Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Rothko at Tate Modern

Mark Rothko, Untitled 1958. Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Sakura. © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 1998.

Never so dark a room in a gallery.

Well, that's an exaggeration, considering how many films are exhibited. But for paintings, it is rare to find a gallery so dimly lit. Even the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci generally receive more lighting.

Rothko is famous for his chapel-like spaces, dimly lit. Although the main room in the Mark Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern in London is filled with a series of paintings designed for the Seagram Four Seasons restaurant in New York, it is hard to imagine dining at that light level - without additional candles, it would have been difficult to see the food. Perhaps that's one reason why the commission was never installed in its intended location.

And yet it helped to imagine that I was about to dine. I sat down on one of the folding chairs, so necessary for extended contemplation at just the right distance and angle (as much as possible - I really thought everything in that room was hung way too high, compared to how Rothko himself had viewed the paintings, resting on the floor - the base of each painting was at or above head height). And thus seated, somewhere in the middle of the room, I imagined myself about to dine, and took in the room in its entirety for the first time, as if casually glancing round before focusing on the soup.

It was only then that I had the impression of the room as a single unit, a single work, with me inside it.

The realisation was a jolt, but of what, it is hard to say. It was at once peaceful and oppressive. All the intense concentration that I had lavished on each painting individually was gone. One painting flowed into the next, and the people in the room seemed part of the paintings, rather than an intrusion (down in front!). I had already noted, with some amusement, how the room seemed to attract people wearing black and maroon, like a chromatic magnet. It wasn't just the gallery assistants that were in these colours. There was a man in a black jacket, with a maroon scarf. A lady in a maroon kaftan. Men in black jumpers with, yes, maroon ties. And most striking of all, a girl in a tight floor length maroon dress, with a black bolero type jumper. It was really uncanny.

Anyway, the idea for the integrated viewing of the room as a whole only came to me on a second visit. It is funny how I seem to have established a set way of looking at pictures. I suspect I am not alone in this. Rothko's later work seems to demand to be viewed this way. Each theme is repeated in so many variations, and sometimes with the intent that they all be shown in the same room, that it is impossible not to. So instead of each work being a window into one or more windows of colour, each room is filled with multiple windows, each opening onto one or more windows of colour, a sort of metaphor for the multiverse, or a series of alternate variations or possibilities arising from a single moment. If I look up, in the same room, at the same moment, but with a slightly different thought, and a slightly different shade between smiling and frowning on my face, and you react slightly differently, how subtly varied these alternate universes can be.

Mark Rothko, Red on MaroonMural, Section 2 1959Tate. Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969© Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 1998

Going back to the single paintings, I experimented with regarding the innermost squares as holes, and the squares around them as windowframes, suspended in empty space that reached to the edge of the canvas. Most of the canvases depicted single squares within squares. But I could also see the central squares as solid forms, the 'frame' square around them as the empty space, and the colour to the edge of the canvas as another solid form.

Where there are two 'windowpanes' in the picture, as in Unitled 1958 (top of this page), I could see two standing forms, or alternately, two slits in a frame. If it was two slits, I was immediately put in mind of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and ways of testing whether a photon (light particle) would pass through one or the other slit in a screen, and how the interference pattern produced showed that there was no way of determining which slit a particular photon would pass through: effectively, the photon passes through both, simultaneously.

Sitting there in the near-dark, watching these photon-screen forms/not-forms, I finally realised that there was no correct angle to view the paintings from - I have spent my life leaning my head this way and that in front of oil paintings, trying to avoid the 'glare spot' so as to see the entire painting uninterrupted - because Rothko created these mature paintings in mixed media, some layers with oil, some with acrylic, some with shiny egg glaze. So if you see it from one angle, the 'frame' shape might glow 'positively'. And seen from another angle, the same shape slinks darkly into the background, becoming 'negative'.

Shapes that exist both as forms, and as negative spaces between forms. Being and not being. Everything and nothing, as eternity and no time at all.

Mark Rothko, No. 1 1964. Kunstmuseum Basel. © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 1998.

More on Heisenberg, single and double slits:

Quantum physics single slit experiment (under 3 minutes). This is amazing - you actually see with your own eyes (never mind all you who will insist that all films are constructed).

BBC Quantum Physics for Dummies (with double slit experiment) (under 10 minutes)

Quantum physics: is light a particle or a wave? (under 7 minutes)

Text explanations of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle

Animated explanation of the two slit experiment (not as convincing as seeing film footage, but very clear)

The double slit experiment, without narration (under 30 seconds)

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