Mark Rothko’s Light Red Over Black © 1998 Kate Rothko

Whitechapel Gallery has played a memorable role in the London visual arts scene since its founding in 1901. It was one of the first publicly-funded galleries and host to Picasso‘s Guernica in 1938 (as part of an exhibit organized by artist Roland Penrose in protest to the Spanish Civil War) and Rothko‘s first show in England in 1961.

A small exhibit at the Whitechapel honors that breakthrough show by Rothko. And to put that show in context, Charles Darwent describes the state of abstraction in England at that time in his review of the show:

Rothko was about to have his first English show, downstairs in the Whitechapel proper; it was organised by the revolutionary curator, Bryan Robertson. Rothko’s work would hit London like a shell. The late painter John Hoyland recalled the show. “We didn’t understand it … how to analyse it,” he said, in an interview days before his death in July. To the English, “abstraction” had meant the not-quite chalk downs of Paul Nash, the stylised boats of Ben Nicholson. Here, though, was something different. Rothko’s show was “engulfing, an awesome vision”: Hoyland “staggered around it”, drunk on the American’s sensuousness.

All this is the subject, 50 years on, of a small but fascinating exhibition at the Whitechapel. There is only one Rothko in the show – the Tate’s Light Red Over Black – and that was not in the 1961 exhibition. This in itself is poignant. It took the Tate until 1959 to acquire its first Rothko: the gallery’s director, Sir John Rothenstein, hated abstract art. The other great art knight, Sir Kenneth Clark, backed Rothenstein’s views. Under their reign, British art remained a backwater, abstraction confined to a small group of oddballs working in a far-off place called St Ives. And then there was Rothko at the Whitechapel.

The photographer Sandra Lousada was just out of her teens in 1961. Her father, a patron of the Tate, told her to go and shoot the show. The results, hung next to Light Red Over Black, evoke a time in English art now scarcely imaginable. Like John Hoyland, visitors to the Whitechapel seem stunned by the images in front of them – uncanny, soft-edged beauties like nothing they have seen before. Other photographs show Rothko on his quasi-mythical visit to Cornwall in the summer of 1959: one has him sitting in a garden, drinking tea. All the other men – Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost – are wearing trawlerman’s jumpers; Rothko is in a suit and tie. He looks like a fish out of water, which is how some critics saw him.

Under the headline, “Clarity begins at home”, the reviewer of Time and Tide found Rothko’s pictures “spiritually enervating”. “Like the beauty of some women,” he said, “their beauty is quite meaningless.”

Happily, most local writers got Rothko as quickly as local painters did. Alan Bowness, future director of the Tate, found the American “immediately sympathetic to the English taste”, and the feeling was mutual. Also on show are letters from Rothko to various English correspondents. In one, he professes himself so moved by Shakespeare and Dickens that he felt “they must really have been Russian Jews who emigrated to New York”. Who’d have thought? Don’t miss this exhibition.

While this small exhibit only includes one Rothko painting (borrowed from the Tate collection), the correspondence and photographs documenting that event held me in the gallery for a long time. Rothko’s hand typed, faded letters are firm, demanding, clear. The transaction that resulted in the Tate acquiring the Seagram paintings originally created for a restaurant space in New York was conducted just months before Rothko’s suicide. Reading the exchange was poignant and sobering.

Here’s a flavor of Rothko’s level of involvement in how his work should be seen, hung and experienced. The following transcription utterly fascinated me.

SUGGESTIONS FROM MR. MARK ROTHKO REGARDING INSTALLATION OF HIS PAINTINGS

Wall color:
Walls should be made considerably off-white with umber and warmed by a little red. If the walls are too white, they are always fighting against the pictures which turn greenish because of the predominance of red in the pictures.

Lighting:
The light, whether natural or artificial, should not be too strong; the pictures have their own inner light and if there is too much light, the color in the picture is washed out and a distortion of their look occurs. The ideal situation would be to hang them in a normally lit room—that is the way they were painted. They should not be over-lit or romanticized by spots; this results in a distortion of their meaning. They should either be lighted from a great distance or indirectly by casting lights at the ceiling or the floor. Above all, the entire picture should be evenly lighted and not strongly.

Hanging height from the floor:
The larger pictures should all be hung as close to the floor as possible, ideally not more than six inches above it. In the case of the small pictures, they should be somewhat raised but not “skied” (never hung towards the ceiling). Again this is the way the pictures were painted. If this is not observed, the proportions of the rectangles became distorted and the picture changes.

The exception to this are the pictures which are enumerated below which were painted as murals actually to be hung at a great height. These are:

1. Sketch for Mural, No. 1, 1958
2. 2. Mural Sections 2,3,4,5, and 7, 1958-9
3. White and Black on Wine, 1958

The murals were painted at a height of 4’6” above the floor. If it is not possible to raise them to that extent, any raising above three feet would contribute to their advantage and original effect.

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