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 Â£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