In 1961 The Whitechapel Gallery held a momentous retrospective of Mark Rothko’s work. This exhibition opened the door to abstract expressionism in the UK in the 1960s.
Currently The Whitechapel Gallery is celebrating the 50-year anniversary of this show, providing an opportunity to revisit the 1961 exhibition through photographs, audio recordings, newspaper clippings, as well as numerous letters of correspondence between Rothko himself and galleries such as the Tate. In 1961 The Times wrote ‘It’s the nature of Rothko’s paintings not to elude criticism, but to lead to thought.’
What’s special about the 2011-2012 Rothko in Britain exhibition is its small size. While there is something rewarding about absorbing numerous works of art, this exhibition doesn’t attempt to recreate the 1961 experience, but instead it holds only one Rothko painting Light Red Over Black 1957, the first of his works to enter the British collection.
In true Rothko style the work is hung very close to the ground, and lit to his specific instructions.
As you move closer to the painting you become absorbed in fields of colour; the sheer size and depth suggests an infinite space stretched out before you.
The viewer can’t stand back and admire, instead you are submerged in the painting and must submit to its power. This is where the difficulty arises, as your eyes attempt to focus on something, anything, that is held within the picture. It’s as if there is a struggle between you, the viewer, and the painting.
Or perhaps it’s a struggle between you and Rothko himself; in a seemingly endless search for meaning that requires time and dedication. Rothko’s work is sensuous and gratifying, and it allows for an extraordinary relationship between the paintings and their surroundings. This relationship is explained in Rothko’s own restrictions for how his work is to be displayed.
For those of us who have spent time analysing, digesting and absorbing Rothko’s paintings, we know that they are intellectually frustrating, intensely powerful, and contain an element of restrained violence that can move one to exquisite exhaustion.
His use of colour is direct and solemn. Massive canvases are soaked in paint with enormous cloud-edged rectangles. And yet the painting seems to defy description. Rothko himself wasn’t interested in giving many clues as to what his work meant –
‘You see the pictures. You look at them and think about them. This is what interests me’
While Rothko in Britain at The Whitechapel Gallery ends the 26thof February 2012, the Tate Modern has a room dedicated solely to Mark Rothko’s paintings, which is on-going and free of charge.
Light Red Over Black, Mark Rothko, 1957
Rothko in Britain runs from 9th September 2011 – 26th February 2012 at The Whitechapel Gallery, London.