THE WEEK IN CULTURE
Visiting the Mark Rothko show at Tate Modern the other day, I felt there was something odd about the atmosphere of the large room in which the exhibition organisers have hung the famous Seagram Murals - the paintings that were commissioned and painted for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, before the artist decided he couldn't square the work's aesthetic seriousness with the expense- account audience that would enjoy privileged access to it.
Tate Modern already owns a large collection of the works Rothko produced for this commission and has borrowed more - so that it can reconstruct at least one of the putative hangs for this space. And entering the room, I found that it didn't quite deliver the punch of sacred enclosure that quite a lot of writing about Rothko might lead you to expect - and which the Tate's ordinary, segregated hang of these paintings can sometimes achieve. There were a lot more people around, for one thing - and a lot more of them than usual seemed to be sitting on Tate Modern's big arched benches, as if already exhausted by the task ahead.
I struggled for a while with a rather banal problem of perception - trying to decide whether I was looking at carefully crafted fuzziness or simply hadn't got to grips with new varifocal lenses - and then sat down and joined them. And after a while, one explanation for the air of patient expectation in the room suggested itself. We were all waiting for the paintings to work.
It's possible that this is just projection on my part. But I don't think I was the only person there experiencing an unsettling mismatch between the publicity for the show and the experience itself. It must be a long time since any Tate hosted a show requiring the audience to build such a bridge between ends and means, or one that contains less obvious variety of spectacle.
The colours are confined to a narrow chunk of the spectrum and the repertoire of shapes is small - scuffed rectangles, henge-like uprights. Yet the rhetoric you bring with you is one of transcendent vision and a philosophical sense of the sublime. It is a rhetoric of overwhelming impact, so that it's going to be a very delicate sensibility, or a very confident one, that doesn't experience at least a brief shock of disconnection - the feeling that either we or the paintings aren't properly plugged in, that the current isn't flowing.
Even the exhibition itself appears to feel this anxiety, including an …