New horizons as Rothko and Sugimoto open Pace London

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Bay of Sagami, Atami, 1997
gelatin silver print
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Courtesy of Pace Gallery

Pace Gallery has opened a London branch in the space just behind the Royal Academy to the right of where Haunch of Venison used to be. Opening the gallery is Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes  – an exhibition which “juxtaposes Mark Rothko’s late black and grey paintings with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of bodies of water, exploring the visual and conceptual affinities between the two.”

Translated, this means that you will find a room packed with hauntingly beautiful horizons and “horizons”.

Visually similar, eight acrylic paintings from the period a few months prior to Rothko’s suicide sit alongside eight gelatin silver prints by Tokyo-born artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. But the affinity is deeper than just the physical – it kind of has to be otherwise any comparison or relationship with the Rothkos would fall apart in moments.

According to Sugimoto:

“For several decades I have created seascapes. Not depicting the world in photographs, I’d like to think, but rather projecting my internal seascapes onto the canvas of the world. Skies now forming bright rectangles, water now melting into dark fluid rectangles. I sometimes think I see a dark horizon cutting across Mark Rothko’s paintings. It’s then I unconsciously realize that paintings are more truthful than photographs and photographs are more illusory than paintings.”

The thing which most stuck with me was the middle section, curated by Sugimoto himself which had all the ‘horizons’ on the same level. It was intended to be just below the [average] viewer’s chin, creating a subtle just-above-water effect. As someone who fell below that particular waterline, I spent part of the show with Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning echoing round my head. But despite that slight distraction it was easy to enter a kind of meditative state with these artworks – part alien landscape, part emotional conduit.

The best way to describe the feeling that comes from spending time with the work is that you become aware of a palpable vastness onto which the art provides a window.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969
Oil on canvas
1998 Kate Rothko Pritzel and Christopher Rothko / Artist Rights Society, New York (ARS) Courtesy of Pace Gallery

The experience of seeing the Rothkos in this context was different to contemplating them en masse or in focused isolation. Despite the feeling of vastness, it wasn’t the same raw cavernous bigness – it was something more quiet and manageable. Moodwise, there was a tranquility which I don’t associate with Rothko. Subjectwise, the exhibition makes the ‘horizon’ concept dominant to the point of being inescapable.

I suppose whether that bothers you or refreshes you depends on whether you are after the Rothko experience as dictated by Rothko, or whether you think it brings something new and valuable. My own feeling on that score is that if this show was going to be your only experience of Rothko ever, that would be a big problem. Luckily Tate owns and displays his Seagram Murals (although one is a tiny bit vandalised at the moment) a short tube ride away so it’s a relatively easy problem address.