Saturday, 17 January 2009

Mark Rothko

Tate Modern is the perfect place for the Mark Rothko exhibition that's on at the moment: it's awesome, large, dark red with strong lines. Just like most of Rothko’s later paintings. For years his murals have hung in the Tate but for the first time his late series of paintings are on show.

In 1958 Rothko was commissioned to paint some murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in Mies van der Rohe’s (of 'less is more' fame) stunning Seagram skyscraper in New York. But the paintings Rothko produced were not the colourful pieces of his previous works: they were dark. Layer upon layer of red, of black and, finally, brown and grey. Nothing is flat, varying tones and intensities give the finished works a luminosity and depth you wouldn’t think possible in such dark canvases.

Rothko never completed the commission. The story is that he felt they were works that should be seen by the ordinary man, not simply rich diners: that the space in the restaurant was too cramped for his vision of their hanging. This may well be true but I think these abstract works also show us a man who was not happy. He killed himself in 1970 as the first of his works arrived at the Tate.

Rothko’s death brought his works back to the attention of the art world: a whole new interest in his latest works grew. Rothko had wanted his works to create a sense of place. And hanging together as they do in the central room of the exhibition they certainly do. They are brooding, magnificent, deep and, well, kind of melancholy.

He had felt that the works should be looked at close up – as close as 18 inches from the surface – and I tried it. I’m sure other visitors – who quite sensibly stood well back as one would expect to be in order to see the whole canvas – thought I was short sighted, mad or both. But it gave me the feeling that I was really entering the painting. Like a dark cave. A doorway. That close you can see the built up layers of colour and feel that there is something more there. Something to ponder.

Rothko’s earlier paintings had used glorious exuberant colour. Specialists have researched the materials he has used for these Seagram murals by putting ultra-violet light behind them. The results show the layering of colours that have made up the finished canvas. The back-lit examples are absolutely stunning in their vibrant colour, wonderful shading and clarity. It’s difficult to believe that these are the basis for the Seagram murals.

I used to see Rothko’s paintings as landscapes (I suppose that’s an occupational hazard). But many of these later works are very similar, the only difference a change in the level of the horizon. And that change in level alters ones perception. Just as the subtle changes in colour do. Now, I think, the paintings are to make the spectator do just that: think.

There’s a great photo of Rothko sitting in his chair just contemplating his canvas. Is he thinking ‘What do I need to do: to add, to detract” or is he just sitting there meditating, monk-like, wondering what is in there. In that deep fathomless, bottomless, colour and shape. I suspect that he is: he’s thinking about life, the world, the universe and everything.

And I guess if his murals make us stop, and think deeply about these imponderables too, then that has to be a good thing in this too-busy-to-stop, no-time-to-do-it, running-late world we all inhabit.


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