We here at Aerforce are not fans of modern art… but none can deny the pure primal power of color and one artist weilded this power without mercy, Mark Rothko. Goethe would spend some time with this work.
The fact that alot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point. – Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was found on the morning of February 25 1970, lying dead in a wine-dark sea of his own blood. He had cut very deep into his arms at the elbow, and the pool emanating from him on the floor of his studio measured 8ft x 6ft. That is, it was on the scale of his paintings. It was, to borrow the art critical language of the time, a colour field.
New York had a charge sheet a mile long by that time when it came to killing artists, especially painters of Rothko’s generation – the abstract expressionists, the epic and baffling, rhetorical and silent, introspective and dazzling movement whose intensity and originality made Manhattan the capital of modernism in the middle of the 20th century. Suicide had already taken Arshile Gorky in 1948. Jackson Pollock was killed in a possibly suicidal drunken car crash in 1956. Another dubiously accidental car crash saw to the sculptor David Smith in 1965. Rothko looked like one of the survivors, and was even insidiously caricatured as a careerist, a bit of a fraud, who had turned the rigour and extremism of abstract expressionist painting into something luscious, colourful, decorative and profitable – until that morning in 1970.
Rothko’s death changed everything. It transformed the meaning of his work, gave every encounter with his painting a terrible gravity. It fooled the cursory eye, putting Rothko’s motivation so apparently on the surface, so visibly in the public domain, that it made it hard ever to think about him again with any subtlety.
His death also ensured that a puzzle at the heart of his painting would never be solved. For Rothko’s contract with society was not torn up that day in 1970, but a decade earlier, in 1959. That was when Rothko suddenly and unexpectedly repudiated his agreement to provide 600 square feet of paintings for the most exclusive room in the new Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building in New York – the most prestigious public commission that had ever been awarded to an abstract expressionist painter, a tremendously lucrative and enviable chance to take his work to new heights of ambition.
Jackson Pollock had attained the freedom and grace of his dripped and flung paintings for just a few years, when he was newly married and off the bottle, until one day he started drinking again and was set on a spiral of destruction. Rothko’s crisis over the Seagram murals was comparable. It was his finest moment, and yet also the end of his uneasy truce with success, happiness and America. Afterwards, his life and art unravelled – the life disastrously, the art with a terrible beauty, becoming ever more open in its dealings with death.
The enigma of Rothko’s Four Seasons murals is especially urgent for us, the British art public, because we have accidentally ended up as Rothko’s heirs. There are not many bona fide masterpieces of modern painting in Britain. Especially, we don’t have many great paintings by the abstract expressionists – with a glorious exception. In the late 1960s, Rothko gave nine of the paintings that he had intended for the Four Seasons to the Tate, as a gift – “a princely gesture”, as Norman Reid, then director of the Tate, told him. It took a lot of negotiation, Rothko insisting on a permanent, exclusive room for his paintings and resisting any attempt to mix these bleak murals with more accessible examples of his work.
The Rothko murals at Tate Modern are lovely in their oppression, erotic in their cruelty. These are paintings that seem to exist on the skin inside an eyelid. They are what you imagine might be the last lights, the final flickers of colour that register in a mind closing down. Or at the end of the world. “Apocalyptic wallpaper” was a phrase thrown at Rothko’s kind of painting as an insult. It is simply a description; the apocalypse is readable in these paintings like a pattern in wallpaper – abstract, pleasurable horror. And yet, sitting in the low-lit, grey-walled room where – controversially – the Tate Modern crowds filter between two doorways as if the Rothko room were a corridor, it seems we’re deeply confused about Rothko’s gift, about whether we understand it or even want it.
The paintings arrived in London on the morning of Rothko’s suicide. Dead men tell no tales. It was not clear, when Rothko died in 1970, why he had accepted the unlikely commission to decorate a swanky restaurant on Park Avenue, on the mezzanine floor of Manhattan’s most authoritative new skyscraper. And he never satisfactorily explained why he suddenly and violently decided to withdraw his paintings and return the money in 1959.
The story of the Four Seasons murals has been written by the power elite of American art. That’s bad luck for Rothko and bad luck for the visitor to Tate Modern who sits in the Rothko room today and tries to make sense of these marvellous, dismal paintings.
