Tuesday, September 30, 2008


S and I escaped today down to London to go and see the Mark Rothko exhibition at the Tate. I really enjoyed it, although I have always had a soft spot for these paintings. There were two highlights to my mind. The centre-piece of the exhibition is a collection of over a dozen of the canvasses he painted for the Seagram murals. What's surprising is just how very different they are: some with vibrant bright orange, others deep purple and silver. But as a group they work together and the overall effect in the room is quite uplifting. The room was very busy and quiet, perhaps like in a cathedral, but I got the impression that people were all feeling rather happy. Anyway, I was finding the whole thing gave a positive feeling despite the hush and the low lighting.

Very different was the last room of black on grey paintings. These seemed much less considered, less loved. The black is heavy and oppressive and gradually weighs more and more heavily. The lighting here was much brighter and the room much less hushed but the atmosphere was much less pleasant. It's hard to dissociate these from the fact of his imminent suicide, but I think even without knowing that much these paintings would be unsettling rather than calming. They don't welcome you at all; they're angry and violently made while the Seagram ones give the impression of being laboured over with care and consideration and are somehow content.

My favourites, though, were the black form paintings just because these seemed rather happy too and managed to give something to the viewer even using the most restricted set of variables. They are quite complex despite the limited range of hue: texture, gloss, reflective and non-reflective bits and so on. So they take time to look at and seem again quite welcoming.

Of course, a lot of the work is pretty repetitive, and this might seem to be either a crass kind of cashing-in or else a strange tic of someone trying over and over to get something out of his system. But I quite like the fact that, when put together, the differences of balance and execution become the focus of attention. It's like looking at the collected output of a workshop. And I see nothing wrong in that at all.

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