Rothko In Britain

Period after period of art history are being exalted again in the contemporary exhibition scene. In an orderly fashion they line up, the first decided by where intrigue is currently seen to fester. The recent wave of fascination appears to be in Abstract Expressionism, and has been determined almost undoubtedly by this generation of artists departing.

The last of the American giants to hold on – Cy Twombly – died this July. Pollock’s tragic end was met in the late 50s, Rothko toppled when the teddy boys did in 1970, and in that same year Barnett Newman suffered his fatal heart attack. The realisation has hit that these artists’ legacy lives on only through what we have of theirs, and this has urged curators to recall when Abstract Expressionism hit England with that first explosion of commanding colour.

Some exhibitions have quite literally made artists. Some may have shaped a nation’s reaction to an age of art. Oh to have been at the unveiling of Monet’s impression sunrise, 1872, when a whole group of the Paris-based artists became known as the Impressionists; to have witnessed Turner and Constable’s ferocious competition, exhibiting side-by-side at the Royal Academy in 1832; and to have sensed the tension at the brink of an art rebellion at The Degenerate Art exhibition (1937) of Expressionist works rejected by Hitler’s Regime. Imagine being there to make a comment that stood for the contemporary…

Back to the current day… The Whitechapel Gallery is staging ‘Rothko in Britain’, snippets from Rothko’s 1961 exhibition – his grand entrance to the British public’s psyche – that provide a surprisingly real sense of what it must have been like to have been there. A selection of literary exchanges between the artist, curators and gallery staff; interviews with noteworthy visitors, and photographs of the exhibition as it was when open to the public, recreates the original exhibition in quite some fullness – from what was seen and why, to what was felt.

One of the interviews given was with the photographer, Sandra Lousada. For her this Rothko exhibition was the first occasion she had ever shot in colour, and never could colour be so crucial. She described the colour as quietening and magical. So powerful it brought people to stand still, and so powerful it seemed hardly natural. “Why does it work? Why is it so good?” was her response to its enigmatic simplicity.

Rothko described his paintings as having their own inner light, and no doubt, light and colour are one-and-the-same-thing. It is colour that is the sole focus, one could even say singular component, of his art. There is no formal focal point – its fullness, composed of very little, is the viewer’s only concern. When so many paintings are collated, it is the wholeness of colour that wows its viewers.

The Whitechapel have always been very generous to the Abstract Expressionists and given the greats space to show off at their gallery, and at a time when their careers’ were undeniably on the brink of something significant. Certainly Rothko’s impact was great. An art critic from The New Statesman described his experience of the room of Rothkos like, ‘one feels oneself unbearably hemmed-in by forces buffeting one’s every nerve.’ The scale of such colour determines a sensation.

But please be warned, don’t expect to come to this show, and see gathered the extended works of Rothko. This study piece contains only one (‘Light Red Over Black’) of his colour field paintings. This is a study of an exhibition and its reaction, not the artist himself. However, as it was considered perhaps the greatest of the exhibitions of his works in England, the man himself is far from absent in the mind of a visitor.

Although I’m closing in, I’m not sure I’ll be able to fully understand Rothko’s art until I see as suburb an exhibition of his work as the 1961 one was. However, this commemorative exhibition provides evidence to the very feelings Mark Rothko’s paintings set off in people. Now my senses are tingling to see more of him, but until then, this exhibition-of-an-exhibition reminds us is of the beauty of contemporary art: if we never lose track of the present, we will always know the best of art’s past. Now there’s a challenge…


This article was published in The Boar.

This free exhibition is being held in the Archive Gallery of the Whitechapel Gallery until 26 February 2012.


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