Sunday, 20 September 2009





Rothko is now one of those mythical artists, an icon of 20th century creativity, the central figure in a tragic legend. Which means to say that one is pretty much compelled to agree that everything he did was wonderful, a manifestation of genius. I have to say that I find myself increasingly resistant to this approach. Some works by Rothko I do in fact respond to, with their glowing blocks of color. Even then, however, I find myself resistant to the suggestion, promoted by the artist himself, that his paintings are somehow to be thought of as devotional objects. Spirituality may have been the aim, but the exact nature of that spirituality always remained cannily undeclared.


Going to the recently opened Rothko show at Tate Modern in London did nothing to persuade me to change my mind., though the exhibition has met with an ecstatic chorus of praise from the London press. Devoted entirely to Rothko’s late work, it turned out to be a visit to the Glums – glum art confronting an audience that seemed to be equally depressed.


The main item was a re-arrangement of the canvases that Rothko originally painted for a restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York,, a highly unspiritual location, which, then as now, was a temple to the high-powered business lunch. Like many leading New York artists of his generation, Rothko was inclined to flirt with Mammon and then regret it. The Tate owns the larger part of this series already, but there were a few additions, borrowed from the USA and Japan. The paintings are hung very high, according to the artist’s own instructions, and are much under-lit, which is also what he wished. The effect is sepulchral. Worse, it is dingy. The gallery has all the charisma of a waiting room in a disused railway station. Those present, when I was there quite a throng, seemed like refugees waiting for a train that was never going to come.


Rothko’s sensitivity on the subject of excess light is understandable, if one considers what happened to the paintings made for another ambitious commission – for a brightly lit penthouse dining room at Harvard University. These works are now irreparably faded, and cannot be shown. In an article written in 1988, when they were briefly and shamefacedly put on view, after a long period in store. Michael Kimmelman, then chief art critic of the New York Times, summarized the situation thus:

‘The exhibition - organized by Marjorie B. Cohn, the chief conservator at Harvard's Center for Conservation and Technical Studies -brings into sharp focus not only a legacy of skepticism toward modern art at this tradition-bound university but also a much broader issue concerning the fragility of 20th-century paintings and sculptures. Widespread experimentation with materials by many of this century's artists has produced physically unstable objects. Rothko's unwitting use of a fugitive pigment, Lithol Red, as the dominant color in his Harvard murals all but assured the fading that followed.’


The Tate exhibition, exactly twenty years later, has a laudatory section devoted to the subtleties of Rothko’s technique, but nothing to say about its fragility. This seems to me dishonest, not least because the red pigment that proved fatal at Harvard also seems to play a prominent role in the Seagram paintings. One good reason for going to see the current Rothko show is that if you don’t see the work now, a time may come when you won’t be able to see it at all, in the form originally intended by the artist. This is also true of quite a number of other 20th century ‘masterpieces’.


My visit, however was not all loss. I was fascinated by some of the very late, and somewhat smaller works – a series in black and brown, and another in black and grey. In each case there is a single block of matt black above a smaller, slightly textured block of light brown or grey. The more I studied them, the more they seemed like figurative paintings rather than abstract ones – representations of prison rooms, the lighter color being the floor, and the larger black area the wall. I suppose this reaction was in part a tribute to something that Leonardo da Vinci knew about – the fact that humans compulsively make images even where none exist. Yet the paintings also seemed like metaphors for Rothko’s state of mind at the end of his life, trapped in a creative prison of his own devising. His late work marks a decisive moment in western art – minimalism before Minimalism, the moment when the bird of artistic creativity first decided to try to fly up its own anus.


This site was last updated 20-09-2009