Shared Intimacies

October 19, 2008

Last Sunday afternoon I headed into London to see the Mark Rothko exhibition at the Tate Modern. On the way into the city my journey was delayed by over two hours when sadly someone threw themselves under the train I was traveling on. This is the second time in my life this has happened to me, and although like the first occasion I saw nothing of the incident, the experience was a little upsetting. Considering the subject matter of the paintings I was off to see, and taking into account that whilst sat on the train I had continued to work my way through James Breslin’s biography of Rothko my mood was somewhat sombre on arrival at the Tate.

The exhibition focusses entirely on Rothko’s late works, from the Seagram commission onwards. Much to their credit, even though the Tate own several more Rothko works from other periods of his life they were not somehow shoehorned into the exhibition, and it remains very focussed around a relatively small number of paintings that take up half of the fourth floor of the building. Throughout his career Rothko often produced paintings in focussed series of similar works. There are essentially four series of paintings featured in the exhibition; Rothko’s Black on Gray series, the Black-Form paintings, the Brown and Gray paintings on paper and the Seagram commission works.

For those unaware, in 1958 the high class Seagram restaurant in New York commissioned Rothko to paint a series of works to be placed around the walls of its main dining area. After much anguish and deliberation Rothko pulled out of the project two years later and returned his fee, unable to allow his work to exist in such an environment. A decade later eight of the murals he created for the project were given to the original Tate Gallery at Millbank, where they were placed into their own room put together with precise instruction from Rothko regarding its lighting and dimensions. On the day these eight paintings arrived at their new home Rothko took his own life. For this exhibition the Tate have managed to collect together fifteen of the original paintings intended for the restaurant, adding paintings loaned from the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Japan and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

As you enter the exhibition the presence of the Seagram works hits you straight away. The first small room contains sketches Rothko made for the works, as well as the maquette models he made up to assist the Tate in laying out the original Rothko room in 1970. This kind of background material appears very helpfully throughout the exhibition, with a large number of preparatory drawings and other works on paper shown to support the main works. As you enter this room however your eye is dragged through the opening opposite into the large room in which the Seagram works hang. It took a lot of self-control to bring myself to concentrate on the material in the first room and not be pulled straight on through. In fact another small room lead off of the first one before you reach the main space containing the Seagram works, and after having to wait a few minutes for some standing space in the room to appear I spent a short while with the 1958 painting Four darks in red a one-off work that clearly preempted the style and colours of the Seagram paintings begun the same year. Trying to find the space to stand comfortably in this small room was the first sign for me that I would not enjoy the visit as much as I would have hoped to.

Since it opened eight years ago now I must have visited the Tate Modern some thirty or forty times. On each occasion I have spent time in the Rothko room that houses the eight Seagram murals owned by the Tate. The room is a special place for me, and I have spent many hours in there sat on the wooden benches just enjoying being in the company of those paintings. Walking into the main room at this new retrospective was a somewhat different experience. The room is about four times the size of the usual space, and with four exits into other rooms, as opposed to the one entrance/exit I am used to. So the first thing that hit me was the reduced intimacy. It is of course fantastic (and a little weird) to be able to spend time with other members of what feels a little like my extended family. In this large room though the benches are much further away from the paintings, so even if there had been a space on them for me to sit I think the distance would be a little too far to allow close inspection of the works. The ceiling in the hall is much higher than in the usual Rothko room as well, and so the paintings are set much higher up the wall, lessening the all-enveloping impact the paintings have in the much smaller space.

I’m not really sure that the Tate could possibly have done anything differently regarding any of the above quibbles of mine. The hall, probably the only one in the gallery spaces big enough to house all fifteen paintings very much dictates how the paintings are shown and where the seating is placed. The smaller, lower ceilings of the usual room also allow the lower lighting requested by Rothko to have more impact, and there was (and will be again when the paintings return) much more of a sense of being surrounded and cocooned by the paintings in the small space.

