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In the Rothko Room

Love, theft and madness — on being trapped among Rothko’s Nine at the Tate Modern

In the Rothko Room

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated

John Donne

 In Room 10 of the Tate’s Boiler Building’s Level 2, nine of the ‘Seagram Murals’ by Mark Rothko are displayed ‘as he intended in a compact room with subtle lighting’.

These supposed murals are oil based works on canvas that Rothko was originally commissioned in 1958, to paint for The Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko painted these on large canvases originally thought to fit the dimensions of the restaurant walls. It is a well-known story — the commission provided Rothko with a first-of-its-kind challenge to create not only a co-ordinated series of artworks but also to create a unique, distinguishable art-space. Rothko’s intention was to ‘ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who eats in that room’, to create a frustrating, claustrophobic space where the people in it would feel ‘trapped’ in a room with no doors or windows.

During this period he travelled to Europe and visited Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, where he found his artistic epiphany and drew inspiration for his murals. On coming back, he decided that the setting of a restaurant was inappropriate for his pieces. But Rothko was inspired — he continued to paint and finally had painted around 30 of these but was not satisfied.

How can one complete a series of art that repeats itself in theme, pattern and meaning? Perhaps by seeing, possibly by reading. The nine in the Rothko Room reminded me of Dante’s nine circles of Inferno.

How can one complete a series of art that repeats itself in theme, pattern and meaning?

Perhaps by seeing, possibly by reading. The nine in the Rothko Room reminded me of Dante’s nine circles of Inferno. It is the journey of the soul towards the higher Truth. Composed in three distinct colours of pitch black, brooding maroon and bright scarlet, floating through abstracts of hectic red, brown-black and muted mauves, these canvases form a series that offers to expand on the three kinds of sins, the three transitions of human mind from lust to love and love to loss or reading Dante’s Hell, incontinence, fraud and violence.

‘Midway in the journey of our life’, this series begins right away with lust. The vertical rectangle of blood red (Red on Maroon, 1959) forms a door to the inverted sense of Eden, of man’s incontinence. This is Rothko’s first ‘door’ to fall, the first stage of loss that quickly hurdles the viewer into a seemingly realistic stage of love. Expressed by the splitting of this one door into two (Black on Maroon, 1958), mirroring each other, it almost evokes the philosophy of the metaphysics, the yoking together of two apparently incompatible ideas, two different lives, two clashing existences, two, a repetition of one. The shift from red to black, already a sign of what awaits us beyond these double doors of love. The maroon of these two canvases is edgy, soft and drunk — a silent maroon smudged to a faint mauve that provides in its expanse the best background for such high drama.

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Nine stages of hell in the Rothko Room.

The next seven are rather a mini-series within this larger collection, laying emphasis by repetition, on loss, its dimension and grandeur much magnified, more poignant than the first two.

In the third canvas (Black on Maroon, 1958), the concept of coexistence is not only retained, but is also furthered and then questioned as the central black split begins to take over, almost oppressing the maroon to denial. The fourth (Black on Maroon, 1959), is the successful taking over of the canvas by the black, leaving two streaks of a deeper, more sober red, tipping on the edge of a more matured maroon. This is the beginning of the loss-series, where progression is portrayed through reduction, through robbing, making it more poignant and prolonged.

The fifth (Black on Maroon, 1958) has four narrow streaks of bleeding red, almost giving birth from the martyr of love to a new form of life. Where earlier, brown and maroon could coexist, the stark difference in black and red in this canvas is a screaming confirmation of impossible clash, almost hurting the eyes, with Rothko definitely on the side of the audacious leaver. The vertical black is also jagged and disturbed, almost breaking. This ‘leaving’ is violently realised in the next two sets that are expressed in a sudden shift from vertical to horizontal rectangles, one longer than the other, almost like separation of mother from child, an amoebic segregation of a whole splitting into unequal halves, one more loving than the other, one losing more than the other (both, Red on Maroon, 1959).

5. Black on maroon, 1958

The last two are massive horizontal rectangles, each blown up larger than any of the above, almost like the resultant of the series of loss, different in colour and experience, similar in size and pain, one black, dejected and robbed; one red, almost ready again, to transform into the first canvas of lust, thus completing a cycle, each cycle producing two resultants, one of dejection and one of victory — one more mature, the other more eager, the bright red almost at the expense of the denied black.

Unlike Dante’s nine stages of hell that are concentric circles, pulling one to the centre of gravity with fatal attraction, Rothko’s nine are used-to-be circles, in the motion of un-spiralling, unravelling themselves from a curve, only to repeat the cycle. This hell is that of the beloved’s detachment and the lover’s madness — and the repetition of this meaningless, persisting cycle. The resultant madness is the madness of being stolen from, the madness of being robbed of one’s red, of one’s innocence, of another chance. This madness comes from the inescapable fatality of repeated impossibilities.

‘If a thing is worth doing once,’ Rothko said, ‘it is worth doing over and over again’. Rothko did not only follow this in conceiving his art but also in creating it — art conservators believe he painted repeatedly, the same paint in multiple thin layers on canvas to bring on the rich, deep effect his ‘murals’ have — which explains the dimmed lighting he desired them to be viewed in — one doesn’t need much to see truth after all. He believed he was ‘producing an art that would last for 1,000 years’.

With reference to Andy Warhol’s allegations that Rothko’s paintings are ‘empty’, Carter Ratcliff writes ‘something fundamental about Rothko’s art’ — that ‘its meaning is willed, first by the artist and then by the sympathetic viewer. In a room full of his elusive paintings, it is up to you to rescue them from emptiness.’ Though Rothko cynically lamented, that it is a ‘risky and unfeeling act to send a painting out into the world’, the fact that one of the paintings in this series — Maroon on Black was vandalised (and restored) only goes on to say how true the trap he set came to ring. One cannot avoid but repeatedly try and translate the transcendental trap set out in this sequence.

Black on Maroon 1959 by Mark Rothko 1903-1970

Rothko might have stolen (/been inspired) from Michelangelo’s ‘vestibule’ (of Hell?), the curator might have been influenced by Dante’s Nine Circles and I might be affected by heartbreak or intoxication but what is unaffected, un-‘empty’ and unavoidable is the meaning that is explicit in this meaningless repetition of certain patterns, certain truths in life that have been always absorbed, translated and expressed by artists, century after century. Like the eternal triangle of love, theft and madness.

In using the words ‘loss’ and ‘theft’, I merely attempt to translate ‘love’ as fraud. Rothko’s art does not inspire to be ‘rescue’d, but it does invoke an eagerness to be seen and interpreted. In the process of loving, pain undergoes a transformation of colour, of language, of meaning. In loss, there is acceptance, there is safety, there is civilisation — we are ready to lose, ready to love; in theft there is fraudulence — there is blame, betrayal and barbarism. Loss is acceptance whereas theft is ridicule — that leads to our eternal, violent truth — of madness.

It is this truth that Rothko’s nine manage to bring home effortlessly, in Room 10 of the Tate Modern. As Rothko would have it, I sit here, surrounded by repetition after repetition of reds, maroons and blacks, in subtle lighting, ‘trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all [I] can do is butt [my] head forever against the wall”.

All quotes (apart from where mentioned) and images are by Mark Rothko, stolen from the Tate Modern, London.

Farha Noor

The author is a PhD scholar at the South Asia Institute at University of Heidelberg. She is also a research candidate for the German Research Foundation.

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