panels would have undergone further variation during the final installation. 

The importance of the Chapel as a work of art is immense. Rothko was one of this country’s great painters, and the project, so far, is unique in the United States. One has to look to Europe for comparisons - with Matisse’s superb chapel in Venice or with the series of outsized painting of water lilies by Monet installed in the Orangerie in Paris. 

In terms of Rothko’s own development as an artist, the Chapel is a kind of climax. For a long time he had been deeply concerned with rooms or “environments” made up of his paintings: the group of related works he installed at Harvard; the sequence of the Four Seasons, intended for the Manhattan restaurant but finally withdrawn; the room of his works in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. In the last year of his life he worked closely with the director of the Tate Gallery in London, designing the look and lighting of a room especially created to house the nine paintings he had given to that museum. 

Several of these “series” are made up of closely-toned, dark-hued canvases in which light seems muted or “turned way down,” like the darkening sky just before rain. Their deep color - a whole range of reds (plum, wine, crimson, blood), often combined with black, brown, or gray - is characteristic of Rothko’s art as is its exact opposite - high, brilliant, sunny color, a blaze of yellows, pinks, oranges, greens, and blues. The dark side - Rothko’s visual equivalent to, say, the awesome “OM” heard in the Malabar cave, in A Passage to India - is the side shown in the Houston Chapel. 

In the final years of his life Rothko was working on yet another sequence of related paintings - all variants of black and gray - in which sharp white borders appear for the first time in his art. 

This interview was taped June, 1970, several months after Rothko’s death. 

RALPH POMEROY: How did you happen to get into this thing with Rothko?

ROY EDWARDS: One night in class (at the Art Students League) - my teacher Stamos asked me if I knew how to stretch big canvases. “How big?” I said. “Fifteen feet.” I said “Well, I could try.” And he said, “if you want to work for Mark Rothko, give him a call at this number. So I called him up and went over to see him the next morning. My first impression, when he opened the door of the studio, was of these two huge eyes peering around the doorway. I went inside. We sat down but he didn’t really talk very much. He just looked-with those eyes. He asked me what I was doing, how long I’d known Stamos, if I’d ever worked with large paintings. I said, “not that big, but I think I could learn.” For some reason he said, “Okay. Why don’t you start immediately?” Like that day he had some things for me to do. So I was there for an hour sweeping up or something like that. I started working the next day. My first impression of Rothko was that he was something of a Bavarian clockmaker- very careful and slow and precise. All his movements were like thought-out before hand. He seemed to know exactly where he was at. We got into the work right away. 

POMEROY: The stretchers were already built? 

EDWARDS: Yes. 

POMEROY: Lou Sgroi? 

EDWARDS: Lou Sgroi stretchers. I’m a little vague on the size because they ran from twelve feet in width to fourteen to fifteen feet in height, but I may be off a little bit. You know, the dimensions were different on several of the pictures. But it was really quite mechanical. We set up a platform with horses and large pieces of plywood, laid the stretchers on top of that. Then we’d roll the canvas out, cut it. Put the stretchers on it- 

POMEROY: What, unprimed duck? 

EDWARDS: Unprimed duck, cotton duck. I think it was from Belgium or someplace like that. I don’t think it was from here. 

POMEROY: It might have been linen, then. 

EDWARDS: No. Cotton duck. He insisted on it. He didn’t like linen. And if there was a piece that had a welt or something running through it, he would discard it. Even though it was a huge canvas to throw away. It took two days to do a canvas. One day would be spent stretching it; the second day in correcting it. The way we did this was to put the canvas on the floor of the studio and get buckets and sponge mops, wet it down, let it dry... 

POMEROY: So that it tightened very tightly... 

EDWARDS: Yes. And if it was too tight, it had to be loosened up a little bit. And if there were wrinkles, they would have to come out. So sometimes a canvas would take three or four days. He had several large pictures that he’d already done around the studio, on the walls, and we were always taking them down and putting them on another wall, putting a picture beside it, or shifting up and down. 

POMEROY: Were these specifically the Chapel pictures? 

EDWARDS: Yes. He had other paintings of course, that he would look at now and then, and he may have done two or three other pictures in that year. But his work was almost exclusively the Chapel pictures in ‘sixty-six. Most of the time was spent not in painting but in contemplation of the painting. Rothko would say “An artist has to have a lot of time, free time, to do nothing- to just sit around and let ideas come.” 

POMEROY: Gertrude Stein said the same thing. 

EDWARDS: This is how the work generally went. For a good month we just stretched maybe five or six of these canvases and stored them away in the studio there. In the second month we began the actual painting of a couple of pictures. First the paint was mixed, which was a long process of boiling rabbit’s skin glue and the plastic compound that he used in combination with powder pigments.

POMEROY: Rabbit’s skin glue, like the old days? 

EDWARDS: Yes. He was always reading these books on how to make paintings more permanent. Very concerned with that. 

POMEROY: Did he prime? Or was that the prime coat? 

EDWARDS: Yes. This took care of both steps, the priming and the painting. 

POMEROY: Did he start usually with a dark field or a light field?

EDWARDS: It was a maroon color- which he always referred to as “plum.” This is the general background color of all the Chapel pictures. The actual painting of the background was done by Ray Kelly (another of Rothko’s assistants) and me. The paintings were laid on there sides. We started from one end and we had to do it like very fast. Rothko would be there supervising, giving commands, very nervous, you know, high energy. 

POMEROY: What do you mean “on their sides”? They didn’t lie flat on the floor?

EDWARDS: No, no, no. They were leaned against the walls. 

POMEROY: What did you apply the paint with ? 

EDWARDS: Large brushes. Thick house-painter brushes. 

POMEROY: Was it thin? 

EDWARDS: The paint was very thin. Very thin and watery which we mixed by the bucketful. 

POMEROY: Did he mix it himself? 

EDWARDS: He picked out the colors and I did the mixing. Because it required hours and hours of stirring. The colors were Alizarin Crimson and black- I can’t remember if it was Lamp or Ivory Black. And then this was mixed into the powder paint, which was a kind of Alizarin color. 

POMEROY: To begin with. 

EDWARDS Yes. 

POMEROY: But he added black to that? 

EDWARDS: And black. The oil paint had to be very thinned with turpentine. I would stir and stir and stir and stir so that it wasn’t lumpy at all, just like soup, you know. So we took this paint which was in buckets- we needed so much of it- and started painting from each end, while he was giving directions:“you’re slowing down on your corner!” Or “Pick up on this end!”

POMEROY: I see what he was doing, though. He was applying washes, and you’ve got to be very fast with a wash, to make it even. It’s like watercolor, same principle exactly. 

EDWARDS: But he didn’t want it exactly even- just enough so it didn’t look sloppy. A little bit of play, but not too much. It had to be just right. A couple that we did he didn't like and discarded. After we painted them he put them against the wall and looked at them for a few days. You know, the way the drying process would take, the way the color finally sunk into the canvas, and so forth. After several large paintings were finally prepared in this manner, he began laying out the actual form on the canvas. This was a large black rectangle running up the height of the canvas, so the maroon color became it’s border. This was done in a very precise manner with masking tape. The dimensions of the rectangle were like three inches in from the sides, maybe three feet up from the bottom, and five or six inches from the top. And this was all black. But instead of painting it right away, Rothko had me take large pieces of charcoal and darken in a canvas, so that he could see what it would look like. So this became the sketch for the painting. This was done with a large amount of charcoal dust floating around-I looked like a coal miner after I was through. 

POMEROY: I can imagine. On that scale, my God. Were all of the rectangles first charcoaled? 

EDWARDS: No. Maybe two or three. It’s not that it mattered, because once you do one, you know, you can see it. But he wanted to see the pictures sitting in relation to each other. So we did several. And after this was done, the only thing he did for about a month was just look at them. 

POMEROY: The charcoal sketches? 

EDWARDS: Yes. I would come in, you know, and maybe clean the studio, and he’d be inside listening to Mozart and looking at the paintings. When he’d reach a decision to make a change in the picture-it would be like to reduce the dimensions of the borders, to increase the black area maybe a half-inch or more. 

POMEROY: In other words, it would expand out. 

EDWARDS: Yes. Even a quarter-inch. I would retape the whole black form a quarter-inch and put in charcoal to expand it. 

POMEROY: But these were hard edge? 

EDWARDS: Yes, very hard edge. Rothko liked to joke about masking tape being the foundation of modern art. “What would painters do today without masking tape, these days?” He’d say. You know, I think these were among the few paintings that he actually ever used masking tape on. He also used it for his last series, which is very different. This went on for about a month, altering the interior dimensions, in and out. I’d reduce the black form by just brushing the charcoal away, or make it larger. And when he finally made a decision, a fresh canvas was brought out- one that was already primed. The dimensions were put down with masking tape- and I mixed the black paint and he painted the interior form. This was done with his scaffold. The picture was laid on its side again. And he started at one end and worked his across. He did all the black forms himself. 

POMEROY: But utilizing masking tape?

EDWARDS: Yes.

POMEROY: How thick was the paint? Was it opaque?

EDWARDS: It was opaque, but it was very thin. You know, black is opaque even if it is very thin.

POMEROY: But it wasn't a solid black effect, it was full of nuances.

EDWARDS: Yes, very much so. Because the maroon color filters through.

POMEROY: And he used a brush?

