Tate Modern, September 2008 - February 2009
It is difficult to see these monumental, brooding images without being conscious that they are the product of a large, brooding personality who at the end of the decade would take his own life. And perhaps we should not try to see them in any other way. Walking through this exhibition, you know you are in the presence of something very serious: a profound pondering of the meaning of being and the enticements of not-being. Rothko described his works as being amenable to both sacred and profane readings: they seem to meditate on the mystery of human existence, but offer no metaphysical way out.
Monolithic forms hang in space. They are abstract shapes, so cannot be identified with specific objects in the physical world. And even their identity as forms is deliberately blurred by their rough edges, and they are often painted in a colour so close to the background that it is difficult to distinguish one from another. This is true of the red-on-maroon paintings of the late 1950s, and even more the wonderfully sombre black paintings of 1964.
The story at the heart of this exhibition is Rothko’s commission in 1958 for a series of paintings to decorate the Four Seasons restaurant on the ground-floor of the Seagram Building, New York’s latest modernist icon designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. The following year, however, before the paintings had been installed, he and his wife visited the restaurant and were appalled by its gaudiness. Rothko promptly withdrew from the commission and repaid the advance.
He had already created more than thirty paintings in the series, although the restaurant needed less than ten. These have never been exhibited together, although nine were given to the Tate shortly before the artist’s death and have hung together ever since in the Rothko Room. More have been added from across the world for this show, as well as examples of subsequent series of paintings that he produced.
It is easy to mock Rothko’s work, as if it is simple in its simplicity. But as parts of this exhibition helpfully demonstrate, the works are carefully planned in miniature, and are then built up in layers of mixed media. When you look at them close up, you can how one layer will bleed out under another, how rough the brushstrokes sometimes are, how splashy the paint.
Looking at the works in the subdued, but sadly reflective, lighting of the Tate, you can easily see how inappropriate they would be to a bustling New York restaurant, dedicated to the passing pleasures of the palate and social gossip. A room of Rothkos is quiet and meditative, partly because there is not much in them to talk about, but also because the images seem to direct you towards the silence of nothingness. The indistinctness of the separation between form and background seems to question the very idea of individuation: why do things exist separately from one another?
As with Kandinsky and Mondrian, you don’t have to agree with the theory and worldview to recognise that here are beautiful but weighty meditations on life and meaning. But to me this exhibition highlighted the deep significance of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Rothko seems to seek the essence of reality, and the answer to the questions of being, in an undifferentiated oneness, or the nothingness of Nirvana. But the Christian gospel celebrates individuation. In the Trinity, we know that at the heart of reality is plurality: not one person divided into three, but three persons, eternally distinct. In the same way, creation is marked by a series of separations, light from dark, water from land, one species from another species, which God calls ‘good’. Without separation, there is no existence, or at least no self-consciousness. And according to the Creator, individuality and the multiplicity of created things is intrinsically good.
But with the suffering of the world in rebellion against its Creator, we cannot but ache with pity for those who sense the enticements of not-being, grieve with Rothko as he pours out his wordless yearnings on these canvases, and feel the weight of the world in these beautiful, weighty abstract images.