By Liz Rice, Education and Community Engagement Intern
John Logan’s Tony-winning play Red—a fictional account of two years in the life of Mark Rothko—is currently on stage in the Albert Theatre. If you haven’t purchased tickets do so now; not on will you experience awesome dramatic tension between two stellar actors, but you’ll also get to see live painting! And more. Meanwhile, today our education intern Liz Rice explores one of the mysteries behind the enigmatic artist and the paintings he labors over in Red.
Mark Rothko was a famously meticulous artist, consumed not only with creating perfection within his paintings but also with creating a perfect environment for his painting to exist within. To him, the environment his work was displayed in was equally as important as the paintings themselves—it provided context for how a work should be experienced by the viewer. In Red, John Logan’s Rothko extols:
"[The Seagram murals are] not alone. They’re a series, they’ll always have each other for companionship and protection…and most important they’re going into a place created just for them. A place of reflection and safety…Their power will transcend the setting, working together, moving in rhythm, whispering to each other, they will still create a place…"
In this quote Rothko personifies his paintings, emphasizing their need for one another, that they are to be understood as a whole and that they have a space to call their own. For the Seagram murals—originally intend for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building—Rothko wanted to create an oppressive, almost grotesque space for his paintings, ultimately ruining the appetite of the restaurant’s wealthy patrons. John Fisher further emphasizes Rothko’s philosophy on art in his 1970 article “Mark Rothko: portrait of the artist as an angry man.” He writes that Rothko believed “no picture could be judged by itself” and “everything an artist produced was part of his continuous development and therefore should be regarded as a single whole.” In creating the Seagram murals, Rothko rented a studio in the Bowery of New York that had the same dimensions of the Four Seasons. Thus, he was working to create a cohesive set of works for a specific space, aligning along his artistic philosophy.
But in Western societies, it is standard practice to pluck art objects from their original habitats and place them in museums to educate the masses on cultures, time periods and traditions. Modern-day museums are filled with African masks, medieval altar pieces, Mayan ceremonial pots, and so on; rarely, in this setting, are the meaning and use of these objects fully understood by the public. When I think on the history of the Seagram murals, and the fact that there was no final destination in mind once finished (Rothko eventually refused to allow them to be displayed at the Four Seasons), I wonder if the available murals in public institutions suffer from the same decontextualization as artifacts in museums often suffer. In spite of Rothko’s original intention, the Seagram murals never existed in the space that they were originally created for and today live in separate institutions across the globe. Which poses the question: Do Rothko’s Seagram murals lose meaning when they are viewed apart and not in their originally intended environment?
After deciding that the Four Seasons was not the best setting to experience his work, Rothko removed the murals and placed them in storage until the mid-1960s when Norman Reid, the director of the Tate in London, approached him to inquire about works and extend the museum’s collection. Rothko suggested that some of the Seagram murals might be sufficient, provided that the appropriate installation room could be found. When Reid returned in September of 1969 with a model of the designated gallery room to finalize the works to be used and how they should be hung, Rothko generously gifted nine of the murals to the Tate. Today, other works in the series can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and at the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum in Sakura, Japan.
Rothko consciously separated the body of his work when he gifted nine of the murals to the Tate. I wonder why Rothko would split up the work that he always intended to show together and, as he says in Red, “work together, whispering to each other, creating a place?” Do the works lose their power, tension or oppression when only parts of the series are shown together, and sometimes interjected with works not part of the original plan? Furthermore, is there something to be said for the fact that the paintings were never seen in the original context for which it was intended, the Four Seasons restaurant? Contrarily, should we as viewers disregard the original idea Rothko had for the series and accept the nine murals in the Tate as his end plan? As the artist, is Rothko allowed to change his mind without consequence? I doubt it, since his works emanate the residual effects of his decisions.
There are other problems necessary to consider when understanding the Seagram murals. Rothko did not have a set plan as to how to hang the works in the Four Seasons. Some sketches suggest the works to be put together like a frieze, however, in the scale model of the Tate room the murals are placed apart from each other. The model is further inconclusive as two of the miniature painting models are blank and one is missing. We are also not entirely sure which of the 30 or so murals he made would have been chosen for the restaurant, had they gone there. Rothko made three sets of works to be used for the Four Seasons. The first set he disliked and thus sold as individual paintings. Of the 30 to 40 paintings made for the Seagram commission, only about 14 are currently on view to the public, not counting works considered sketches. With only bits and pieces of the entire series, and only the vaguest idea of what the final product would have been, can we as viewers truly experience Rothko’s work as he would have wanted?
Today, each of the three museums that house Seagram murals have created specific spaces for the works to live. They can be seen at the Tate Modern, at the National Gallery of Art, and at the Kawamura Memorial Museum. Each museum, to the best of their ability, has created a space along Rothko’s guidelines to recreate the oppressive feeling for which he aimed. In September of 2008, the Tate Modern housed an exhibition on Rothko that brought the available Seagram murals from all three museums together for the first time. Although we are fortunate that these works are in the public domain, I still question if they have lost some of their potency stuck on a museum wall apart from the rest of their “family.”
Photo: The Seagram murals at the Tate Modern. Photo by Max Mulhern.