There has been much talk about this exhibition on the art world grapevine, in the British press, and among the cultured crowds of London. The exhibition is indeed deserving of the talk, and not to be missed.
While every painting in this small exhibition is breathtaking, for me, though not for everyone, the highlight comes in the final room with the Black on Grey (1969) oils on canvas. These works are like a symphony in which every note is in perfect balance and harmony, at no time forgetting what the others are doing, but always fulfilling its own individual logic. Each painting is different from the next, self-contained, yet simultaneously connected to those on either side for its profundity and resonance. Despite the characteristic Rothko working and reworking over and over again of the painted surface, the black in the top half of the paintings remains coherent and even. The thick grey brushstrokes on the bottom half, however, are as varied in tone, gesture, intensity and thickness as the black is consistent. Sometimes the grey brushstroke is chaotic and agitated, at others melodic, the movement across the canvas can be brief, even static, it can be fluid and voluminous or decisive, even angry. What remains consistent across the seven paintings is that the grey is always in conversation with the black above it, and the white, yellow, and red that hum beneath the surface, in those moments where the grey is so transparent and translucent that it cannot help but illuminate all that touches it. These works are endlessly fascinating and satisfying. And the need to spend extended amounts of time with them comes despite the uncharacteristic white border that frames all but one of the Black on Grey paintings, a border that otherwise stymies our want to fall headlong into the mesmerizing density of Rothko’s canvases.
And of course, there is the virtuosic masterpieces that are the reason for the exhibition: the Seagram murals. The Tate exhibits a selection of these devastating works in one room, and though there is no doubt the works are silently perfect, it’s the room where, to my mind, the biggest problem with the exhibition lies. Apparently at Rothko’s instruction, and under the guidance of his son Christopher Rothko, the Seagram murals are hung at a height, meaning we have to look up to them. While this may follow the artist’s request for the paintings’ display, this curatorial decision means that the intense reflection and transcendence which we can experience when being with a Rothko is not possible in the presence of the murals here as they are hung in the Tate Modern. The only place from which we are able to fully take in their profundity and perfection without having to look up to them is from a distance, a distance much greater than the optimal 18” that Rothko also deemed perfect for establishing intimacy with his paintings. In short, their exhibition here ensures that we are not able to fall into them, a falling that is the whole point of being with a Rothko painting.
In keeping with the works of only the greatest modernist color field painters — Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Clyfford Still, and others — Rothko’s paintings solicit one of two responses: either, like myself, the viewer experiences a kind of devotion to them, or he or she just doesn’t get them. While the first viewer will spend hours before a single painting as if before a religious icon, the second spends minutes, even seconds, and moves on to the next. And I was disappointed to see that this exhibition does nothing to guide the disbelievers into the beauty of these canvases, and the untethered transcendence that can be experienced in their midst. On the contrary, the Tate Modern, under the guidance of curator Achim Borchardt-Hume is more concerned to flatten out and resolve their mystery than he is to invite his audience to indulge in its overwhelm. Thus there is inclusion of a maquette of Rothko’s proposed display of the murals in the Seagram building, The verso of the Tate’s own Black on Maroon is also on display, but ironically, there is nothing to see but a blank canvas on an unremarkable stretcher. And we are also treated to a small display of some of the paintings under x-ray to show the layer upon layer of paint that goes into these images, images in which the internal frame otherwise floats on a background of black or deep red. While the x-ray photographs give insight into and momentary explanations of Rothko’s painting process, I am not convinced this is the most interesting or unique aspect of being in the presence of the paintings.
For all of my reservations about some of the exhibition’s curatorial decisions, as someone who would bow down before a Rothko painting, it is exciting and moving to be with the Seagram murals. The power and overwhelm of sharing a room with canvases that still have the potential to lift us into the purity of unmediated contemplation offers a rare experience that those of us who are lucky enough will only enjoy a handful of times in our lives. And it is an experience that must be had.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Mark Rothko, Untitled (Brown and Gray), 1969, oil on canvas, 182.5 x 122.2 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. 1986.43.283 © 2008 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko. Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969, oil on canvas, 229.6 x 175.9 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. 1986.43.164 © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko. Mark Rothko, Untitled Mural for End Wall, 1959, 265.4 x 288.3 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. 1985.38.5 © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.)