Sunday, 25 January 2009


25/1/09, Tate Modern.

Sunday lunchtime at the power station. D keen to go: she says she finds Rothko relaxing, especially his black paintings: you see grades and shades and colours within colours. I think he's a bit dull.

The big room, the second you enter, is undeniably impressive: 14 huge canvases, from the Tate's collection and a collection in Japan, the room crowded with onlookers standing, strolling, criss-crossing the floor like figures in a railway station or a painting of a Parisian boulevard.

The canvases were painted in the early 1960s for the Four Seasons Restaurant at the Seagram Tower in New York but never installed. Rothko had second thoughts: the exhibition booklet doesn't say precisely why, but implies it was because a restaurant is a private space. In which case Rothko would presumably be delighted by the very public scene at the Tate.

The Seagram was an engineer's delight: a precise, geometric Mies van der Rohe-style tower. (Later: Mies designed it, according to Wikipedia, so the resemblance is hardly surprising.) Rothko's stuff looks similarly geometric at first glance, and then you realise it's defiantly hand-crafted. Patches of undercoat show through. The paint is textured. The boundaries between colours are deliberately and sometimes exuberantly fuzzy. The paintings feature geometric shapes, but they're hand-drawn, hazy and slightly distorted. They're all a hollow rectangle or pair of rectangles on a plain ground. But in some the hollow centres are so narrow and constricted they look like columns. And the internal corners of the rectangles have exaggerated serif-like angles.

Later paintings from the mid-to-late 60s are more precise but never look machine-made. There are straight hard lines between the blocks of colours but always evidently painted. When he uses tape it's only to provide a frame around the outside of the painting, and pulling the tape off introduces further imperfections because bits of paint come away with it. And the tapes weren't laid straight: you can see that clearly in one painting, where the top of the painted area runs first above, then below, then once again above the line of shadow cast by the top light shining down on the frame.

There's also much less variety in the later paintings. The last two rooms contain, respectively, brown-and-grey and grey-and-grey paintings, the two colours separated by an horizon of varying heights, usually somewhere below the mid-point of the picture. The paint (particularly the lighter colour, in the lower part of the image) is applied in a swirling, almost slapdash manner. On their own I imagine these pictures would be striking; in this profusion they look decidedly compulsive-obsessive. In the Seagram paintings the sameness is softened by variation and by the brighter colours, including once or twice a positively fiery orange.

And then there are the black paintings: huge black squares on a black background. Look closely and you see the squares are different colours. But are they in fact the same colour, just different textures which reflect and refract the light differently so look a different colour? Or is that different colour?! You find yourself peering closely at vast slabs of monochrome, trying to work it out: if Rothko was obsessive, he manages to make obsessives of the rest of us too.

I couldn't be bothered to queue for the lightboxes whch showed his techniques. All I managed to gather was that they photographed the paintings under ultra-violet light and found large areas of fluorescence.

D spent a small fortune in the exhibition shop on a catalogue and stuff for K, with whom she discovered Rothko jointly at Tate Modern years ago. The purchases included two prints she wants to send K and back at home she looked for some cardboard stiffening: she found a John Lewis box... whose dark grey/light grey colours look as if Rothko designed them.

Tate Modern must be nearly ten years old by now but wears well, and it's still packed on a weekend with tourists and a certain type of native Brit, a touch more elegant than the norm. There are hats and expensive hair and elegantly draped scarves and half the men look like A.C. Grayling. I felt a scruff.

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