The thing that spoilt the experience of the reunited paintings the most for me though was the crowds, and with them the inevitable noise. It is really not easy to try and spend time contemplating these great works when you can barely hear yourself think for chattering people all around you, screaming children and (at one point) a child’s pushchair rammed into the back of my calves. Really simply, despite me waiting until a couple of weeks after the show opened to pay a visit, the place was just too busy, but then I have no doubt at all that this will only be the first of several visits before the exhibition closes at the end of February. Maybe I need to go along on a wet Tuesday morning in January.

So I actually spent less time in the room with the Seagram murals here than I usually would when only the eight works are available to see. I then wandered through into a room housing eight of Rothkos late Brown on Gray paintings on paper. I hadn’t seen any of these works before (in fact everything else from here on in was very new to me and a veritable bombardment to my senses) Again seating was provided to be able to sit and spend time with these paintings, which are simple structures of two blocks of bleak, dark colour placed one above the other. These paintings also all have a white border around them created when Rothko peeled away masking tape applied by his assistants before the painting was begun. Intriguingly, one of the paintings still had the tape in place, perhaps suggesting it was unfinished, though the rest of the work looked very similar to the other paintings shown. The many sketches and drawings in the exhibition gave a sense of Rothko’s working processes as he painted, and this particular painting in the Brown on gray series also seemed to bring me a little closer to the man at work.
These paintings on paper were unusual in that they were set behind glass. Standing close to them then became a slightly different experience as the lights and shadows cast around the room, and of course my own reflection sat in front of the painting, making these works feel a little more distant than the others in the show.

In the next room were housed a number of paintings from Rothko’s final series of works, the Black on gray paintings. Like the brown on gray these feature two rectangles, a dark one sat above the lighter, with the division between the two sharply defined as opposed to the hazy rectangular shapes found in Rothko’s better known works. A border around the paintings exists again here, though this time meticulously painted on in white paint. These late works, simple in their construction show a much more defined sense of composition, though their murky, sullen colours resonate with the deep sense of anguish and depression wrenching at Rothko’s very being at this time.

A further couple of rooms house a series of small oil sketches showing Rothko’s progression through his later years, and an interesting series of slides show how ultraviolet light imaging and x-rays have revealed some of Rothko’s working practices on the Seagram murals. Rothko painted in private, watched by nobody, but these illustrations reveal to us how the paintings are built up, layer by layer, with clear varnishes applied as well as paint to create the sense of depth we have come to know well.

A couple more small rooms show a few single works not related directly to any of the series, and then the final two rooms contain five works from Rothko’s Black-Form series of paintings. Rothko saw these works, related closely to the paintings housed in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas as a series, numbering them one to eight, although No.5 oddly appears twice. At first they appear to be completely black, but when viewed closely they reveal large hovering rectangles, one per painting picked out in very slightly different gradations of tone and texture, with very slightly different shades of colour with a thin varnish added. These paintings are truly beautiful, and housed in small spaces in the exhibition, complete with seating I took the most pleasure from sitting with them for a good while. Whilst it is unlikely that I will ever bring myself to visit Texas to view the Chapel paintings I am very pleased to be able to see these similar paintings. Again, it would be nicer if my view was not continually interrupted by a stream of passing people but for a first viewing I enjoying spending time with these incredible works a great deal.

Spending time with Rothko’s late creations here was a truly moving experience, though obviously one I will enjoy more on future trips. Such a collection of work of tortured, wretched genius in one place is a stunning achievement by the Tate, and it is somewhat unfair of me to criticise them for the impact of the success of the show. Its inevitable these days that great art becomes marketable commodity, and I have no doubt that if crowds of this type continue to come and pay £12.50 a time to visit then whatever the Tate had to pay to get these paintings together will be recouped several times over very quickly. Several shopping areas strategically positioned just outside the galleries heaved with all kinds of overpriced Rothko silliness. Anyone for a set of Seagram Mural fridge magnets?

