Tate Modern in London hosts (from 26 September 2008 to 1 February 2009) an exquisite exhibition of the late work of Mark Rothko – Rothko – The Late Series. It focuses on his series beginning from 1950s famous ‘Seagram Murals’, then his formidable ‘Blacks’, ‘Brown and Greys’ and ‘Black and Greys’ – the last paintings he produced before his death at the beginning of 1970.
All the works presented are the artist’s most mature, most representative works (with an exception of the original paintings for the ‘Rothko’s Chapel’, which couldn’t be borrowed). They paint a picture of a formidable artist – a mystical, philosophical figure, as tragic as courageous he seemed to be in his spiritual and purely artistic endeavours. Right at the start we have to face the famous ‘Seagram Murals’, which are in a lucky possession of the Tate Gallery, but now have been reunited for the first time with the other works from the series from Japan and America. The Murals have a fairy-tale of their own… originally commissioned to a luxury “Four Seasons” restaurant in the Seagram Building, New York, they have been meant by the artist to be a sort of ‘artistic explosives’ – planted there to disturb. Rothko was quoted saying, that all he wanted was to make the rich customers of that posh environment to feel very uncomfortable at their lavishly set tables. Hence, instead of six required he painted over thirty huge abstract, windows-like oils – then he spent some time making careful plans, which ones and in which arrangement will make their trick of making those nasty ‘sons of b….’ feel trapped and choking in their presence. Then, from various reasons known (and unknown) he abandoned the commission; eight canvases from the series has been donated to Tate Gallery by the painter himself – they compose so-called “Rothko Room” which is available for viewing at a permanent basis.
Do then, those ‘explosives’ do their trick in a new setting, facing very different ‘target’? I would say – yes – they are still capable of sending stupefied visitors straight to the ‘audio-guides’ desk, where they probably hope to find any ‘explanation’ of what they are about to see and experience. Others, braver or more initiated (or just unaware) occupy benches at the middle of the huge room and roll their wide-opened eyes from wall to wall, in a silence, for long minutes – just as you would expect them to behave in a cathedral or in Himalayas -staring at unattainable ice peaks. Those vast, dark, obscure ‘windows’, glowing strangely with their inner, amazing maroon – red – black light come very close to a classical Longinus’s , E. Burke’s and I. Kant’s definition of ‘the Sublime’ – as the powerful to a fright and pleasing in a challenging, intense way sensation, which keeps sensible, strong-minded, ‘modern’ individuals staggered and in a deep confusion. They are not designed to show you the world ‘out’ as the ordinary windows are, instead of that- they look intently back at you. They are not to be ‘touched’ with an easy-pleasure-seeking eye – they require a ‘bird-eye’ view, and a bangee jump. And without a doubt – you have to be far away to ‘get in’ – this is one of the paradoxes of the sublime…
The same, if not more is true with the “Black” series – these middle-sized (as for Rothko) oils present the view of your own closed eyes, which would remain completely and uniformly black as long as you are closed for your inner worlds. “Space” would the key word here – spiritual space, which is supposed to command the actual, physical space it occupies through an artwork.
Perhaps it’s in this series that one can appreciate the artist’s technique at its best – having UV light in our eye we would be able to see why, at the first sight – ‘just black’ surfaces seem to be animated and reflecting rather, than devouring light. Scarcely visible shifts of tones and brushwork, intelligent playing with opaque/glossy and thinner/thicker, feathery building up layers upon layers and the perfect control over the media used – the same applicable for each painting on the exhibition – that makes Rothko’s work almost absolutely reproduction and imitation-proof and even more impressive.
His ‘Black-Grey’ series should be noted from these two reasons alone – they’ve been painted shortly before the painter took his life, and they seem to be a first step in a new direction (which, sadly, was never to be continued); the brush strokes here are much more visible, impatient and expressive; striking device of a frame-like white strip traps the visions attempted poignantly within the pictorial space.
What else?… Many words have been thrown at Rothko’s work, both ignorant, criticizing and acclaiming – yet, what I think should be stressed always, is the highly personal character of a reception – no one can think that he ‘knows’ what ‘Rothko is all about’ unless making his very own way to and deep into this remarkable artist’s work. It’s more like a participation in a self-provoked and mastered performance – it just has to take place to make sense, and perhaps – only sense for your only, unique case.
Click on a link to see the details of the exhibition.