Thursday, 2 April 2009

Mark Rothko

Black on Maroon, 1958
Oil on Canvas 266 x 366 cm

Tate Modern, London
19 October 2008

The Seagram murals were originally painted to decorate the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building, New York (the skyscraper in Park Avenue designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson). When Rothko was finished, he realised he had actually created three different series, yet decided that the paintings did not suit the setting, saying that he hadn’t realised they were for the restaurant. He decided to withhold his pictures, which remained in his possession, and returned the amount already paid to him.

Nine of these paintings were given to the Tate by Rothko in 1969 and I have seen them in three different group settings prior to this exhibition of his late paintings in 2008. The centre piece of the exhibition is a room that brings together an extensive group of Seagram murals, uniting for the first time, eight of Tate's murals with a selection of those from Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Japan and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The exhibition was informative and I learned a lot about Rothko’s techniques, mainly thanks to a collection of ultravoilet photographs of samples and being able to see the back of a painting. However, the drawback was that the exhibition was extremely busy and it was impossible to spend any time in contemplation of the works I hadn’t seen before. Instead I have chosen a work from a quieter room and spend a little time with.

It was the first painting sent by Rothko to the Tate and is also known as “Sketch for Mural #6”. It is a typically gloomy example of his later work and features a dark floating frame over a maroon gound colour. I always find looking at these works an act of meditation, and the longer you look the more you see subtle shifts and nuances of colour and tone. The palette is more complex than is possible to guage from this small reproduction; a feathered edge of blue can be seen beneath the black and the central elements have a pinker tinge than the external ground. The detailed support for the exhibition explains that he achieves this subtlety and depth within these large paintings by developing a complex approach to both the preparation of the canvas and the layers of paint that were subsequently applied. The paint is in fact not just oil based, but also include resin and alkyd paints, and the glazes use dammar varnish, egg and oil. It is this complex arrangement that lies behind the haxe over the central elements.

The scale is immense and the claustrophobic image reads as a metaphorical portal or window, particularly when grouped with others around a gallery room. Sitting with this painting in the past, in that kind of quiet environment with others from the group, I have felt that the work communicates a deep melancholia. Consequently I wasn’t surprised to read in the catalogue that Rothko claimed to not be interested in the abstract relationships of colour and form, but “in the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic emotions”.

Also in the exhibition was the original maquette of the room the Tate planned to hang the work in and satisfy the artist’s intention that the works should form a homogeneous group and be seen alone in a space of their own. Tragically the pictures arrived in London on the day of Rothko’s suicide, and he never saw them in position. The Seagram murals are amonst my favourite works in the Tate collection and I have spent many hours, often in solitude, with them. I am looking forward to them returning from their global tour and being rehung in a Rothko room again and seeing them in surroundings closer to the artists original intention.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Last summer there was a big (perhaps the last?) Mark Rothko- Retrospective in Hamburg and I saw the Seagram murals, too, and many other images (very impressive his self-portrait as Teiresias!)- since some time I'm enthousiastic about his paintings- my first 'crucial experience' (yes, the right word) was during the MoMA in Berlin!
    Your explanations are very good: informative, careful, and sensitive! I admire MR decision not to "decorate" the restaurant- for art is no culinary- decorating wellness-ambiance indeed (I hate the silly question: would you like to hang this painting on your wall!) Yes, MK's end is very tragic- his paintings show dark-black- grey colours- very depressing -whereas some months ago he painted the 'Spring' (one of my favourite images) so gently rose-coloured. His paintings have the effects and the power to make me happy and meditative and in these moments I cannot understand that MR must end in this way - he heard hilarious Mozart- and other music while painting- he must have been in a dreamlike mood and meditation while being elevated some feet above earth where the happiness could begin! It is possible to describe that feeling as 'melancholic'-but beautifully- slightly melancholic! We have to dive/merge deeply into his paintings and to take time and then there comes up a kind of transcending and emotional movement I cannot describe. Somebody described his paintings as "epiphany" of colours where the "deus absconditus" might be detected in! I'm not sure but I can agree with persons who have found a religious dimension in his paintings. The"windows" and "portals" will get open t owards depths we could 'see' before- in any case- the opposite to claustrophoby!

  2. I like the word "maroon"- translated in German: weinrot/winered/ kastanienbraun/chestnutbrown- I would say: Rothko-red-pink- we have no words to descibe these colours exactly!

  3. As you have probably guessed by know I prefer figurative to abstract work. These paintings are the "exception that proves the rule" as we say in English. I have known them for a long time and have spent many hours in their company. Religious? Clearly Rothko felt this way, as it crops up frequently in the material I have read. I prefer meditative, and believe anyone of any denomination can find some peace with them.