Its unfair of me to expect my own little private space to sit and contemplate Rothko’s work, but I guess I’ve been a little spoilt by my experiences in the old room. These paintings do need time and a quiet environment for them to be enjoyed in full and this was difficult on this visit, but I hope my next trip will be different. If you have any interest in 20th Century painting and are able to get to this exhibition I obviously recommend you do so, but perhaps not straight away. Give it a few more weeks and give yourself several hours to get the most from the show.

Leaving the gallery to head home on the train again my mood was one of calm contemplation, a state of mind that actually stayed with me for a few days. Life is often short. We cannot all have the kind of mind capable of creating work of this incredible depth and power so it makes perfect sense to try and spend time sharing the thoughts and visions of a true genius while we still can.

A nice visual tour of the exhibition can be seen here

Comments (17)

  • robert

    October 19, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Thanks for the report Richard sounds really great (your fellow patrons notwithstanding). Really wish I could make it over there, but kinda blew my travel time and budget on Japan this year (which of course was well worth it). Wish that exhibit lasted through march, a combined i+e festival/Tate Modern trip would be well worth doing. Post an update if you get a more amenable visit in!

  • Richard Pinnell

    October 19, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    Thanks Robert. Yes its a shame that you and Brian won’t be able to make it over, but for all of the claims the internet might make, the world isn’t getting any smaller! One good thing to remember is that the Rothko room itself will always be there, so whenever you do get to visit that experience will still be available. In the meantime I can always send you a set of Seagram fridge magnets if you like!

    Actually one piece of good value merchandise available is the exhibition catalogue, which is actually not badly priced at £20 for a large format full colour 250 page book. It contains a number of lengthy and generally very well written articles plus nice, large plates of just about everything in the show. Worth getting if you ask me, and its not often you can say that about exhibition catalogues…

    Jon do you still have any hope of making the trip?

  • jon abbey

    October 19, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    no, I think I’m going to pass, unless gas taxes on flights drop quite a bit in the next few weeks. I thought maybe I could see Keith play five times in a week (twice each night at BFI, plus the Tate), but it turns out that he’s only playing twice that week, and not in especially compelling combos for me. also, Keith is coming through here twice in the next month (on his way to and from Mills), so between that and Tokyo, I’ve gotten my quality Keith time for a while. :)

    I’d love to see the Rothko exhibit (although decidedly less after your honest account above, thanks for that) and I’d love to see/hear Cellule D’Intervention Metamkine, but I think I’m going to save my money to try to get some of these pending Ersts out more quickly.

  • Richard Pinnell

    October 19, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    I understand entirely Jon. I just paid twice what I paid six months ago for a flight to Ireland, and now I just have my fingers crossed that the airline in question stays in business by this time next week!

  • David Papapostolou

    October 20, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    I agree with you Richard, great array of paintings at the Rothko show. I took a lot from the Brown on Gray works on paper, as well as the Black on Gray, by far my favourite rooms.

    Although i enjoyed the show a lot (the Seagram room is quite an experience, despite whatever i say below) i can’t help but think that it is in the same time a massively missed opportunity. I think laying out the show in white painted, brightly lit rooms is an great mistake. The Seagram room is a good illustration of that, it is excessively tiring to look at the paintings (and yes; the noise doesn’t help) as the bright light just kills any nuance in the lower halves of the canvases. Same with the Black-Form series, i could only take anything from them from 1 or 2 meters away and doing my best to find the right angle so that the textures could be visible at all, rather than being all lost in the light bouncing off the painted surface. It is such a strange decision to make…especially after doing up the perfectly lit Rothko room in the museum…
    Actually, we went to see the Bacon show yesterday (which is also great as it happens), and the same thoughts came to me, especially in the first few rooms, where the really dark ones are (Man in blue, etc).

  • Richard Pinnell

    October 20, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    Hmm… David I actually think that the lighting in the Seagram hall is dimmed the same as in the normal Rothko room. One of the big problems though is that there are four wide openings into the room that allow light in, where there was only the one small opening in the old room. There is also much more white wall to be seen in the new hall as well, so that will make the room seem lighter. This is what I was getting at when I said the old room had more of a cocooned, enveloping feel to it. You felt surrounded by the paintings rather than the walls.

