Art: Rothko, The Late Series, Tate Modern

Sunday afternoon seemed the perfect time to check out Tate Modern’s new Mark Rothko show. Heading off to an exhibition of his large scale, meditative paintings is basically the art world equivalent of going to church. You can’t help being inspired and not a little intimidated by the hugeness of his canvasses and his bold repetitions, much in the same way you are when you enter a large gothic cathedral (or massive football stadium, come to think of it). The problem is that everyone else seemed to have the same idea.

It is universally acknowledged that Rothko is a great painter. People that don’t generally visit galleries, or profess any admiration at all for contemprary art – people that would probably run screaming when confronted with a Bruce Nauman or a Paul McCarthy – would most probably be able to identify the large blocks of colour that Rothko worked with.

As such, the Tate clearly has high hopes they are onto a winner with their current high-profile show. It’s certainly has people flocking through the doors so far. It’s not a retrospective, focussing instead on his late works and his ‘works in series’. Whilst there is a respectful amount of space given to a couple of this series – his Black-Form paintings and his Brown and Gray work, for example – the show is built around the so called Seagram Paintings.

In 1958 Mark Rothko was comissioned to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram building. The pictures never ended up in the restaurant, but in the Tate’s collection. These are displayed in the present show, together with pictures painted at the same time loaned from collections in the US and Japan.

This Seagram room is stunning. It is dimly lit, to encourage respectful contemplation, and the pictures are hung high on the wall (as Rothko himself demanded when the murals were displayed at a previous retrospective), making them even more imposing. The combination of the vast space, easily the biggest space in the Tate Modern at the moment apart from the turnbine hall itself, and the intensity of his works combine to produce an emotionally dramatic effect.

Given the drama of the Seagram room, its a little surprising that I came away from this visit feeling a little disappointed rather than emotionally uplifted. The hangover probably didn’t help, but the space was just so unbelievably crowded, it destroyed any effect that the Rothkos should have created. Now, I normally put up with a bit of gallery overcrowding (its inveitable when you’ve got a place as fantastic as Tate Modern), but the single most important thing about Rothko is how his work makes you feel. It isn’t about uncovering hidden midden, he isn’t a political artist, his work is visceral and concerned with the sensation created when you are standing in front of the picture. It’s all about the interraction you have with the work in the gallery. If something disturbs that, then the power of the work is lost. That’s what has happened here.

How can they sort it out? Limiting the number of people that can be in the gallery at one time would be a start, if an unpopular move. Tate Modern has been staggeringly successful, but when it starts letting success compromise the visitor experience its going to have problems. Definitely go and see the show, but go first thing in the morning if you want to be truly touched. Otherwise, well, you’ll just be looking at pictures…

Rothko, The Late Series runs at Tate Modern until February 1st 2009.

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