Thursday, 7 June 2012

Rothko and the Late Series: A very late review...from 2009

This review has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years but I still think it has something of value to say about Mark Rothko. Revisiting the Tate rooms a short while back, his Murals remain some of the most monumental pieces of art I've ever seen. For me, a backdrop for contemplation and dreaming, self examination and inspiration. For others, something darker and more terrifying.

The opening line of the free exhibition leaflet states that the ‘exhibition focuses on the late work of Mark Rothko (1903—1970), especially his work in series [...] the cornerstones of his work’.[1] This focus was inspired by the ‘convoluted history of the Seagram murals […] one of the enduring myths of twentieth century art’ and the curator continues in his essay, ‘this myth has tended to overshadow a closer engagement with the actual works’.[2] Achim Borchardt-Hume wanted to explore all aspects of the murals; historically, scientifically and in relation to the art that came after.

The exhibition consisted of nine rooms and opened with a collection of five rectangular frieze-like colour designs for the murals to decorate the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, New York. In the centre of this first room there was a cardboard maquette (1969) designed by Norman Reid, the then director of the Tate. Room two contained a single piece called 'Four Darks in Red' (1958). At the heart of the exhibition, in the large main room there was the collection of Seagram Murals, uniting eight from the Tate with others from Washington and Japan. Room four contained the results of research undertaken by the Tate’s Conservation Department into the Seagram murals’ ‘material’ history. This room also showed the visitor what one of the pictures looks like from the back. Rooms five and six contained Black-Form paintings in an attempt to recreate the non-denominational Rothko Chapel in Houston. The corridor style room seven contained watercolours that were done at the same time as the murals. Room eight displayed the Brown and Gray series and the exhibition concluded in room nine with the last series Rothko painted before his death, called 'Black on Gray'.

Four Darks in Red (1958)
The main thread in this exhibition was clear. When he was alive Rothko liked to be in control of everything to do with his art, from conception and design, creation and display through to how they were viewed. Firstly he gave instructions on how his art should be hung and the Whitechapel Art Gallery directions of 1961 were not only taken into account in this exhibition but included as primary material in the catalogue.[4] These instructions say how high the paintings should be hung, what colour the walls should be, lighting effects and so on. No final hanging scheme for the murals was actually devised but certainly Rothko was content with a very dense, crowded hang as proven by the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York in 1955.[5] He was also keen to establish the ‘correct’ way of physically looking at his pictures which is the purpose of the single painting in room two. You were instructed by the electronic guide and the painting’s label to stand no more than eighteen inches away, enveloped in the warm reds neither seeing nor imagining anything else. However there was a barrier to Rothko’s wishes in the shape of a large plinth under the picture preventing anyone from getting to the requisite distance. Whilst I was there people were standing over six feet away because of the number of visitors meant that anyone who did get close, plinth permitting, had to quickly move out of peoples’ way.

The exhibition presented Rothko as an innovator who was intellectually and spiritually driven by the creative process of his art. Though Rothko did not like to be watched whilst painting, photographs taken in his studio show him in ‘active contemplation’ of his works. This seems to have been as creative as the physical act of priming the canvas with rabbitskin glue or applying the paint. His internal conflict resulting from the Seagram Commission and the realisation that he was creating something more than a restaurant decoration is central to understanding the artist. As Borchardt-Hume points out, ‘Rothko wanted the murals’ tragic grandeur to prove once and for all the existentialist endeavour underpinning his art and in doing so vindicate the seriousness of all his work to date’.[6] Far from ‘rubbishing the Rothko myth’ as one critic announced,[7] perhaps we are closer to understanding what the murals meant to the artist and why he went looking for a more spiritual commission afterwards. To emphasis this point the exhibition then devoted space to the important chapel commission by patron and collector Dominique de Menil in Houston. The preparatory sketches and the Black-Form paintings give an idea of the emotion intensity he experienced when creating them.