A myth has been created about Rothko. He has been painted in colours that are not his own, travestied as a religious artist, a maker of spiritual icons of the holy void. This pleases his collectors – it speaks to a certain kind of reverence for art – and it makes Rothko fit into a tradition of abstract painting as spiritual journey that begins in the late 19th century, leads through Kandinsky and Mondrian, and supposedly ends in the Rothko Chapel, maintained by the Menil Foundation in Houston, Texas, which opened after his death and towards which the Seagram murals are a station of the cross. But this mystical Rothko is unapproachable. He is pompous, grandiloquent, asking to be cut down to size. For many visitors to Tate Modern – you can see them walking quickly past the best art in the place – Rothko is a closed case.
I wanted to reopen the case, go over the evidence about Rothko’s greatest series of canvases, follow the clues from Manhattan to Pompeii and Florence – the places where Rothko himself said he found inspirations and analogies. When you pick up the trail, pursue Rothko’s bloody red footprints, what you find is a tragedy not of the spirit but of power. It is about an artist pitting his strength against that of America at its most assured and corporate. The Seagram or Four Seasons murals, which are among the very best American art, are not religious paintings. They are furious meditations on the American empire.
There is no location that more evocatively, even nostalgically, returns you to the zenith of American self-confidence in the middle of the 20th century than the plaza at 375 Park Avenue, Manhattan. Look downtown and a broad, deep vista of wealth and architectural might opens as far as the MetLife (formerly Pan Am) Building whose wall rises out of the ornate hulk of Grand Central Station, blocking Park Avenue. Look uptown and the vista becomes emptier, wealthier. Here, on this white and – on a Sunday morning – empty plaza, with its neat pools and calm recession from the street, is the symbolic central point, the x that marks the spot, the locus classicus of American imperium.
Looking through the cool high glass wall of the atrium, you see the security guards hanging out by the lift shafts – the space in there is perfect, it is proportionate, open and immaculate. Look up and a sliver of darkness floats on the sky. You have to move back, right across Park Avenue, to get the measure of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s architectural masterpiece, the Seagram Building. The 525ft office block, commissioned in 1954 as the new corporate headquarters of Seagram distillers and completed in 1958, is very different from earlier New York skyscrapers with their gargoyles, chrome spires and airship mooring masts. It rejects gothic fantasy for a classical clarity with the icy brilliance of an equation. Lean, mean and devastating, it hovers, a black sentinel, on top of narrow pillars. Its expensive materials – hand-cast bronze beams, travertine stone, darkened glass – make clear that this austerity is a matter of aesthetic choice rather than economic necessity.
The Seagram marked a decisive moment in American corporate architecture. It struck all who saw it as definitive of New York at its most high and mighty. Before it was even finished, it appeared, its windows lit in the Manhattan night, looming over the jazz club in the 1957 film Sweet Smell Of Success. The New York of the Seagram Building is the vicious, glamorous, pounding jazz capital of the film, a joyously acerbic melodrama in which despotic columnist JJ Hunsecker, played with delicious malevolence by Burt Lancaster, rules the city of night with the connivance of his sleazy parasite, publicity agent Tony Curtis. In the film, Hunsecker holds court over cocktails and steaks at 21. He would have felt right at home at New York’s newest power-brokering hang-out, the Four Seasons.
A pavilion neatly folding out of the Seagram’s ground floor, the restaurant hides itself behind elegant drapes. Planned as an integral part of the Seagram’s magnificence by the project’s master planners, Phyllis Lambert, daughter of Seagram’s director, and the architect and art patron Philip Johnson, the Four Seasons is restrained yet palatial – it has pools, foliage, rich stone and metal fittings, and a fabulous art collection to assure patrons that this is no ordinary restaurant. Dine there today and you can feast your eyes on Picasso’s curtain for the Ballets Russes production of The Three-Cornered Hat. There is also a Frank Stella Room. But no Rothkos.
“Four Seasons Termed Spectacular Both in Décor and Menu,” declared the New York Times in August 1959. “There has never been a restaurant better keyed to the tempo of Manhattan,” raved the reviewer. “It is expensive and opulent, and it’s perhaps the most exciting restaurant to open in New York within the last two decades.” The review praises the “thorough table training” and the food, especially the flamed dishes and the fresh herbs, unusual in 1950s America; the only fault, for the Times, is its succumbing to the national appetite for “gross” portions. Most chic of all is the art collection. “The walls are hung with a fortune in paintings and tapestries by such modern geniuses as Picasso, Joan Miró and Jackson Pollock.”
Pollock’s Blue Poles was hanging temporarily in the smaller of the two dining rooms, until the delivery of the specially commissioned mural-scale canvases from Mark Rothko that were to be the restaurant’s crowning artistic glory. No less an art world guru than Alfred Barr, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, advised that Rothko was the man to provide art for the Four Seasons.
