Late period

Posted on August 31, 2008
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Being a Rothko tragic I urge all European denizens to do what I cannot, visit the retrospective of Rothko’s final years at the Tate.  Here’s a nice piece on the show from The Guardian by Johnathon Jones

‘Can you see it?” says the man in the Hawaiian shirt, pointing up at the purple canvas towering over us. “I’ve never been here before,” he says, his shirt standing out wildly in the cool grey of the octagonal concrete room. “But I saw it in a matter of minutes. Can you see the figure of Jesus Christ our Lord on the Cross?”

I look politely into the misty bloom of the gigantic abstract work. It contains no images whatsoever, Christian or otherwise. I mumble something noncommittal, and he goes around pointing out Christ to everyone else in the room. They soon leave. I walk around staring at one colossal rectangle of sombre colour after another. A student comes in and kneels before a vast triptych that people choose to see as an altarpiece.

This is the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. Art surrounds you here. Paintings on a majestic scale dominate each of its eight walls. There is little to interrupt their power, just the bare plaster, a few benches, and a couple of cushions on the floor. There are doorways, but they don’t lead anywhere, except into a tiny alcove containing nothing. Their presence simply adds to the eeriness of this place, illuminated only by a skylight that softens the fierce afternoon sun. I am here on a pilgrimage to the greatest marriage of art and architecture in the US. But is this journey about art – or religion? The Rothko Chapel was designed to house the paintings of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, but it is also a sacred space, a non-denominational place of worship.

The chapel houses one of the two greatest cycles of Rothko paintings. The other is at the Tate Modern in London. On February 25 1970, the Tate took delivery of an astonishing gift: eight mural-sized paintings created by Rothko for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building, but judged by him to be totally inappropriate for the superficial, noisy, distracting setting of an expensive restaurant. Motivated by complicated reasons of his own – which included his pursuit of a tax break, his desire to insult New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and his admiration for the Tate’s Turners – Rothko gave his most accessible, moving and enduring paintings to Britain. Long before I ever saw a Jackson Pollock, I would sit in the Rothko Room at the Tate, not depressed as some people say they are by this man’s art, but awed and exhilarated. The day the Tate took delivery of the paintings, they also received some horrible news: Rothko had killed himself in his Manhattan studio, slicing open arteries in both arms and bleeding to death.

Rothko had painted the Seagram murals at the end of the 1950s. They herald a new darkness – literally – in his paintings, which had previously exhibited such brightness and vibrancy. While still marvels of colour, they feature deep shades, reds, purples, blacks, with frame-like forms painted over bloody depths, as if the canvases were windows on to the birth or death of the cosmos. I can think of few paintings that absorb me more, but I have always longed to see the place where Rothko took his pursuit of what he called the “tragic” to its ultimate extreme. Rothko believed that all serious art was about death, and the chapel was his last word, his crowning achievement.

In 1964, Texas art collectors and oil millionaires Dominique and John de Menil commissioned Rothko to create a cycle of abstract paintings for a chapel in Houston. Rothko built a full-size mock-up of the space in his Manhattan studio and painted 14 canvases to be set in various groupings around its walls. He used a pulley to adjust their height, allowing him to decide their exact locations. The only thing needed now was the building. But Rothko didn’t wait around. He killed himself before the chapel was finished. It finally opened, with everything done as he wished, a year after his death.

With an exhibition dedicated to Rothko’s final years about to open at Tate Modern, this is an ideal time to visit one of America’s greatest and strangest monuments: a chapel created by a modern artist who had no religious beliefs. Tate Modern’s exhibition will bring together its Seagram murals with the other paintings he created for the restaurant, and show how his palette continued to darken right up to the end of his life. Any chance to contemplate Rothko’s work should be grabbed at. He is one of the greatest abstract painters of the 20th century, one of the supreme US artists. In Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Fall of the House of Usher, the doomed, hypersensitive Roderick Usher plays blues-like guitar music and paints abstractions that suck the mind into their desolation: it is an uncanny prophesy of the noble despair of Rothko, who is of all America’s creative giants the most pessimistic. continue reading

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