Sunday, October 5, 2008


Having rarely seen much of it in the flesh before yesterday, I’ve never really been sure what I think about Rothko’s work. I suppose I’d always thought there was a kind of grim humour to it, with these huge window-like figures hung high in windowless gallery rooms; and I was aware not only of a Warhol-like fascination with repetition, cycle, and (im)mutability, but also of a somewhat Klein-esque experimentation with colour, texture and profundity — even if my perception of it was mediated and inevitably emasculated through the Habitat-isation of (e.g.) “Orange and Yellow”. The Tate Modern’s current gathering of his late works reveals quite how much a real-world viewing illuminates and clarifies Rothko’s art, and hence how much sense it makes that he should have been so concerned in his lifetime with the compositional aspect of the works’ presentation — not least because the presentation in question, even though perhaps at odds with aspects of Rothko’s reported views on it, is itself so intelligent and sensitive to the work.

On first seeing abstract pieces, I often can’t help myself from wondering, Middle England-like, how much artistic ‘skill’ or ‘talent’ is required to daub paint in a seemingly random or at best simplistic manner on a canvas. After enough viewings, investigations and conversations, however, the knee-jerk “I could have done that” has at least come to be followed usually equally automatically in my mind by “Well, you didn’t; this artist did”, on which cue I settle into some kind of analytical appreciation of the work, taking authorial intention as a first principle and working outwards, as though mapping atoms of causation, into its effect on the viewer. (OK, I know, that’s mental, but come on, give me a break — I’m a computer geek, a decomposer and a re-builder of things. I can’t help it. It’s the way I’m made.) Though I started out on this exhibition in the same analytical mode, fussing over which room was which so that I could make sure I was reading the right bit of the guide, feeling slightly short-changed by small mural studies in gouache on paper looking much to my impatient brain like children’s washes of colour, by the time I left, I’d undeniably felt something quite different, brought about by these paintings; something quite inexplicable and quite powerful.

The guidebook returned more than once to what it called Rothko’s “preoccupation” with the display of his work; in the first room, a small cardboard model was shown of the space proposed to him for display of his mural at the Tate; later, photographs of some of the pieces under ultraviolet light showed details of the brushwork. Strangely, for one as construction-oriented as I am, under some circumstances I find an exhibition’s dwelling too much on the craft, the historicity, the detail of the manufacture to be a distraction, sometimes even an annoyance — surely, I ask myself (perhaps through some desire to escape, by the offices of overpowering sensation, from that very orientation) the work leaves something to be desired in terms of immediacy and appeal, if such examination is required in order to appreciate it? In this case, however, it was exactly that examination which opened up the desired sensation to me.

The respectfully muted lighting in which Rothko himself had been so insistent that his work should be presented is maintained in the main Seagram room, contrasting directly with the conservators’ inspections in the next room, the stark change of atmosphere from the practically ritual to the scientific adding weight to the feeling of getting under the ‘skin’ of the paintings. The nigh-pornographic revelation of the layers of multiple paint media under the UV lights combine with the glass-backed presentation of one painting’s underwear to instil a feeling of paradox, an unease brought about by the juxtaposition of the large murals’ seemingly uncomplicated gloomy luminescence with the sudden realisation of the actual complexity of the work undertaken to impart that appearance of simplicity. Layer upon layer, stroke upon stroke, coatings, glaze, obfuscation, redirection, misdirection … Should we be seeing this? Should we be laying bare this depth of care, rather than simply appreciating the final result, particularly in the case of an artist so intentionally proscriptive about the manner in which it might best be appreciated?

I found this dichotomy particularly striking, because it was exactly the realisation of the care taken which opened my eyes to these big, bold, engaging, contemplative canvases. Not just the care taken in and of itself, but the demonstration of what was under the surface made me consider these pieces in a new, naturalistic way. From the more or less subtle re-covering and smothering of the landscaped “Red on Maroon — Mural, Sections 5 and 74” in the Seagram room, to the intense, concentrated paper studies and the increasingly open, even loose textures of “Black on Gray”, I became aware of a kind of tangibility to the paintings, not the thickly-applied oils of a Van Gogh but something altogether delicate, as though the ethereality of the intention behind the works had somehow been infused into the physical materials, bonding with its form and somehow lightening the weight of that material even as it impresses its reality upon the viewer.

The “Black-Form Paintings” seemed to me the summation of this experience. As the guide says, “prolonged contemplation reveals the slow build-up of the surface through multiple layers and the close attention Rothko paid to gradations in tone and texture”; in the course of such contemplation, the paintings really do seem somehow to reveal something of themselves. The familiarisation of my eyes to the light, the surroundings and the composition of the space allowed the Black Forms to shimmer before me, pulling in and out of my conceptual focus, and I found something enormously compelling about these implied monoliths. Something mysterious, something suggested, something long-known and yet long-forgotten; a kind of magnetism, an unspoken yet powerful compulsion towards something just the other side of comprehensibility. It felt in that moment as though there really might exist, in the world, such a thing as human meaning, be it devoid or otherwise of objective implication, and as though such meaning might be conveyed across time and space, even through inscrutable, formless form.

I’m still not sure what I think about Rothko’s work, but at least now I know that I feel something about it. Thankyou, Mark Rothko, for your enduring obsession with communicating your wordless meaning, and thankyou, Tate Modern, for granting it this prism.

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