This post is about a significant moment. I have had several of these moments that helped make me an visual art addict. Some of them creep in and infect us like a virus. Some hit us like a ton of bricks. This is a ton-of-bricks moment, a moment that flattened me and reminded me, at the dawn of the slow but ubiquitous web portal, nothing replaces seeing the thing in person.
In the mid 1990’s I traveled to London with friends. My art-loving co-conspirator Katie Commodore and I planned for a trip to the Tate. At the Tate Britain, formerly The Tate Gallery, was a room of the famous Mark Rothko Seagram’s paintings. Rothko insisted they would have their own room. Sadly, this room no longer exists in this way. The Rothko’s have moved to the Tate Modern to a sufficient well lit space. These paintings were created as a commission for the Four Seasons restaurant atop the International Style masterpiece of Mies van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Still unknown to me at the time was the utter contempt that Rothko had for the place where these works were meant to hang, causing his eventual tantrum and defection from the project. I have read papers on the subject since. It’s a lovely anecdotal footnote of the suffering artist and his contempt for a patron.
While I had spent time in NYC museums and had seen Rothko paintings before never had I seen an installation like this. Knowing very little about them, I walked into the room with two massive, imposing doors. What I saw was a long somber room of marble flooring, dark wood railings and slate gray walls. There was also a long skylight that gave almost all the natural light these paintings would ever need, even in grayest gray London. The panels are all two colors, a deep maroon and a black that varies in sheen and matte gloss. All of the immersive works, Rothko called them murals, change as you move around them. Natural light picks up the layered surface in the industrial paint, revealing depths that were frightening. Deeply painted canvas, darkly colored spaces like windows, columns and doors enveloped me. The maroon was so full of that murky congealed blood color that you can’t help but see it as deadly. Here, the black portals either sit on top of or receded into the maroon. My eye never has settled which is which.
I have read since that this red, the “Red” of a recent acclaimed stage production about Rothko, is in fact a suicide note. Rothko didn’t shoot himself, he cut himself and left his blood red body to be found by loved ones. As the narrative goes, somehow only a tortured suicidal artist could make these. I think that’s bullshit. I think Rothko found a way over his years of experimenting with iconic and mythic imagery to make paint work for him. The fullness of paint on the canvas stirred people, some people, by his muscular use of color and overwhelming space. Rothko can be a polarizing figure. His art has become emblematic of financial excess and male dominated painting culture. He drank and he yelled and he deeply considered paint on canvas. But let’s forget all that. Let’s forget names and places and contexts but for a moment and look at a series of paintings of such volume that to ignore them is like ignoring the very ability to see. They feel dark and angry. In this gray vault filled with whatever light London skies could manage, they were full of emotion.
In viewing these painting, in this room, with this light, I had an enviable moment. A moment of pure calm based on the knowledge that I would never abandon my love of art. I have spent years of my life on pursuits that exist only in the margins of my daily life, but I knew then that would never happen with art. Afterwards there was a Mondrian in another gallery and briefly the “why is it art” question came up. My friends who were less interested in abstract art gently asked the question in a respectful way: “Why is it interesting?” In those days my immediate response was that if you don’t find it interesting, don’t bother. Years later, after I spent more time thinking about it, my answer has changed only slightly. I still think that If you can’t find a reason to keep looking, then stop and move onto something else.
I would love to hear from some of you and put together some other memories that served as a major turning points. I can post them here if you like. I think it is important to articulate these memories.
Jeff Bergman, February 2014