Magazine article The Spectator

Meditation on Meaning

Magazine article The Spectator

Meditation on Meaning

Article excerpt


Tate Modern, until 1 February 2009

The first thing that should be noted is that this exhibition is not the retrospective that its title implies.

In fact, it's a severely limited show, concentrating on the late work only. There are therefore none of the joyful, brightly coloured paintings that sell so well around the world in reproduction. This exhibition is an altogether more sombre experience, the work darker and more minimal. I wonder how many people will buy their tickets (£12.50 per head, concessions £10.50) expecting a feast of colour and be disappointed. I hope they won't -- this is a fascinating exhibition -- but it is not a general introduction to the work of Mark Rothko (1903-70).

In the front of the accompanying catalogue (£24.99 in softback), a quote from Rothko is emblazoned: 'If people want sacred experiences they will find them here. If they want profane experiences they'll find them too. I take no sides.' It's a large boast, to maintain that your work encompasses the gamut of experience from sacred to profane, but the generation of Abstract Expressionists to which Rothko belonged did lay claim to the sublime in no uncertain terms. They offered their lives for their art -- their health, their sanity -- and, in return, expected to be connected to the wellsprings of existence. In his own lifetime, from the mid-1950s on, virtually no American critic doubted Rothko's genius. Reams of often impenetrable verbiage were produced in praise of his work, very little of which serves to elucidate the central problem -- does one believe in Rothko?

This is patently not the same question as 'does one believe in God?', but American critics seem on occasion to have confused the issue. Rothko wanted to be a great religious artist, but for that (at least in traditional terms) he was living in the wrong age.

Yet he assumed the mantle of assurance that a Renaissance painter of nativities or crucifixions might have worn. He accessed, he claimed, the 'tragic and timeless'. But how much of that spiritual resonance is authentic? Robert Hughes has famously called Rothko 'one of the last artists in America to believe, with his entire being, that painting could carry the load of major meanings and possess the same comprehensive seriousness as the art of fresco in the 16th century or the novel in 19th-century Russia'. So do we take his work on trust, do we believe that it is great religious art because the artist says so? No, like doubting Thomases, we have to experience it for ourselves.

Rothko generously donated nine paintings to the Tate Gallery which arrived in London the same day that his suicide was announced, on 25 February 1970. They were set up, as specified by the artist, in a room of their own at Millbank, which took on something of the aura of a temple or shrine. The Rothko room became a place of pilgrimage, somewhere to sit quietly with one's thoughts, to contemplate in an increasingly secular age. People who wouldn't dream of going to a church were able to find some sort of peace in the Rothko ambience. How much of this emotional or spiritual authority was conferred by knowledge of Rothko's own history remains open to speculation.

Do we read into his paintings more meaning because of what we know of the artist's personal tragedy? The aim of the Tate's current show, according to Rothko's daughter, is to show the power of his work as pure painting, divorced -- as far as this is possible -- from biographical knowledge. Small task. …

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