EDWARDS: A brush. His brushes were a big thing with him. They felt like velvet, those brushes, because they were very old and they'd been so well taken care of. I would wash those brushes every day after painting. First in turpentine and then in detergent. For about an hour washing and rewashing, rewashing, rewashing.

POMEROY: The story was that he used sponges.

EDWARDS: Oh really? For what? For these particular pictures?

POMEROY: Maybe not for these particular pictures, but in general.

EDWARDS: He never used sponges.

POMEROY: I think people misread that spongy quality in his work.

EDWARDS: No, it was all done with brushes. That's the marvelous thing. He had such a touch with a brush.
But he didn't like people to see him painting. When he was doing these black forms, naturally my curiosity would get the better of me, so I would sneek in and sit there and look. And soon he would sense that someone was there, turn around, and say, with the brush upraised, “Get back in there and find something to do!” But I always found a way to get back in for a couple of minutes, just to watch him. It was marvelous. He always wore this old paint-splattered hat to protect his head.

POMEROY: Like a fedora... like a Jewish gentleman's hat.

EDWARDS: Yes. So this went on for about another two months. It all seemed to go very fast. I was working with him only for a period of six or seven months working on these pictures-but he'd already thought out his conception for the next series during the previous two years, so that he knew exactly what he wanted to do, and the actual painting was the only thing left to do. As each painting was completed, we'd set it up on the wall, and he would look at them again and call people in to look at them. He was constantly doing this.

POMEROY: Did he have any favorites?

EDWARDS: Stamos was one of his favorites. Who else? Motherwell came to the studio a few times. Gottlieb. Dore Aston. Bill Rubin...

POMEROY: So, in other words, none of this frantic gesturing associated with Abstract Expressionists.

EDWARDS: Not in these pictures, but sometimes with others. And it was all a kind of pose, I think. With these pictures-he knew exactly what he was doing.

POMEROY: Did he set up the whole sequence?

EDWARDS: Yes. Let's see. There's one, two, three, four... I think there are major walls. And on three of them there's triptych with three panels.

POMEROY: Same size?

EDWARDS: Same size. But the interesting thing about the triptychs is that with at least one of them the middle painting in a maroon blank; there's no black form. Also, it's slightly raised in relation to the other panels. So actually when it's against a wall, it becomes a shaped canvas. This idea of the blank came one day. We had it on the wall, the blank canvas, and other two paintings were beside it. Stamos came up for lunch, and Rothko asked him, as he would ask almost anyone, "Well, what should I do with this?"

POMEROY: What a Question!

EDWARDS: "What can I do now?" And so Stamos said, "Nothing. Leave it as it is." And Rothko-his head went back , his eyes opened into saucers-

POMEROY: This was the blank, nonimage, centralized...?

EDWARDS: Right. And he didn't say a thing. But he sort of became very quiet for a couple of days, very thoughtful. And this is what it became, finally.

POMEROY: What were the other ones like? Were they in four sets of three? Were they all triptychs?

EDWARDS: No. They're single pictures.

POMEROY: Oh they are? How many are there?

EDWARDS: God! You know, I don't even know. I mean, there was so much interchanging and things going on that I don't even know.

POMEROY: Because I was told that the original conception was of symmetrical cross. So there'd actually be our chapels. That would suggest four series of three walls, which would be twelve paintings, but I don't know.

EDWARDS: Well, That sounds about right... They're going to have to bring them in through the skylight. Those huge paintings coming down through the skylight...
  When the Chapel is finished, Stamos and I are going to go over the details with Mrs. de Ménil. There's going to be a kind of stucco wall with a slight grayed-off color. It's not going to be bone-white-Rothko didn't want that-it'll look a lot like pale gray, with a little bit of brown in it, maybe. But we're going to look over the final colors for the interior.
  It's very strange, but no one knows how the paintings should be placed-except me. Rothko didn't leave any notes at all. And if I hadn't taken measurements form the studio, all this would have been lost. The paintings would just have been placed haphazardly, without any notion of what Rothko had in mind.

POMEROY: Did he tell you to take measurements or did you just do it?

EDWARDS: I did it on my own. He didn't leave any instructions at all. For him the paintings were done, it was a dead issue, he didn't care any more.

POMEROY: When did he finish?

EDWARDS: He finished that year. 'Sixty-six.

POMEROY: So he went back to painting all these pictures that we're now seeing?

EDWARDS: Right.

POMEROY: Which is very strange. Because the myth was that he wasn't painting anything at all.

EDWARDS: He wasn't painting anything when?

POMEROY: Except the Chapel. Since whenever he began. No new pictures were exhibited. No pictures were let out-

EDWARDS: Well, he wasn't painting much during sixty-six, I know. I didn't see any.

POMEROY: No, but I mean since.

