Rothko: The Late Series, Tate Modern

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Yesterday I went to Tate Modern’s Rothko exhibition (making the most of my current free entry status). I always think that in these things the first couple of rooms suffer. You need some kind of mental warm-up act for someone like Rothko because his work requires a lot of effort and a certain state of mind from the visitor. Unfortunately that’s not how the art world generally rolls so you walk in cold and spend ten minutes or so in limbo, looking but not seeing, thinking about the journey there, wondering if there will be anything nice and cheap in the shop, and generally missing the point because you’re trying to get the gist of things from the guidebook and not just getting stuck in – unless that’s just me?

Anyway, eventually something clicks and suddenly you can start to take it all in. For me the piece that opened up the exhibition was Black on Maroon: Sketch for Mural No. 6 from The Four Seasons in Room 3. The exhibition is comprised entirely of Rothko’s late works and as such darker colours predominate.

Black on Maroon, 1958 - photo by markhillary

Black on Maroon, 1958 – photo by markhillary

The first thing that struck me was the sense of light and optimism in such a dark series of canvases. This one in particular hinted at windows or doorways with a brightness beyond. The source of light as well as the outside world were hidden in the paintwork but the impression was of illumination rather than concealment. The work had a presence and I felt able to form a connection with it. Others in the same room had a similar quality although to a lesser extent. Always there were traces of worldly objects; open books, frames within frames, plug sockets, and occassionally bodies meeting in a very Brancusi kind of way:

The Kiss: Constantin Brancusi, 1916 - photo by voixsynthetique

The Kiss: Constantin Brancusi, 1916 – photo by voixsynthetique

I decided to ignore entirely the number sequence for the rooms and went straight into Room 9 which shows a series of Rothko’s Black on Gray paintings.

For me they formed a series of horizons showing empty stages, seascapes, and fields. One evoked fields of wheat particularly strongly though I would have struggled to tell you precisely why. There were hints of furrows in the scratches of brushwork and blurry patches which could become cottages or hedges. Looking at Rothko’s later work always leads me back to the idea of windows and looking through a surface to one step beyond. Emotions slowly rise to the surface and the size of the work gradually engulfs you.

From this point I moved backwards into Room 8 and was struck by the contrast. The works themselves are similar to those in Room 9 but use slightly different colours (brown and gray) and are acrylic on paper as opposed to oil on canvas. I truly didn’t like this room. Unlike those elsewhere all the Brown and Gray work was in frames with a layer of protective glass. The joy and the point of Rothko is the emotional experience which is the culmination of time spent contemplating, even meditating on the work. When you can see the reflections of people coming and going or the outline of some garishly decked out pushchair the illusion is ruined and you are left only with the colous and shapes which (according to the man himself) is the polar opposite of what is supposed to happen. It’s only made worse when you get up to leave and realise the colours are distorted by a protective coating on the glass so what you thought was purple is actually gray.

The last room I visited was Room 6. Black on Black. These really do demand time and attention. Thankfully they were unframed meaning the different finishes, textures and directions were freely visible. These create in each work subtle boundaries and shapes and hint at the imprint of something monumental The mind searches for tiny variations and begins to introduce shades of colour – grays, purpls, browns, and even oranges gradually emerge but so tentatively that they might just stem from an optical illusion or a mental rejection of so much black.

I am glad I followed my own path round as I think the differences between series’ would have been far less marked. I probably wouldn’t have noted the problems brought on by the framing in Room 8 without having first gone into Room 9, for example. I am also very glad to have ended with the Black on Black series as, for me, the more subtle Rothko gets, the more rewarding the time spent with the work.