How the Late U.S. Ambassador Donald Blinken Shaped Mark Rothko’s Legacy

Donald Blinken, who died last week at age 96, may be best known for founding a venture capital firm and for his successes as a political liaison to Hungary during the Clinton administration while the country transitioning from Communism. But another important known part of his life story is the mark he left on the New York art scene.

During the 1950s and ’60s, he began to collect artists like Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Phillip Guston. As Blinken once remarked, these artists were “just starting to make a mark” when he began buying their work.

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Records in the Archives of American Art that were donated by Blinken in 2014 reveal his closeness to artists and museum figures. He was thanked by Phillip Guston for his efforts related to a review by art critic John Russell in 1974. He took meetings with David Solinger, the late attorney and then-president of the Whitney Museum at de Kooning’s studio to mull potential acquisitions for that institution.

But it was Mark Rothko with whom Blinken forged the strongest ties. The two first met in 1956. At the time, Blinken was just beginning to collect art and had begun conducting studio visits. To scout out the paintings he wanted, he relied largely upon instinct. At Rothko’s studio, Blinken purchased Three Reds through a handshake deal that only took a few exchanges with the notoriously guarded painter. The two forged a close friendship, and when a legal battle over Rothko’s estate ensued following his death in 1970, Blinken became a key figure in the controversy.

In 1976, Rothko’s legal executors were dismissed after Rothko’s heirs sued for fraud. Blinken was appointed president of the Mark Rothko Foundation that year. Through a court order, the organization was awarded a large tranche of works that were not left to the artist’s family members.

To ensure that Rothko would have lasting presence in public collections, Blinken oversaw donations around 1,000 of the works more than 30 museums across the United States and abroad. Doing so effectively kept these works out of the market. Almost 300 paintings and works on paper went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where Blinken had once served as a trustee. Others went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim Museum.

Blinken would go on to leverage his ties with the National Gallery and organize exhibitions dedicated to Rothko. In the process, he would ask himself: “Is this what Rothko would have wished?”

In 1985, Rothko’s daughter said the resolution realized the troubled artist’s wishes and ended a years-long conflict.

The father of the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, he stayed close to the political circuit and cultural efforts. Blinken’s wife Vera serves as vice chairman of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that places art in U.S. embassies abroad. The junior Blinken took to social media last week to attribute his life in public service to his father.

In 2017, Blinken told the Financial Times about the privileged time in which he had access to artists like Rothko. Today, he speculated, that kind of access would be “impossible.”

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