Of all the New York painters who became famous at the end of the 1940s, Rothko was the most addicted to the city. When he had the money, he lived on Sixth Avenue, near Radio City Music Hall. He had studios all over the city, changing them often – the Four Seasons murals were painted in a former gymnasium on the Bowery which he rigged up with a false wall and pulley system so he could experiment with their architectural layout.
Rothko was intense, solitary, leftwing, used to poverty and failure. Born into a Jewish family in Dvinsk, Russia, in 1903, Rothko – his given name was Marcus Rothkowitz – emigrated with his family to the United States when he was 10. He grew up a poor outsider in Portland, Oregon, but was academically brilliant enough to get into Yale in 1921 – which he hated. In 1923 he headed for New York City, to “wander around, bum about, starve a bit”. His New York was a city of deli lunch counters, subway stations, art classrooms, visits to the Metropolitan Museum. And now, after a lifetime spent mainly as an unknown, unsuccessful would-be great artist, Mark Rothko was offered $35,000 to decorate a symbol of the wealth of Manhattan’s elite at the height of the cold war.
Why did he accept the commission? Accounts of what was said to Rothko and what he thought he was doing differ. The critic Dore Ashton, a regular visitor to Rothko’s studio, had the impression that Rothko believed his panels would hang in a boardroom which would be visible from an employees’ canteen, that they would be accessible to ordinary office workers. If Rothko believed this, it was a fantasy. Phyllis Lambert and Philip Johnson deny that he could have been under any such illusion – they say he was perfectly aware he was making paintings for an expensive restaurant.
Rothko did know what he was doing, and what kind of people he was doing it for. He saw his Four Seasons murals as violent, even terrorist art, a savage aesthetic revenge, and relished the chance to bite the hands of those who had made him rich.
This is what Rothko told John Fischer, a fellow tourist he bumped into in the bar of an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic in the early summer of 1959 after he had been working for several months on the paintings. Fischer was an editor of Harper’s Magazine and their conversations over drinks have therefore been recorded – Fischer published Portrait Of The Artist As An Angry Man, a memoir of Rothko, in Harper’s Magazine in July 1970. Some guardians of Rothko’s memory prefer to think that he was playing up to the journalist, that he didn’t mean what he said, because what he said is so incendiary. Rothko told Fischer he wanted to upset, offend and torture the diners at the Four Seasons, that his motivation was entirely subversive.
Fischer quotes Rothko describing the room in that very expensive restaurant in the Seagram Building as “a place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off”.
Rothko didn’t seem to Fischer in the least unworldly, let alone spiritual about his intentions. “I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” he gloated, with paintings that will make those rich bastards “feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up”.
There is such a place. It is in Florence. The door off the cloister leads into a room higher than it is wide and starved of floor space by a dark grey staircase that sprawls into the room like an octopus. You feel pushed back to the sides of the room, where you look up at the walls and become conscious that this space is even more oppressive than it first appeared. The windows, with their massive corbels like flourishes in old books, are sealed: they are framed blanks leading the mind to expect light, air, the outside world, but instead offering no way out, in fact pushing forward into the room, which starts to seem heavier, smaller. The columns that apparently support its weight are too thick, bulging. The carved goat skulls are a clue. Michelangelo’s vestibule of the Laurentian Library, leading off the cloister of the Medici church of San Lorenzo, is the anteroom of death.
The vestibule is Michelangelo’s most audacious architectural creation, and one of the most staggering of all his works – and the most modern. Created in about 1524-6, it is a very early example of poetic expression in architecture; of an architecture deliberately and unmistakably shaped not for function or even for spectacular effect but to alter your sense of space, to make you lose your bearings – to unsettle and disturb. It leads to the mad baroque architecture of Borromini in Rome, and anticipates Daniel Libeskind. Michelangelo did it first and he did it deepest. He created a room that is a nightmare.
Rothko, who had been to Italy before, in 1950, and seen Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library – which he would visit again on his 1959 trip – told Fischer he had been influenced by what he described as its “sombre vault”, how he started thinking about it when he was painting the Seagram murals. “After I had been at work for some time, I realised that I was much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo’s walls in the staircase of the Medicean Library in Florence,” said Rothko. “He achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads for ever against the wall.”