EDWARDS: Well that's ridiculous, because as soon as the Chapel pictures were finished, he began bringing out little pictures for me to look at. You can imagine my reaction after working on those huge paintings. He'd bring out a little blue and green pictures, set up a fan, bring over a chair, and very grandly, like a prospective buyer, I'd sit down. He'd say, "What do you think of these cool ocean breezes?"
  So gradually he got back to his own painting. He was really into it by the time I left. He was doing a lot of things on paper.

POMEROY: In oil?

EDWARDS: Yes. Some are done with acrylics. He began experimenting with acrylics, but he never really liked them. He liked the fluidity of oil paints, the transparency. Acrylics just have a plastic quality that really doesn't fit his pictures at all.

POMEROY: And they won't maintain their mix. They keep separating.

EDWARDS: And it's very hard to get with acrylics the kind of edges, the softness that Rothko wanted.

POMEROY: But then you saw him again, didn't you?

EDWARDS: Well, off and on, through the next few years.

POMEROY: You did various jobs and stuff. Do you know when he did that strange... I mean the startling picture to me was that white-bordered one I saw in Venice.*

EDWARDS: Those were the last pictures. I think he began painting those in 'sixty-nine. And in the space of one year, I think he did maybe thirty pictures or more. Stamos has the best description-he calls them "very Goyaesque landscapes." And I remember Oliver Steindecker [another young painter who worked for Rothko] saying one day that they look like "night on the moon." And they do project this otherworldly, complete-lack-of-human-habitation content.

POMEROY: Are they all monochromatic black and gray?

EDWARDS: Black and grays. And white borders. They're very much denser than his previous pictures. While he was doing this series, he also did several pictures that relate to the earlier things, with the floating forms. He did a blue and green painting, and red painting, which was one of his last. Very very loose. The loosest thing he probably did in his whole thing. Bright, bright reds. Very strange, seeing that kind of painting.

POMEROY: And no forms?

EDWARDS: No forms. Not like the black and grays.

POMEROY: Is that going to be shown, do you think?

EDWARDS: I would think so; I'm not sure now. I think there are two or three paintings of the last period in the Venice show. So they're going to be shown, but not as a group. The Guggenheim wanted to show these paintings as a group and he was against it, as he was against showing anywhere, oh, for the past ten years.

POMEROY: At least.

EDWARDS: He just didn't want to exhibit. But he was working a great deal in the past few years. There is a big misunderstanding which should be straightened out. When people say "this is why he committed suicide, because he couldn't paint any more," I think that this is crap of the highest degree. Because those last pictures- the black-and-gray ones-are some of the most powerful pictures he painted. They're very hard to get into and understand at first. But once you see them in relation to his work, their evolution becomes normal and natural. They're very power and great paintings, in my opinion.

POMEROY: Well, I only saw that one and, without getting too corny, it gave me a shock. Like the last quartets of Beethoven. It had that kind of risk-taking superficially related to all kinds o f things that are going on in art-but with that extra thing, which is Rothko.
   And when you get into this clean white-which he's never done-dead white-it's like silence. Like the intervals in Beethoven when there is no music. That kind of comparison that critics make. But these things do apply a little bit. For instance a story I know-do you know Harold Paris, the sculptor? He came to see Rothko once, and Harold told me this fits with your discription-there were all these things with borders-the Chapel pictures. And Rothko said, "What do you think?" And Harold said, "They don't look like Rothko's." He didn't mean it negatively, he meant it as a statement about the cliché Rothko. And Rothko looked at him and said, "Thank God."

EDWARDS: This is what he wanted.

POMEROY: And Harold said Rothko was terribly moved. You know, he's an old friend of Rothko's. Rothko was emotional, you know... mystical. That's another thing the critics keep saying, there in no mysticism. The hell there isn't. It's loaded with mysticism.
EDWARDS: Well, I think his whole thing is mysticism. Actually Rothko himself played this down. He'd always say, "I'm not a religious man." That bit. Because he didn't want his pictures to be thought of in a religious sense. But I think they're very mystical.

EDWARDS: do you know who you should speak to? the painter who lived next door to Rothko, Lidov. He's a commercial artist: He's very negative about Rothko and his work. Rothko would see him almost every night-he'd come in and sit with him and talk-almost every single night...

POMEROY: Curious And he didn't like Rothko's work.

EDWARDS: He hated Rothko's work. He hates all modern art. He thinks all of it is crap. But for some reason Rothko would see him every night. It was just the security of being there.

POMEROY: Yes. His being next door. Proximity...

EDWARDS: I'm sure it could have been anyone.

*In July, 1970, the Marlborough Gallery mounted an exhibition of twenty-seven Rothko paintings in the Museo D'Arte Moderna Ca' Pesaro.