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Maquette for installation of Seagram murals at Tate Gallery. Tate Archive Collection.
© Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 1998. Photo: J.Fernandes, Tate Photography.

Mark Rothko: The Late Series
At the Tate Modern

by Anna Leung

This exhibition is about much more than Mark Rothko. It touches on various presuppositions regarding the ground rules that, even if covertly, define our reception and interaction with art works in general. And whereas it is impossible for me to delineate a Rothko that is appropriate for you and approximates your response, since Rothkos do not permit any mediation, it is possible to consider certain tendencies within the art world that help determine the way we look at the late series of Rothko paintings.

Since art history is essentially a retrospective discourse that constantly defers to the present moment, current attempts made to make intelligible new movements or innovative stylistic practices will necessarily be subject to revision by subsequent generations. The idiom changes, and with that comes the need to re-construct what has gone on before us. The critical reaction to Rothko's work testifies more than most to the way abstract painting simultaneously invites and resists individual interpretation. Despite the initial cries of the emperor’s new clothes in the 1950’s and the quip as to how a set of blurry rectangles could ever constitute Art, Rothko’s paintings were being heralded as part of the Abstract Sublime, placed in the same Northern romantic trajectory as Friedrich and Turner, and elevated to the status of secular icons by the early 1960s. Ten years later, in 1971, the black, brooding canvases that make up the Rothko Chapel in Houston seemed to fulfill this mystical impulse but also could be seen as pointing in another direction more in line with the new generation of Minimalist artists whom Rothko would feel were threatening to usurp his place.

But by this time, the orientation of critical responses to his work had already begun to change. Whereas earlier critics focused on luminous zones of colour creating a transcendent space, what was increasingly alluded to was a purely aesthetic object closer to the elegance of French symbolism, for instance to Monet or to Whistler, a decorativeness which Rothko energetically sought to deny. He always asserted that he was no colourist and indeed no abstractionist. This anti-transcendental tendency went much further: as with Stella’s ‘hard edge’ abstractions, what was beginning to characterise avant garde painting was its insistence on painting’s status of a concrete material object. Rothko may have partly ratified this move as a reaction against the emphasis on pure opticality in colour field painting, which was itself derived from the formal analysis of Abstract Expressionist gestural painting. In other words, with his harder edged Monochromes of the mid sixties, Rothko may have been partly assuming paternity for this new generation, or at least competing with them on his own terms whilst disavowing any real relationship. This conflict between a romantic/mystical understanding of abstraction and a reductionist and totally non- associative abstraction, which may well have become a source of inner conflict for Rothko, was not new. The precedent had already been set in the early years of the twentieth century--not in America, but in Russia.

Contrary to what one might think, abstraction does have a narrative--many narratives, in fact, ranging from the primary distinction between geometric or mechanistic abstraction (Malevich and Mondrian) based on rationality, and organicist abstraction (Kandinsky) based on irrationality, to further subdivisions that lead ultimately to the Monochrome, which has been associated with the death or end of modernist painting or at least a decline that overshadowed much of the late twentieth century. What is at stake is the idea of a high art through which we can gain some sort of transcendence, art, in Barbara Rose’s words, as "a catharsis of the imagination." This debate had already raged between Malevich and Rodchenko in revolutionary Russia. Rodchenko spearheaded an anti-art movement that was fundamentally a gesture of defiance, affirming "It’s all over. Basic colours. Every plane is a plane, and there is to be no more representation." Malevich, though mechanistic, instilled his all-white canvases with extra-aesthetic associations based on Ouspensky’s ideas on consciousness and the fourth dimension. Neither was an absolute monochrome painter; each argued for an extra-aesthetic agenda. 

The American monochrome painting can be seen as a logical outcome of Abstract Expressionist all-over painting: a single-coloured, unmodulated surface that began to move away from the evocative and romantic overtones still found in Barnett Newman and Rothko. Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, completed at the Black Mountain College under the auspices of Joseph Albers and John Cage, also still echo this mystical overtone. We have no real means of knowing whether these new developments constituted a motivating factor in Rothko’s subsequent negation of colour that characterises these last series of paintings on display at Tate Modern. It is possible that Rothko was well aware that Reinhardt’s Black Paintings, a series of monotonal black paintings, each made up of four almost invisible black squares, which the artist had devoted himself to from 1961 to his death in 1967, represented both an end and a new beginning. For Reinhardt they were "the last paintings that anyone can paint." Certainly Rothko was both impressed and threatened by such a degree of purism and commitment to one format that rigorously excluded subjectivity, but as this exhibition suggests his own monochromatic paintings could have just as feasibly been the product of his own experiments and observations regarding Gestalt perception theory, in which he had long been interested. For what this exhibition seems to suggest is that from the Seagram Collection till his death, Rothko was involved not with creating canvases as unique works of art but as parts of series that would demand of the viewer a completely different interaction with his work. From the late 1950s on, installations made up of a series of paintings within a given location became the focus of his painting practice. Thus in the Houston Chapel, while his paintings were still designed to be intimate and invite contemplation, as a totality they create a drama that is enacted within a public space over which, unlike the Seagram Murals, he was able to exert a clear control.

The Seagram Murals

In 1958 Philip Johnson and Phyllis Lambert approached Rothko with a view to his painting a set of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the prestigious new Mies van der Rohe Seagram Buildings in New York City. He was given carte blanche and asked to provide 500-600 square feet of paintings for $35,000. It is significant, though, that from the beginning of negotiations he was very careful to provide himself with a get-out clause since, suspecting that the decorative nature of the project would cause him to as bastardise his talents, he harboured extremely ambivalent feelings about the commission. Rothko, who had definite leftist leanings, belonged to a generation of artists for whom success spelt out guilt. Acceptance on the part of the public, let alone accessibility, were still seen as somewhat dishonourable. According to this logic, if art was to be effective it was by definition unapproachable, unsettling, and disharmonious. To Rothko, for whom "all art deals with intimations of mortality," painting represented a quest, not for self expression but, on the contrary, for self negation. Painting was an attempt to create an image of the not-seen while at the same time insisting on art’s sensuous particularity. A constant danger besetting the Abstract Expressionist artist was of the painting's losing its gesture of negativity and abstractness and becoming familiar or even beautiful in a decorative sense, and thus sliding into kitsch. Rothko, exasperated at being labelled a colourist with its associations of something overly refined, delicate, or even hedonistic, therefore abandoned his earlier bright hued colours for darker crimsons and blacks. Only seldom did he return to the luxuriance of colour with which he made his name.

Over the next three years Rothko completed three groups of paintings that represented a move away from his classic horizontally zoned compositions. According to his studio assistant, a break-through came after turning some of his paintings on their sides so that what was originally a horizontal bar now functioned as a pillar and made the forms resemble portals. This suggested an architectural model based on the open rectangle that reminded Rothko of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence with its blind window constructions. Perceptually, these forms which, in the absence of any definite figure and ground, function simultaneously as surface and deep recessive space, invite and yet repulse entry. (This incidentally satisfied what Rothko called his malice towards the restaurant’s affluent diners. For it was not so much that the Four Seasons was a restaurant but the class of clients who came to eat there at such inflated prices that enraged him.) In the final analysis, Rothko rejected the commission realising that a restaurant was not an appropriate venue for his paintings. But much had been gained. The idea had been to create a total environment which would surround the viewer and give Rothko complete control over how each painting in the series was to be hung, so that "the neighbouring paintings would always intrude on the viewer’s peripheral vision." Rothko imagined an ambiguous space created by a palpitating screen of paintings, so disorientating in its effects that, as he said, the diners would want to "butt their heads forever against the wall." Eventually, Rothko returned the money and withdrew his paintings. He had already painted 40 panels. The paintings were dispersed, 13 to be housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, 7 at the Kawamura Museum of Modern Art in Japan, and 9 in the Tate here in London. Rothko died on February 25th 1970, the very same day the Seagram paintings arrived in London.

