The Late Series
September 26, 2008 through February 1, 2009
Tate has, once again, carefully orchestrated a sensational opening for the beginning of London’s Autumn Art season; with a show on Francis Bacon at Tate Britain, and one on Rothko at Tate Modern, Tate has secured its place amongst the event-exhibition galleries in London. Not that this required a re-assessment; Tate, more over since its splitting in two internationally competitive sites, has accustomed its visitors to a challenging and varied exhibiting programme, bravely juxtaposing the art world’s superstars (see the super blockbuster Matisse Picasso of 2002) to rather obscure ones (a retrospective of August Strindberg’s paintings in 2004). This time, Tate has put assembled two blockbusters; simultaneously. Whilst the museum has handled this format very successfully in the past, Rothko’s paintings perhaps pose a curatorial challenge that questions the very nature of the blockbuster exhibition as a format.
The show focuses on the final part of Rothko’s career between 1958 and 1970, and comprises of around 50 works, including canvases and works on paper.
The highlight of the show is most certainly the Seagram Murals series, which is an absolute landmark in Rothko’s development as an abstract expressionist painter. Commissioned in 1958, the series was intended to adorn the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan’s newly built Seagram building, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Rothko constructed a scaffold in his studio to create a replica space of the restaurant to work in. Though the original commission was meant to encompass only seven paintings, Rothko eventually painted 30 canvases. These were never presented to the restaurant, as it was through the painting of these large canvases that Rothko realised the spiritual and metaphysical potential of his new body of work. He saw the paintings as objects of contemplation, demanding the viewer’s complete absorption and made reference to Michelangelo’s works in the Laurentian Library in Florence, with its deliberately oppressive atmosphere, commenting that Michelangelo ‘achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after - he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up’.
Here’s where the blockbuster nature of the exhibition comes to undermine the specific quality of the works. Although the size of the room in which the series is exhibited provides visitors with a breathtaking panoramic sweep-view of the giant canvasses, here is where the contemplative experience my start and end for most. Rothko took the contemplative and absorbing value of the works very seriously, to the extent that, he prescribed a rather intimate 46cm distance between the painted surface and its viewer, and accurately defined the quality of light suited to the experience.
Of course the 46cm gap has not been respected here as museum-standard security levels impose almost twice that distance between the original unprotected canvas and the viewer’s breath. So you cannot quite get as close and intimate as you hoped in order to loose yourself in the contemplative nirvana that Rothko perfectly planned. On top of that, the volume of visitors allowed at one time inside the exhibiting space makes the experience resemble more closely a shopping trip down Oxford Street rather than the quiet and spiritual space of a chapel. However, the room still accomplishes something, for the first time in their history, the nine Tate Seagram (Rothko donated these to Tate in 1970) murals have been joined by a selection of related Seagram paintings from the collections of the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Japan, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The second highlight of the show is a much smaller room entirely dedicated to the Black-Form paintings; here we witness a complete break with his colour field paintings of the 1950’s. In each of them, a black square rides on a background only very slightly less black. The effect is slightly different in each of the canvasses with one of them appearing particularly elusive as the lighter square inside the colour field optically vanishes and re-surfaces in front of your very own eyes.
The exhibition comes to an end with a series of Brown and Gray works on paper and Black and Gray paintings replacing the contemplative atmosphere of the Seagram series with a tension at the `horizon', where the feathered splashes of one colour meet another as these are reduced to a dark upper and a lighter lower section. A dry finale to a difficult show that presents an unprecedented selection of great works presented like butterflies in an entomology cabinet. Still a good show, one that demands attendance as, it has to be mentioned, Rothko’s paintings must be seeing in the flesh. Reproductions just do not capture the complexity of layering, feathering, texture, tone and size appropriately. Better perhaps visited on a Monday morning!
The Menil chapel in Houston – now known as the Rothko chapel – with Rothko's Black-Form paintings, is the place to go for the ultimate Rothko experience, says Rothko’s son. Christopher Rothko didn't go there until 1996, and was unprepared for how intense it would be. "I stood there for three or four minutes and had this uncanny urge to run out of there," he says. "I've come to really love it since then; I won't say it's easy, but it's a familiar place now."
Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.view all articles from this author