Rothko’s Seagram Murals

interviews the curator of Tate Modern’s Rothko exhibition, exploring the artist’s aesthetic and his constant communication with the public audience

Geoff Currie interviews the curator of Tate Modern’s Rothko exhibition, exploring the artist’s aesthetic and his constant communication with the public audience.

Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings have invaded the Tate Modern. His enormous mesmerising canvases, depicting blurred rectangular colour fields, cover the walls of their latest blockbuster show.

This exhibition is the first major display of Rothko’s work in the UK for over 20 years. It reunites for the first time the Tate Modern’s celebrated Seagram Mural series; reassembling works that have since been resident in Tokyo, Japan and Washington D.C. Other series from his later years, such as his Black-Form paintings and his last series of Black on Grey paintings are also on show.

The Tate Modern houses nine of the Seagram Murals in its permanent collection. Originally commissioned in the 60’s by the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan, Rothko famously repudiated this and donated them to the Tate. The rejection of this weighty and lucrative assignment perhaps signifies his awareness of the dangers of popularised Art.

Tragically, his donation arrived at the gallery the same day that Rothko’s assistant found his body. He was lying on his studio floor, surrounded by a sea of blood. At the age of 66 he committed suicide, overdosing on anti-depressants and slicing his forearms.

The room the Seagram Murals have been allocated for the exhibition is testament to the grand scale of these works. They command the space and speak to the viewer, inviting one to become lost in the spiritualistic environment created by these large-scale paintings.

Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Curator of the exhibition explains: “The Seagram room at the Tate Modern offers people a space that is quite hard to come by. The world is about stimuli and you are expected to react, to choose what you want. This room gives a moment of suspense; it is a space where one is lost and found.”

Rothko was always aware of the viewer. For him painting was an act of communication, a transaction taking place.” Indeed considered curation of this exhibition has ensured the works are elementally interactive, engaging and enveloping the viewer.

No5, in particular is an abyss. The murky black, difficult to discern from the maroon, creates a mysterious visual conundrum. Perception jumps from depth of the columns in the dark background to the fiery red foreground and its wispy, oily, manic strokes. Simultaneously, the red foreground plays with the darkness of the background; at times subverting it with heavy bright flickers of impasto. The image is full of movement.

Some works are reminiscent of action painting, but the canvases are too vast to capture this dynamism in one glance. The works force the viewer to stand back, but then all but the strongest nuances are lost.

Other paintings seem to wrap around you, enticing the viewer to dive into their limitless depths; yet these works have the capacity to transform into aggressive overbearing objects.

Living in the era of pop art, Rothko was able to achieve his own vision. His brush strokes, though created with a large industrial paintbrush, have an elegant and complex rhythm, leaving visable drips of paint. It is almost possible to imagine him working feverishly in front of the canvas.

Arguably, the stocked view of modern art and the complex theory and self-consciousness associated with it has the capacity to repel many, yet this doesn’t strike true with a Rothko. Borchardt-Hume states, “with Rothko, the room works on the viewer in an intuitive manner. The paintings are like blank screens onto which you can project. Looking provokes a heightened sense of self-awareness. That is what makes it very accessible, you need only be human.”

Rothko’s paintings are not purely contemplative. They are alive, awake and aware of their power. They drag us from slumber into visceral, poignant reality, making the viewer concious of their presence. They speak challengingly to their audience: “Here you are. Now what are you going to do about it?”

Rothko shown at the Tate Modern until 1st Feburary.