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Mark Rothko, at the Philips Gallery

Jonathan Jones, that no nonsense, speak your truth art critic for the Guardian, reported on his visit to the new Tanks interactive art space at the Tate Modern:

Six psychics sit at plain wooden booths as part of Fawcett’s contribution to the new Undercurrent series of live events at The Tanks. Psychics! It sounds on paper like an underground circus with smoke, crystal balls and tarot readings. But although my interviewer assured me she is a trained psychic, what she did was ask me a series of questions about my job and interests, how honest I am, my views on politics, economics and the nature of power. It was a questionnaire that started in the banal and tried to touch on larger themes. Then I was invited to give contact details to continue the “screening process”.

It’s probably a work that gets richer the more you put into it. If you get in the spirit, it might be fun. But why should I?

A certain class of art has moved “the art experience” closer to entertainment. I’m not against the easy pleasing of a confectionary offering—something light and fun can be a worthwhile distraction from the heavier parts of life—but at some point there is a need to advocate for the other end of the spectrum. Contemplative engagement with art rarely garners the same coverage as playfully theatrical events, events that are conceptually driven but often conceptually shallow.

There is room in our world for lots of types of expression. and I don’t think it is excessively curmudgeonly to ask for equal time.

Jones seems to agree:

Art should be a contemplative, personal experience. It should leave us free to engage on our own terms. The idea that interaction is good for us is patronising and treats us as lazy-minded idiots who must be prodded like cattle in order to respond. Somehow, if I sit answering inane questions about politics from a psychic, that is supposed to be more active and real and meaningful than if I sat for an hour looking at a Rothko.

Can I go and see the abstract paintings now, please sir? I’ve done my interactions.

Jones nails a nagging discomfort I have felt repeatedly. A set up like the one Jones describes IS patronizing. And it is that particular form of condescension that frequently turns me off when I visit similar interactive exhibits. Respect me as a viewer, please. The way a great painting respects me.

So yes, I’ll take that hour in front of a Rothko.


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.


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.

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.

The inimitable Thomas Derrah plays Mark Rothko in the Speakeasy’s New England premiere of Red, by John Logan. The play runs through February 4th.

In John Logan’s Tony award-winning play Red, Mark Rothko delivers a steady stream of tough love lessons on the meaning of art to his young studio assistant. Advice is rarely this engaging, provocative and timeless.

It’s a category all its own, giving advice. And advice in a field like art where transgression, the driving need to dismantle the previous generation, and pulling something out of nothing are de rigeur is particularly hard to give and hard to hear. Maybe this is more extreme for fierce autodidacts like me who never gave anyone else a seat at the head of my table.

But ambient wisdom (rather than the personal kind) is useful, and Red is full of it. So is the commencement address given by Richard Serra to Williams College graduates in 2008. Here is a passage that caught my eye when I reencountered it in my increasingly bottomless TO READ file today:

Rather than being told which tools are available for which ends it is more useful to invent your own tools: As Audre Lorde has pointed out, “ … the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Rules are overrated. They need to be changed by every generation. That is your most important mandate: If it’s not broken, break it. One way of coming to terms with the prevailing language of a cultural orthodoxy is to reject it. It may be necessary to invent tools and methods about which you know nothing, to act in ways that allow you to utilize the content of your personal experience, to form an obsession and to cut through the weight of your education. Obsession is what it comes down to. It is difficult to think without obsession, and it is impossible to create something without a foundation that is rigorous, incontrovertible, and, in fact, to some degree repetitive. Repetition is the ritual of obsession. Don’t confuse the obsession of repetition with learning by rote. I am suggesting a form of inquiry, a procedure to jumpstart the indecision of beginning.

The solution to a given problem often occurs through repetition, a continual probing. The accumulation of solutions invariably alters the original problem demanding new solutions to a different set of problems. In effect, as solutions evolve, new problems emerge. To persevere and to begin over and over again is to continue the obsession with work. Work comes out of work.

