Eighteen months ago an idiot, trying to pass himself off as some kind of radical artist, vandalised one of Rothko’s Seagram Murals. After painstaking restoration the painting has been returned to the Tate Modern.
Twitter seems to be full of various inane (now there is a surprise) comments doubting the cultural value of the paintings. Most tweeters seem to think they are pretty at best. It seems Rothko has suffered the fate of Monet, time and reproduction turning mass reception of his work into chocolate box art or Ikea poster decoration.
There is a strange paradox about the noise being generated on social media in regards to this, and it is two fold.
1) These are works which even more than most paintings require you to see them in the flesh to make an accurate assessment. The Seagram Murals are monumental in size and as a group they function in architectural terms, enclosing the viewer into an engagement in the round. The sheer physicality of each painting makes it impossible to understand them from reproductions.
There power also comes from a depth and variety of subtle variations of surface, tone, form and colour. Non of these things can be recorded accurately by flat images. In regards to surface, in particular the depth of layers and variety of finishes, the reality can’t be recorded at all. An image stills and flattens paintings which in reality shift and change as you move around them.
2) These are paintings which (and I will try and explain how later in the blog) attempt to provide the viewer with a spiritual experience (see also the Rothko Chapel). Rothko is trying to provide a secular equivalent to the role liturgical music, religious architecture and art previously provided, but free of the dogma. The Seagram Murals explore the possibility of paintings ability to provide moments of transcendence, of an escapism from the white noise of tangible reality. is there any better example of the white noise of modern life than Twitter?
Whether you think the works can achieve point two, or have the formal sophistication in point one is totally up for grabs. But it is impossible to make an informed opinion about either without spending time in front of them. I am firmly of the belief that if most people spent ten quiet minutes in the company of the Rothko Seagram Murals that they would agree that they are amazingly powerful works.
When I started out as an artist I supplemented my income with some teaching and lecturing. One of the groups I taught was a bunch of photography students, all aged around 17. The majority of the group had little interest in painting, let alone abstract painting. On a trip to the Tate Modern they all wandered through the Rothko room in about fifteen seconds, eyes mainly focused on their mobiles and ears engaged in friendly gossip, banter or music. It was a smallish group and the day had been slightly marred by some social tensions amongst a number of them. They were bored, irritable and unimpressed. I gathered the group together and suggested that they spend ten minutes in the Rothko room with no music, no conversation and that they sat looking intently at the works. They grumbled. I suggested that if they did this then they could all then leave and go and spend the last few hours of the afternoon along the Thames taking photographs and relaxing. The condition was that they spent the time properly looking, quietly and intensely. In the previous months with this group my attempts to get them engaged and interested in the history of images had not always been a success, I was not certain how suitable I was to the role of being a teacher. I was presuming this would be another of those moments, but thought it a gimmick worth trying. The next twenty minutes was quite remarkable. For the first five minutes in the room the group were still tending to chatter, browse at phones and try and sneak headphone into ears. After a fair bit of prompting they all settled down and looked. Every single one of them spent at least fifteen minutes totally engrossed in the paintings. When we left the space and headed outside everyone was oddly quiet. When we got outside and people started chatting every single one of them was excitedly talking about the paintings. It was, by some distance, the most profound moment I had in any form of teaching. This was he most varied and difficult group I had taught at any level and it felt like a switch had been clicked. It was not thanks to anything I had done, but simply to the power of the Rothko paintings. In the coming weeks a number of the students wrote perceptive things about the paintings and for a few the images started to creep into their own creative outcomes. This might sound like a convenient story, and perhaps I have romanticised it in my memory, but it was clear to me that if people give the Seagram Murals the time and attention they deserve (rather than passing judgement in seconds and 140 characters from a poor quality jpeg) that they have the ability to do something quite profound.
The question is why, what is it those paintings do?
A painting is a window and a wall. A painting is a two fold space, always offering an illusion of depth beyond the canvas and always attesting to the reality of marks spread across the flat surface. It is this reality that Rothko explores. The Seagram Murals are made up made up of a series of fuzzy edged rectangles which mirror the frame. They seem to float in an in-between space. Through constant layering and exploration of the borders it is uncertain what sits on top of what. At one moment a red rectangle seems to project forward towards us, hovering in front of the surface. Then it will drop back. The play between gloss and matt surfaces creates a shimmering illusion and play of depths. A black rectangle appears to offer up infinite depth, and then suddenly the window feels like it has been closed, a flicker of light and that same surface appear resolutely flat and lacking of any depth. The infinite becomes zero. It is the fluctuation between these spatial extremes that are at the heart of what the paintings do visually. They seem to do it with an almost rhythmical pulse, opening up and closing down musically.
The play of all the works doing this and of working on us in the round can feel quite oppressive. The entire space can begin to feel quite cut off, almost church like. They have always reminded me of John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightginale’. In the poem Keats eulogises over the ability of poetry, art and nature to provide moments of spiritual transcendence. It is Romantic poetry exploring the sublime. What Keat’s describes is close to what I think the Rothko paintings do.
‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sink
They induce in us a temporary amnesia, a chance to break from the spatial and temporal structures of life.
‘Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow’
I am no necessarily referring to an escape from specific things, but about broader structures. Paintings are, obviously, still and silent. Rothko is able to make works which focus our attention fully on this, by a remove of everything other than the constituent parts of the visual experience he wants to create. The paintings allow us to engage with time and space in a singular rather than continuous fashion. The pace and noise of life can be temporality held and silenced. The wider singularity of existence, of our certainty of nothing outside of ourselves can be embraced. It is both comforting, liberating and terrifying.
This may all sound spurious and pretentious, but before writing them off as paintings it is worth going to the Tate Modern and giving them ten minutes. It is a strange experience to be stood in the centre of the noise and mayhem of London and find everything (twitter and all) temporarily, switched off.