Red on maroon (1959)
The clear chronological layout enabled the viewer to see the development in his work. Colour development was obvious; he turned from bright reds to more sober maroon and purples, then ultimately to black. It seems that he had gone as far as possible with colour exploration when he turned to the medium of paper and acrylic in the Grey works, though this may have been influenced by his ill health and inability to work so energetically on huge canvases. The two last series are similar both in style and material; each acrylic and paper painting has two bands of colour, light below, dark above with a white edge to frame the composition. The feathery, opaque colours expose paper behind the delicate brushwork and the smaller pictures do not engulf the viewer which makes them seem less robust than the earlier vibrant works, as Brian O’Doherty comments, ‘the richness of the tragic as a cultural idea has been replaced by a barer, more impoverished definition’.[8] As an example of how this exhibition is exciting new ideas, Mark Prince cites the late black paintings as precursors of postmodern art and stresses that these paintings ‘constitute a u-turn in relation to the development which led up to them’.[9]

This was an academic exhibition. For those looking for more information, the Tate produced a catalogue and electronic guide. The catalogue contains a collection of new essays by Rothko experts covering the social context of the artist, his world view and his ‘cinematic framework’. It also includes the conservationists’ findings, primary materials such as the artist’s 1958 Pratt Institute address, notes on the Seagram mural commission and an ‘Art/Rothko/World’ time line for 1957-1970. It concludes with a full bibliography. However the catalogue still assumes some prior knowledge as it avoids too much biographical information - unlike for example, the catalogue of the first full Rothko retrospective at the Guggenheim, New York in 1978. Again a deliberate attempt by the curator to focus on Rothko’s late art and away from his life/death and to say something new about his achievements. 

The electronic guide was extremely thorough which had both advantages and disadvantages. For every room it gave a lot of background information, descriptions, explanations and video clips of interviews with the curator. The most revealing and interesting part of the guide was the curator’s use of music. Rothko’s contemporary, the composer Morten Feldman attempted to express what the paintings were communicating through music in his choral Rothko Chapel commissioned in 1971.[11] An extract illustrates how the two pieces work together and the meditative, ethereal music perhaps provides a musical version of a Rothko painting. The musical connection is twofold; not only did his work inspire music but Borchardt-Hume stressed that music inspired the paintings. Rothko enjoyed Mozart, specifically Don Giovanni and his String Quartet No. 19 in C Major ‘Dissonance Quartet’ and Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A. Again excerpts were included to complete the experience. The guide also made clear that prose writing is probably the least satisfactory way of describing the effect of Rothko’s art.

The disadvantage of the guide was the huge amount of information. It distracted and prevented the viewer from engaging completely with the art. Having been to the exhibition twice, once with and once without the guide, it depends on what the viewer wants to achieve in their visit as to whether it is useful. For the uninitiated who want the ‘general introduction’, the guide is indispensable. For others the looking and experiencing is enough, as is demonstrated by Sue Hubbard’s character Maggie who muses on the moments of intimacy with her ex-lover in their ‘red vulnerable place’, 
Maybe that’s what those moments had given her, she thought, standing in quiet contemplation in front of Rothko’s stained red field of colour as the other visitors listened clamped behind headphones to the gallery commentary.[12]
They should wait until the exhibition clamour is over and visit the Rothko room at the Tate which is designed to be more conducive to meditative thought on the art itself.

On that first visit to this exhibition my knowledge of Mark Rothko was limited to seeing his name advertised in large letters on the side of the Tate. After contemplating, reading and listening, I felt and continue to feel a real connection to his art. Hurry up Tate, get rid of Hirst, I want to revisit these; I have some poetry to write.

[1] Exhibition leaflet, ‘Rothko: The late series’, Tate Modern, 2008, Introduction.
[2] Achim Borchardt-Hume, ed., Rothko: The Late Series (Tate Publishing, London, 2008), p15.
[3] Andrew Lambirth, ‘Exhibitions: Meditations on meaning: Rothko’, The Spectator, 4 October 2008, 50-52, p50.
[4] Achim Borchardt-Hume, Op. cit., pp96-97.
[5] Exhibition leaflet, room 2 and ibid., p16.
[6] Achim Borchardt-Hume, Op. cit., p20.
[7] Waldemar Januszczak, ‘Mark Rothko in a whole new light’, Sunday Times, 28 September 2008 accessed online on 21/11/08
[8] Brian O’Doherty, ‘The Dark Paintings 1969-1970: Rothko’s Endgame’ in Marc Glimcher, ed., The Art of Mark Rothko: Into an Unknown World (Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1992), 141-147, p147.
[9] Mark Prince, ‘The New Black’, Art Monthly, (November 2008), p.10.
[10] Jackie Wullschlager, ‘Mark Rothko at Tate Modern’, Financial Times, 26 September 2008 accessed online on 21/11/08
[11] Steven Johnson, ‘Rothko Chapel and Rothko's Chapel’, Perspectives of New Music, 32:2 (Summer 1994), pp. 6-53.
[12] Sue Hubbard, Rothko’s Red: and other stories (Salt Publishing: Cambridge, 2008), p19.

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