There is enough here to fuel me for weeks.

I am off to New York tomorrow but will be returning to Slow Muse on Wednesday.

Rothko Chapel, Houston

The truly great ones are fresh continuously, repeatedly. Like a painting you can sit in front of for hours and never fully grasp.

When I was just beginning to study art, I asked my professor about Mark Rothko. He and de Kooning were the giants of the generation of artists who inspired my teachers, and they were both spoken of with palpable reverence. When I asked the naif’s question of why, my teacher simply said, “Go to the museum and sit in front of a Rothko painting for one hour. Then let’s talk.”

Simple exercise, and the perfect way to introduce a newbie to what has since that day been a guiding influence in my view of how the visual experience can transform consciousness. Rothko didn’t want spiritual dimensions attributed to his work, and yet he knew he was touching into something so profound it had no reliable words to describe it. And that experience still happens to me. When many of his paintings are gathered together as they are at the Rothko Chapel in Houston or in the Rothko room at the Tate Modern in London, it is the visual equivalent of breaking the vibration level of what the human ear can hear. Utterly exquisite but also utterly intense.

I first read Emerson when I was 12 or 13, along with the awakening that was my encounter with Walden. I took that 19th century Concord crowd on as my cotravelers and like-minded forebears, and I wrote about them and their work whenever I had a term paper assignment. Amazingly, rereading Thoreau and Emerson later in life has convinced me that their real message was lost on my adolescent mind. They write so poignantly to the wizened, the well traveled and well worn, the “I know a thousand ways it doesn’t work” crowd. I could hardly imagine what I was thinking when I was 15 and their work spoke so deeply to me. Prescient foreknowledge of who I would be at a later point in time? Who knows.

Here are a few memorable paragraphs from Emerson’s Nature, published in 1836.

The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand, as perception. Indeed, neither can be perfect without the other. In the uttermost meaning of the words, thought is devout, and devotion is thought. Deep calls unto deep. But in actual life, the marriage is not celebrated. There are innocent men who worship God after the tradition of their fathers, but their sense of duty has not yet extended to the use of all their faculties. And there are patient naturalists, but they freeze their subject under the wintry light of the understanding. Is not prayer also a study of truth, — a sally of the soul into the unfound infinite? No man ever prayed heartily, without learning something. But when a faithful thinker, resolute to detach every object from personal relations, and see it in the light of thought, shall, at the same time, kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, then will God go forth anew into the creation.

It will not need, when the mind is prepared for study, to search for objects. The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. What is a day? What is a year? What is summer? What is woman? What is a child? What is sleep? To our blindness, these things seem unaffecting. We make fables to hide the baldness of the fact and conform it, as we say, to the higher law of the mind. But when the fact is seen under the light of an idea, the gaudy fable fades and shrivels. We behold the real higher law. To the wise, therefore, a fact is true poetry, and the most beautiful of fables. These wonders are brought to our own door. You also are a man. Man and woman, and their social life, poverty, labor, sleep, fear, fortune, are known to you. Learn that none of these things is superficial, but that each phenomenon has its roots in the faculties and affections of the mind. Whilst the abstract question occupies your intellect, nature brings it in the concrete to be solved by your hands. It were a wise inquiry for the closet, to compare, point by point, especially at remarkable crises in life, our daily history, with the rise and progress of ideas in the mind.

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. Then shall come to pass what my poet said; “Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient. Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit. So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons, enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen. The sordor and filths of nature, the sun shall dry up, and the wind exhale. As when the summer comes from the south; the snow-banks melt, and the face of the earth becomes green before it, so shall the advancing spirit create its ornaments along its path, and carry with it the beauty it visits, and the song which enchants it; it shall draw beautiful faces, warm hearts, wise discourse, and heroic acts, around its way, until evil is no more seen. The kingdom of man over nature, which cometh not with observation, — a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God, — he shall enter without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson