Friday 14 December 2012

Mark Rothko

Room 3, the Mark Rothko Room, at Tate Modern.

During my visit to Tate Modern two weeks ago, I took the opportunity to go and sit in the Mark Rothko Room for a while.

It is one of the strangest, most compelling experiences I have ever felt in a gallery and this room is one I visit most times when I go to the Tate. The silent, dimmed atmosphere of the room suits the paintings. 'Here we are in the presence not of religion, but of something at once premordial and all too contemporary', reflected John Banville. These paintings take modern art back to Chinese art, whrere art was seen as a vehicle for contemplation.

Rothko himself said: 'When I say that my paintings are Western, what I mean is that they see the concretization of no state that is without the limits of Western reason, no esoteric, extra-sensory or divine attributes to be achieved by prayer and terror. Those who can claim that these limits are exceeded are exhibiting self-imposing limitations as to the tensile limits of the imagination within those limits. In other words, that there is no yearning in these paintings for Paradise, or divination. On the contrary, they are deeply involved in the possibility of ordinary humanity'.

The paintings originated in a commission to the Four Seasons Restaurant

in the Seagram building in New York,

designed by Mies van der Rohe.

Rothko had clear intentions when he took on the commission: 'I accepted this assignment as a challenge, with strictly malicious intentions. I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch that ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won't. People can stand anything these days'.

He did change his mind however, after having dined there and the following spring he returned the $35,000 fee, withdrew from the commission and eventually decided to donate the paintings to the Tate.

The Rothko room opened at the Tate in 1970. Rothko had a list of suggestions of how the pictures should be hung: the walls should be coloured 'off-white with umber and warmed by a little red,' the pictures should be hung 'as close to the wall as possible, no more than six inches above it'.

Untitled, 1950-52
This painting is just outside Room 3. And then, inside we have the seven:

Black on Maroon, 1958

Black on Maroon, 1959

Red on Maroon Mural, Section 4, 1959

Red on Maroon Mural, Section 5, 1959

Red on Maroon Mural, Section 74, 1959

Red on Maroon Mural, Section 2, 1959

Red on Maroon Mural, Section 3, 1959. 


  1. Ah Rothco. We were lucky enough to get to see these in their full glory when they were shown at Tate Liverpool a couple of years ago. No photographs can do them justice - their scale and the subtlety of their colours. But, of course, that's nearly always the case with art works.

    p.s. I'm glad you didn't decide to scribble on the paintings

  2. Ha! ha! ha! Outrageous, even though one could say that it is no different from Lord Byron engraving his initials on the column of the Temple in Sounion!

    I agree with you about the Rothkos - they are sublime.