The Rothko Chapel at Houston

What Rothko had achieved through his work on the unfulfilled Seagram commission was the creation of a series of paintings that required to be experienced by the viewer as a totality, an innovatory concept that he worked through in his next installations for Harvard and then for what was to become the interdenominational Rothko Chapel at Houston, Texas. Rothko received this commission, his last, in 1964 from John and Dominique de Menil. Asked to paint a set of murals for a modern octagonal chapel in Houston, Rothko was inspired in his treatment of the space by early Byzantine architecture. Moreover the windowless octagonal space gave Rothko the opportunity to experiment with a wraparound solution that made it virtually impossible, if scrutinising one painting, not to simultaneously be aware of adjacent paintings on either side. The viewer would then be integrated or enfolded into the work so that it would be experienced as one work--or, rather, one continually changing event--even though it was physically made up of several panels. The time it took to register differences was an essential part of the work. A virtually black rectangle seems to take up almost the entire canvas making up each of the five single panels and the three triptychs. What particularly distinguishes this set of paintings is the absence of soft edges and the sensuality associated with his earlier work. Rothko had used masking tape to define his rectangles. Only gradually do other colours begin to infiltrate or surface, an effect that depends on the natural light coming in from the overhead aperture; when overcast, the black rectangles look all the more obdurate whereas on lighter days this black expanse begins to dematerialise. In both cases, access seems difficult. Many viewers report difficulties, psychological as well as optical, in actually looking at the paintings, for they seem to resist prolonged viewing and therefore can never be fully grasped. The intense austerity of the paintings seems to ignore us and yet commands our attention and viewers are constantly brought face to face with the paradox of what they see, what they think they see and what they feel. Confronted with a world that is simultaneously open and expansive yet closed and confined, they are presented with a space that oscillates between being and non-being.

To obtain these effects Rothko had already experimented with series of closely related canvases in which visibility, constantly threatened by invisibility, provokes in the viewer a continually shifting response to paintings that seem alike but are not quite the same. As in the Houston chapel, this can be a struggle since it’s almost impossible to remember quite what we have seen when surrounded by paintings on all sides. What matters is the interaction between paintings that present us with a multiplicity of permutations, a play of tensions that bear no relation with external life as we know it. Essentially, Rothko creates, with a minimum of means, an internal experience that can induce a state of anxiety or of peace - the most frequently noted response in the visitor’s book is "peace." For curiously, however sombre, Rothko’s dark colours continue to emit light.

The Brown and Grey, Black on Grey

Rothko had worked for three years on the Houston chapel, and to encourage experimentation, he started to work with acrylics on paper. In 1968 he suffered an aneurysm and continued to restrict his work to a maximum of 40 inches in height, either out of his liking for the new freedom found in working with paper or perhaps because of medical advice (not to over exert himself). Dividing the vertical sheet of paper into two sections resulted in two horizontal areas; the upper section in the first series was painted with a brown wash while the lower was painted grey. In the second series, a black wash covered the upper section while grey covered the lower one. The distinguishing mark of these paintings is the white border created by the use of masking tape. The luminosity they emit is related to the fact that Rothko now left the painting surface white rather than using gesso mixed with coloured pigment as he had previously done. Both areas are firmly anchored in this white edge that effectively frames them, but at the same time aligns them with the wall so that the paintings seem to puncture the walls and open into a space beyond them.

Some critics have seized upon this boxing in of the image as a premonition of Rothko’s suicide by equating them with coffins. But this is to fall into the trap of literalism. It was not painting that defeated Rothko. On the contrary: having battled with depression for over five years, survived an aneurysm, been diagnosed as having bilateral emphysema, and separated from his wife and children, it was life that defeated him. Rothko’s suicide was extremely thorough, very well thought out, and not an impulsive act. He had looked into the darkness and concluded that there was only one way out that preserved his dignity.

The Subject of the Artist

Rothko always refuted his labeling as either a colourist or abstractionist. He also insisted his work revealed not his self but his "not-self." He pursued a reductionist aesthetic but not one that was formalistically reductionist or anti-art. Despite all his self doubts, and his feeling threatened by the oncoming generation who repudiated his ideas, he never stopped pursuing "a single tragic idea." His art, which had started out as political, gained a definite transcendental edge but one that does not point to anything beyond the empirical world. It is concrete and material. His is a singular voice that refused to surrender to the claims of a disenchanted world. The rationale behind the exhibition may be to suggest a link between the asceticism of the late series and Minimalism, but Rothko's last paintings do not necessarily represent this end point. What he continues to give us is a space for contemplation that confronts us with our existential condition. This required both stamina and self-effacement. It was necessarily a fragile enterprise.

The exhibition Rothko ran from 26 September 2008 - 1 February 2009 at the Tate Modern in London, UK.

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions. 

Text © Anna Leung, 2009.

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