Sunday, 21 June 2009

Rothko... what a card.

Above my desk, fixed to a nail via a tiny blue paper clip, hangs a postcard reproduction of 'Untitled 1958-59' by Mark Rothko. It's a colourful piece, awash with reds, blues, violets and browns in the inimitable Rothko style. It's very wide, very mental and very typical of his work. I like it... a bit.

I know very little about Rothko other than he's American, very recognisable and stylised in his work, and that he killed himself. Hardly a qualified observer, am I? I shall have to watch one of the two documentaries about him that I downloaded shortly after visiting the exhibition of his gigantic works at the Tate Modern.

I liked seeing his paintings - but even more enjoyable was reading the little stories behind them. Cornerstone of the exhibition was the 'Four Seasons' series commissioned by the US beverage company, Seagram, to hang in their impressive New York restaurant. The small print on the walls of the Tate Modern informed me (and Wikipedia subsequently reminded me) that these vertically-hung slabs of red, orange, black and brown rectangles and rounded-squares took several months and many thousands of dollars to produce. I stared and stared and tried to imagine what his Seagram paymasters would have made of these finished pieces? And what would it have been like to dine within these gloomy and overbearing surroundings? Rothko later said of his work that he had wanted to create "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room". Then he went that extra bit further and elected to keep the pictures for himself, returning the huge fee back to Seagram, telling them to shove it. He'd visited the restaurant space, thought carefully about what he was doing, and withdrawn from his own project.

In another, darkened corner of the Tate Modern stood a series of black-on-nearly-black square canvases. The lights were purposely low in this gallery, so all one could see was the eternal blackness, darkness and doom. I again read the small print to discover that these oppressively bleak boards were intended for a little chapel in Houston. In my mind's ear, I could imagine the glorious scene when Rothko handed them over to, presumably, a grateful little old church lady: "Thankyou so much, Mr Rothko, they're lovely. Um... they're a little dark, aren't they?"

I laughed out loud in the gallery as I thought of these irretrievably dark canvases blocking the light and sucking the soul out of that tiny chapel. They could hardly have refused his donation, could they? Then I wondered what Rothko himself would have made of this exhibition as a whole, complete with infra red photography and x-rays designed to lay bare the great artist's otherwise invisible brushwork.

He might have found it funny, he might have found it strange. Or he might have thrown an almighty big strop and burned the place down.

I do hope it's the latter. There's nothing more refreshing and inspiring than a properly grouchy curmudgeon.

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