Mark Rothko (1903 -70) is widely celebrated as one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century. His paintings are famed for their visual intensity. Shortly before his death, Rothko donated nine large-scale works to Tate on the condition that they would always be displayed together, in their own space, separate from the work of other artists.
The paintings in Tate’s iconic ‘Rothko Room’ form part of a larger series known as the Seagram Murals, originally commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan. The Tate Modern sitting majestically in the hugely successfully refurbished former power station has an exhibition of Rothko’s art which reunites this group of murals with their counterparts from Japan and Washington. Liberated from the straight jacket of the myths surrounding their genesis, they are displayed as works in their own right, central to any understanding of Rothko’s late career.
So, I journeyed last Friday down to London with two good friends to see this exhibition. The choice of a Friday before Christmas might have seemed a strange one, but oddly it was the only free day I had in my diary two months ago when we talked about going up to London! A smooth train journey down the Chiltern line and a pleasant taxi ride on a bright London morning deposited us safely to the Tate. Thankfully, for the viewers, it was remarkably sparse of groups and individuals, thereby leaving us with enough space to be able to wander and see this range of pictures in all their glorious size, scope, colour and depth.
I’d rather resolved myself never to use that that word so often articulated by my American friends earlier this year ‘Awesome’. I think the most absurd use of the word followed a Mexican meal – which seemed to me to be a meal, thrown together, of bits and pieces that no-one else is going to eat! Anyway, awesome is the word that most comes to mind when I now think about my experience of those pictures from the relative distance and comfort of my own home. It really was quite and extraordinary experience. Partly because of the size of these paintings and in part due to the incredible intensity of the colour.
Let me give you one example. In this picture (Brown and Gray) painted in 1969 we have a picture which is two parts – one dark, one light. It is striking how much of what went to make up one of Rothko’s classics paintings of the 1950s has been removed. It is the colour, of course, that is the most obvious extraction – but colour is only really the tip of the iceberg. There is something almost extravagant about the loss of everything that had apparently defined a Rothko painting. In this work of art we see thick, mainly vertical strokes of blackish-brown acrylic which fill the upper section. The smaller bottom part is scumbled gray. The border line between them has none of the fraying and delicate spraying of the furrows between the colour bands of his earlier work. The join between the two halves is much harder now, its nuances still there but far less yielding. More interest is focussed on the different ways in which the brush work has been handled: the up and down of the brush strokes of dark brown, the more open dabbing and raining of the grey brush work has become more like something to look at.
This is just one of the many works in acrylic on paper that Rothko made towards the end of his life. All are variations on this arrangement, many of them in a range of greys through neutrals and browns to black. How Rothko came to this point is far from clear.
And so the experience continued and I’ve tried to reproduce one or two images here to give you glimpse of it – but there really is no substitute for going to see these pictures for yourself. (The exhibition ends at the end of January 2009). One comment is worth making. The wonderful thing about London is that it contains so many varied people – like many cities it is fully of energy and youth. Some of these people found their way into the exhibition, but there was little noise or distraction, but rather a very diverse group of people, most of whom were I suspect living pretty packed and active lives – moved to quiet as the pictures drew them in. It was almost like being inside a church – the space and the colour elicited a contemplative response from those who viewed. It was a very remarkable sense of reflectiveness and quiet… all enabled and empowered by that range of mysterious colour.
On the surface, these paintings look minimal, but it turned out that they are anything but, at least as that term has become synonymous with art that rejected a certain kind of feeling or effect. Although initially they appear empty, with time they open onto a different kind of amplitude. Their sparseness – the simple doubling of the surface, the barely stated condition of enframement – is offset by the way the surfaces become capacious as they unfold in the course of looking at them over time. First, the lighter whites and greys more obviously let the light through in patches. The dark blocks are more intransigent, but they too end up yielding more than they look as if they should.
Rothko does not make art more complicated, but by asking fundamental questions like what is the very least that can hold a painting together, he takes us into a different level of conscious seeing.
I am reminded of that Eliot poem:
Between the conception
And the Creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the shadow
(The Hollow Men – 1929)
An extraordinary and awesome spiritual experience and these pictures will remain in my mind’s eye for some time.
Lest you think the day was all a matter of simple artistic enjoyment – we ended up in Soho the delights of a good glass of wine and wonderfully cooked fish.
Thank you to my friends.