This exhibition brings together a really quite extraordinary number of Rothko pieces, focusing on his late work and especially his series work.
I wrote about his Seagram murals here, and they really are incredibly absorbing. The proper way to study a Rothko is to get up as close as the gallery attendants will allow, and let it just soak into your hindbrain – or, to put it another way, let it hit you over the back of the head with art. You need to back off a bit from time to get some perspective, but the canvas is fundamentally Large and In Your Face. Interestingly, though, they work really well if you stand two feet in front of them and two feet to one side, and look at them basically corner-on. I worked this out by looking at the gallery lighting, and finding a spot where it didn’t create glare on the surface – that’s where it is.
The glare’s useful, though, because a lot of his work relies on variations in texture and finish rather than on colour – his Black series, for instance, for the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Looking at the paintings from odd angles, and letting the incident light from the gallery spots move over it, tells you a lot about the finishes and techniques he used. (They also have a series of UV photographs of portions of one painting, with blowups and indeed the painting itself for comparison. Seeing that many different views of the same item fascinates me.)
His paintings are often described as rectangles floating on rectangles, but that’s not at all how he painted them – the “framing bars” are the topmost layer, not the rectangles themselves. So his deliberate topology is more complex than it looks, and the brushwork is also a lot more complex than it first appears – there are something like six or eight near-invisible layers in there. I’m also very fond of his edges – they’re rough, thready, messy, but deliberate. It feels a lot like the deckle edge on paper, to me, and I love that, as I’ve mentioned before. He did do some with hard, geometrical edges, but only a few (the Black-form ones I mentioned, mostly), and they look really weird to me. Again, though, he painted the frame on the top layer, rather than the field – frames were extremely important to him. (To the extent that you couldn’t possibly frame a Rothko – it would just look ridiculous.)
The frame thing shows up most strongly in his Brown and Gray series, where he was working on paper held down by tape along the edges. Over time, the edge defined where the tape was lifted off afterwards became a really important part of his artistic theory for those ones, and when he worked on his final series (Black on Gray), he actually created a solid hard-edged white border around the edges of the canvas.
I adore those; I could stand and stare at them for a week and a half. They’re quite SFnal in a way, too – Rothko designed them with the dark half at the top, in order to make sure they weren’t interpreted as landscapes. But it’s almost impossible not to think of them as lunar landscapes. And after all, they were painted in 1969…