Hovering at the centre of the Seagram mural Black On Maroon (1958), at Tate Modern, is a black vertical frame like that of a painting or a window. It is an opening that we should be able to penetrate; like the closed-off windows of Michelangelo’s vestibule, it ought to allow the mind egress. Instead it just leads back to the maroon barrier. It is not even “in front of” the maroon; they are on the same plane. Rothko’s murals tantalise us with architectural allusions, the idea of space, of windows, doors and portals leading into the great purple yonder, but there is nothing here but two-dimensional colour on vast tracts of canvas.
Rothko’s remarks to Fischer are a frank revelation of what the Seagram murals are about, and yet all too often discussions of these paintings gloss over Rothko’s confession as if it were trivial. That’s why you need to look at Michelangelo’s architecture. Entering the Laurentian Library, there is no question. Rothko’s paintings are translations of Michelangelo’s blocked-off windows.
Rothko doesn’t seem to have stopped thinking about the murals as he toured Italy with his wife Mell, young daughter Kate, and now Fischer. Italy in the 1950s was the place par excellence where world-beating America came to spend money. Rothko was not an unusual American – in his taste for tourism, he was typical. And where else would cold war America, at the height of the American Century, find its reflection but amid the ruins of the Roman Empire? Ships to Italy docked at Naples. Before they travelled north to Rome, and Florence and the Laurentian Library, the Rothkos went to Pompeii.
Walking amid the city of the dead, Rothko brooded on his work. In the most atmospheric of the Pompeiian houses, the Villa of the Mysteries, he was struck by the use of surprisingly deep colours for a decorative scheme – black and red. Rothko told Fischer that in the villa he sensed “a deep affinity” between the Seagram murals and the Roman wall paintings – “the same feeling, the same broad expanses of sombre colour”.
The Villa of the Mysteries is outside the city, and is more aristocratic and private than the rest of the Pompeiian houses. Its rooms speak of secrets – specifically the underground worship of Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy. It derives its name from an astonishing fresco depicting a rite of initiation into Dionysus’s cult that covers the walls of a triclinium, a dining room.
This is a very strange dining room. As strange, and at once as luxurious and hellish, as the dining room Rothko planned in New York – a place where, instead of making small talk, diners would be menaced by sensual, occult, claustrophobic paintings.
I think Rothko talked about Pompeii with false casualness. It is inconceivable that the “affinities” between his latest work and the Villa of the Mysteries struck him by chance, or that they were only to do with colour. Rothko was deeply familiar with the Roman wall paintings from Boscoreale in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he studied closely Nietzsche’s The Birth Of Tragedy, which contrasted the Apollonian and Dionysian principles. He wanted his art to be Dionysian, beyond reason. Rothko’s project for the Four Seasons was to create an anti-architecture that scorned the rational order of Mies van der Rohe’s building, that tormented the “rich bastards” sitting down to a civilised lunch. He wanted the deathly space of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library to push in on them, deny them exit. He spoke of himself as an architect – “I have created a place,” he said when he looked at the murals in his Bowery studio.
It’s very nice to go travellin’, sang Frank Sinatra, but it’s so much nicer to come home. As Rothko sailed back from Europe in the summer of 1959, the Four Seasons was preparing to open. Back in New York, Rothko booked a table for himself and Mell. What did they eat, what did they talk about? It doesn’t seem to have been a happy meal. He called a friend that evening to say he was sending back the money and withdrawing his paintings. “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine,” he told his studio assistant.
Rothko’s exploration of sinister settings on his Italian trip suggests he really was acting, as he said, from “malice” in painting the Four Seasons murals. But it also suggests he wanted to prove that painting could exert power – that he could subvert his brief as a “decorative” artist and transform a toney restaurant into a space dominated by sublime art.
Rothko was trying to revive the idea central to modernism – that art can shatter our assumptions. His Seagram murals remain the most challenging art in Tate Modern – because they demand your time, emotion, thought and commitment, only to throw these things back in your face, confronting the mind with a wall, a terminal chamber.
But no artist in New York in 1959 had that kind of power. Sitting amid the buzz and excess of the Four Seasons, Rothko must have felt that he had been deluded – that the wealthy diners were not going to be harrowed. That art could not change anything. That his paintings would just be decoration after all.
You can picture JJ Hunsecker at the next table, looking at him with contempt. It’s so very difficult to be an artist, sneers Hunsecker in Sweet Smell Of Success, in this crudest of all possible worlds
· This essay forms the basis of the final talk in Painting Bites Back, a course led by Jonathan Jones at Tate Modern, London SE1, to be given on December 9. Rothko’s Seagram murals are on permanent display at Tate Modern, in association with BT.