    I think I am correct in saying that Rothko asked for the walls to be white in the room showing his pictures as well, though I agree with you that a duller colour would be better. He also said that his paintings were best viewed from very close up, so that they fill your field of vision. I found that doing this made the problems with the lighting less of an issue, though it really didn’t work for the paintings behind glass.

    I’m still having nightmares over the Bacon exhibition… (and that’s not a joke)

  • Brian Olewnick

    October 21, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks for the excellent post, Richard.

    re: having time by oneself with an artwork. When I was at the Museum School in Boston, I took a “technical painting” course, which involved learning the craft of canvas prep, making gesso, grinding paints, etc. For the central project of the course, we were allowed to go into the stacks at the Boston Museum and select a painting to copy. First of all, looking at paintings in a warehouse situation is fantastic, actually being able to paw through them, lift them up, etc. in a more casual situation than normal. I picked a Tintoretto, a study for one of his huge Last Suppers, this one only about 2 x 4 feet. It was brought to a studio atop the museum and I sat with it for a couple of months, executing a semi-decent copy. It was a painting that, had it been hung in an exhibition room, I may have glanced at and walked by, nothing overtly outstanding about it. But by virtue of being alone with it for so long, seriously observing it, you come to realize how amazing it (and, by extension, other “minor” pieces) actually is, how assured the technique, how beautifully glazed, drawn, constructed etc. It was revelatory for me.

    At the same time, since I had free access to the museum, I went several times a week and made a point of visiting rooms I might not get around to on single visits, making an effort to look at paintings outside my normal range of interest–not just painting but various “objects” like jade snuff boxes, Roman coins, what-have-you, often spending considerable time with them, in rooms where I’d be the only inhabitant for an hour. Very valuable.

    To this day, I’ll sometimes visit the Met or MOMA with the aim of looking at a single work–Velazquez’ Portrait of Juan de Pareja, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pitcher, the purple and brown Rothko at MOMA. I’ll stay with it for an hour or so, then leave. Or I’ll visit some room that I don’t have an obvious interest in and, inevitably, discover some amazing things.

    All of which tends to cause one to be more generous in appreciating work that one might otherwise have, erroneously, dismissed. I try to do that with music as well though, of course, the inherent time demands make it that much more difficult.

  • graham halliwell

    October 21, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks for this, Richard.

    Can you tell me whether the Rothko Room as we know it at Tate Modern is copied from/similar to the original Rothko Room (as specified by Rothko) at the Tate Gallery? I have visited both over the years, but cannot recall just how close the Tate Modern room is to the original. Can you recall? Is there any comment regarding this?

    Also, you may find the following interesting, taken from About Rothko by Dore Ashton 1983:

    “when Sir Norman Reid, (then) director of the Tate gallery, visited Rothko in 1965 with the proposal that a special room be allocated in the Tate for his work, Rothko saw another opportunity to “control the situation.” He rejected Reid’s proposal that he give a representative group of paintings, offering instead the Seagram murals. He had great difficulty, however, and the negotiations went on for years. Rothko went to London in 1966 to see the space, and, as Reid reported “he admired the scale of the rooms and the light,which can be particularly beautiful.”
    After his serious illness in 1968, Rothko wrote Reid that he had to neglect many things, but that “I still hold the room in the Tate as part of my dreams.” He was concerned with every detail and after all was arranged sent Reid a swatch of the colour of his own studio walls so that everything could be exactly as Rothko had worked it out for himself”.

    Ashton also comments “…More likely Rothko had installed his works in an interior theatre of his own with which no real place would ever compare.”

  • Richard Pinnell

    October 21, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    First of all, thanks Brian for that story, I envy you having had that experience. As a youngster I used to copy paintings as well, often only in monotone pencil to see if I could recreate any of the energy and depth of the work with only one colour. Involving yourself that deeply in the detail and structure of painting is indeed a thoroughly rewarding experience. I’ve no idea why I don’t do something similar today.

    All of this has a tinge of T.J Clark’s fantastic The Sight of Death about it.

  • Richard Pinnell

    October 21, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Graham asked:

    Can you tell me whether the Rothko Room as we know it at Tate Modern is copied from/similar to the original Rothko Room (as specified by Rothko) at the Tate Gallery? I have visited both over the years, but cannot recall just how close the Tate Modern room is to the original. Can you recall? Is there any comment regarding this?

    I believe when they laid out the rooms at the Tate Modern they created a room of the same dimensions to the old room in the Millbank gallery. The room that usually houses the Seagrams in the new building is certainly a room built within a bigger room with non-structural walls if that makes sense to you. I can’t find anything online to link to that confirms this, but I seem to remember reading it somewhere, and the rooms certainly feel of a similar size to me.

    Yes I knew that quote Graham, though I’ve read it somewhere other than in Ashotn’s book, which is one I’ve not got to yet. Regarding this bit:

    He was concerned with every detail and after all was arranged sent Reid a swatch of the colour of his own studio walls so that everything could be exactly as Rothko had worked it out for himself”.

    The more I think about it now the more I am beginning to think that maybe the walls in the usual Rothko room are tinted slightly grey rather than pure white. I’d need to go and check though. Therefore if the walls in the new room are indeed bright white as David P said above then there is a difference there. I just can’t remember now, but I’ll look next time I am there.

  • Richard Pinnell

    October 21, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    Aha… don’t know why I didn’t think of this before….

    If you watch the video tour of the exhibition that I link to at the end of the report above, the walls in the Seagram hall look a distinctly off-white colour. I’d say this is exactly the same colour as in the usual Rothko room. When the curator guy walks through into the room containing the black-form works the walls suddenly look brighter and whiter.

    Incidentally at 1’45” into the film, the bald-headed guy sat on the bench takes a picture of one of the Seagram paintings with a long-lens camera. How come he didn’t get mugged by the security guards like everyone else does if they as much as take their phone out of their pocket there?!

  • Brian Olewnick

    October 21, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Yeah, one of the (many) things I enjoyed about Clark’s book was just that coming back again and again to a couple of works, re-evaluating what he’d felt earlier, etc.

    btw, one of the other small pleasures I was able to indulge in at the Boston Museum, in those days before pressure and motion sensors, was to discreetly approach a canvas–my favorite target being the wonderful Velazquez portrait of Luis de Gongora y Argote–and gently run my fingers across its surface.

    Still gives me tingles…..

  • Richard Pinnell

    October 21, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Is that your oily fingerprint I see there on his nose then?

    That’s a great painting though

  • David Papapostolou

    October 22, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Richard wrote:

    “The more I think about it now the more I am beginning to think that maybe the walls in the usual Rothko room are tinted slightly grey rather than pure white.”

    Yep they are, pretty damn sure they are darker than just grayish! I went there after seeing Rothko show, just wanted to have another look at these amazing Richters (they’ve gone!!!) and had a look in the usual Rothko room on the way, intrigued as they are using it for something else. Guess what is in there right now? the Vienese Activists :))

    Seriously, there is definitely a darker and i’d say slightly beigy-reddish tinge in this room. Maybe the material on the walls is different too, slightly more textured than straight paint?

    Still, being in this hall is quite an experience anyway and despite how amazing it could have been with the right light…

    (damn institutional white walls!)

  • RFKorp

    October 23, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    Brian’s comment about running his fingers across the paintings at the Boston Museum reminds me…

    I had a friend back in elementary school who was raised by his wonderful Russian grandmother. One day we were at the Met in one of the Medieval rooms and she grabbed a corner of one of the tapestries to give it a feel. No guards were watching but my mom was mortified. Made her stop. Explained that it’s just… not done. In response, my friend’s grandmother insisted that you can at the Hermitage!

    Needless to say, when we finally visited St. Petersburg, we were not allowed to touch the tapestries there either.

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