This week we looked at an apparently apolitical artist Mark Rothko, and, specifically his Seagram Murals in Tate Modern. These large paintings, nine of which are illustrated here (7 others are in the Kawamura collection in Japan), are generally thought of as meditative and objects fit for solemn contemplation rather than political. The level of abstraction reduces the possibility of direct reference to time and place - many people will recognise a deliberately timeless quality about them. They are consistent with Rothko's expressed aim of dealing with large scale tragic themes, and can plausibly seen (in the light of his writing about Nietzsche) as his attempt to bring the Dionysian into painting:
Listen to a lecture about Rothko and Nietzsche (1 hour, 12 minutes and 5 secs into this long podcast)
These were originally commissioned to adorn the walls of the glamorous Four Seasons Restaurant in the newly-completed Seagram Building in New York City. Rothko later declared that with these paintings he hoped 'to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room' - he wanted to emphasize a sense of claustrophobia, of being in a windowless room - and had been influenced in this respect by Michaelangelo's Laurentian Library with its blocked out windows. By a decision to break his commission and to ensure that 9 of these works were shown in an art gallery context in the Tate he did, however, make a political gesture of a kind using his paintings as the means. For more about the history of these remarkable paintings:
Read Jonathan Jones' fascinating article on Rothko (do read beyond the sensationalist opening lines about Rothko's suicide)
Watch Christian Rothko talking briefly on YouTube about 'The Artist's Reality' Mark Rothko's theoretical book about art.
Watch Simon Schama's TV programme 'The Power of Art' on Rothko's Seagram Murals (broken into seven parts on YouTube, first part here
The Seagram murals will provide an interesting contrast with Joan Miró's 'Hope of a Condemned Man' series, which we'll be looking at in the final session of this course. You can watch a video about this triptych here: