Contextual Research: Mark Rothko – Seagram murals

To place my experiments with color washes into context I am looking the the large color field painting of Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970). The course material suggested to look at the Seagram Murals at Tate.

The group of paintings were initially part of a larger commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building in New York (designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson). After two years of working on it Rothko was not convinced by the venue and withdrew from the commission. Nine painting out a whole group of 30 paintings (Red on Maroon) are now with Tate London.

Rothko’s intention behind those color field paintings were to convey a sense of the condition of the human mind and its emotions. Rothko stressed the importance that the painting communicating his ideas and not his own emotional state. Especially during the year before his deaths the influence of his mental depression was broadly discussed.

The painting were on exhibition at Tate Modern (2 October 2009 – 21 March 2010) and I find it an interesting approach to combine those color intense painting with music composition and lyrics performed in the showroom itself. This makes the connotation of visual must, and at times alongside visual poetry, quite strong and convincing.

Red on Maroon 1959 Mark Rothko 1903-1970 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01165

Red on Maroon 1959 Mark Rothko 1903-1970 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01165

Red on Maroon 1959 Mark Rothko 1903-1970 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01167

Red on Maroon 1959 Mark Rothko 1903-1970 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01167

I had the chance to see some of Rothko’s painting in a museum. Trying to print out those images on paper is quite a disaster. The luminous colors and the special visual effect get lost. Viewing them on screen is already better than printed. However, viewing them as originals is a unique experience. Interesting to know that the colors already changed over time since the year of making. This make me to reflect on the aspect of time in colour perception and paintings.

I am wondering about the interplay of color and light. In the book from John Gage (2006) does the author describe the ancient believe that ‘accidental colors’ , e.g. colors in a rainbow, are superior to pigment mixed colors. Aristotle emphasised the visual effect of overlaying colors in washes. Especially to overlay vivid colors with less vivid colors. Light and color played a key role in medieval stained glass images mainly in churches. At that time blue was considered as a dark color, comparable to black.

It seems the dark colors are turning off the light. Nevertheless, the bold contrast makes it rather more impressive. The slight light becomes more powerful. This reminds of the a recently visited exhibition of Xerxes Ach and Silvia Gertsch (‘Embracing Sensation‘) were light plays a dominant role (Schaffeld, 2015).

I find that the painting of Xerxes Ach goes a bit further than Rothko through dissolving color and light into a more transient blur – rather atmospheric perception (see http://www.michaelfuchsgalerie.com/en/artists/xerxes-ach.html).

Learnings:

  • Looking intensively at a color field painting of Mark Rothko (or B Newmann, Xerxes Ach) feels like mediation. One can stand, sit for a longer period of time infront of a painting to perceive a pulsation an vibration going through the painting.
  • A complete separation of color from a representational function makes it bolder in it visual perception. One can fully concentrate on that color can do.
  • Open question: What are the shapes doing with the picture? Are they to show blurred edges? To enforce a vivid vibration? Would sharp edges destroy the perception?
  • Those painting need to be seen as original. No copy,  no print, no screen image can do justice. The physical presence is required for sensational stimulation.

 

 

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