Friday, 16 January 2009

Rothko at Tate Modern, belatedly

I finally got to the Tate Modern’s showing of Mark Rothko’s later works (I’d delayed this visit in part because of the reported crowds). The central works in the exhibition are a group of paintings originally intended for the Four Seasons Restaurant though the artist eventually withdrew them figuring the venue was inappropriate. At the Tate they occupy the four walls of a very large space. Besides these paintings there are (notably) some preliminary pieces, a group of ‘brown and grey’ works on paper, and the ‘black on grey’ paintings that were Rothko’s final series. Rothko of all painters seems to require that you view his work peripherally as well as frontally. Colour in his work often interacts with our peripheral vision and the artist himself had often placed paintings carefully so that they would do this. A photograph in the brochure shows two large paintings immediately framing an entrance at a Sidney Janis Gallery showing in the mid-fifties.

Perhaps my delay had something to do with it but I found the show generally disappointing. It wasn’t too crowded but somehow the paintings mostly failed to deliver the anticipated retinal excitement. Only one or two seemed particularly vibrant. The pieces I liked best of all were the works on paper though these suffered the most from their presentation. Perhaps they might have worked better if the walls of that particular room had been darker or if they weren’t under glass. As it turned out, the white walls, combined with the lighting, introduced a purplish glow to the works that was very difficult to avoid. Spotlights that seemed neutral when viewed directly appeared mauve when reflected in the glass, resulting in work that would not resolve one way or another. This was indeed ‘interaction’, though not perhaps of the kind that Rothko himself would have countenanced.

Rothko’s popularity is itself a matter of interest. Together with Jackson Pollock he is a sure draw for gallery crowds. Both artists have a considerable mythology built around them; their work when displayed becomes a site for pilgrimage as much as for ‘dispassionate’ viewing. A career retrospective would have been even more overwhelming (in terms of gallery crowding) though this may have proved a financially prohibitive exercise. It’s hard to imagine that Cy Twombly, for example, or even one of Rothko’s contemporaries like Barnett Newman or Philip Guston would have made viewing the work a potentially difficult task.

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