My sister owned a Rothko once, or at least she owned a print. Like many university students, she had a large copy of…was it a blue Rothko? that she placed above her bed to cheer her cheerless room. She wasn’t alone in choosing Rothko. Our boyfriends had Rothkos, our female friends had them. At least it was better than Monet or Klimt. It looked enigmatic rather than pneumatic or prismatic. It said aloof and cool and modern. With a Rothko, an infinity of colour burnished your sickly, blutak-stained walls. It wouldn’t get you laid, but it would get you kudos.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with what his work meant to us then, even if that meaning was circumscribed: a tribal marker and no more. But as with the other standard Great Art poster boys, it was difficult, after my undergrad days were over, to rescue him from his blutak context. Not only was he popular: some time in the last few years, he suffered a fate hideous for any artist–he became fashionable. For several years, Rothko’s work has been badly imitated by interior designers trying to create art-chic gallery spaces in living rooms, coffee joints and Bar Blah Blah drinking holes. All this Llewellyn-Bowenism was enough to kill Rothko stone dead for me: I couldn’t see Rothko for seeing Rothko.

Tate Modern, however, looked like they might be able to help out in rescuing Rothko’s exhausted image when they put together their Seagram Murals exhibition. The project is a grand one. The Murals, (1959) colossi in the Tate’s permanent collection, are currently surrounded by a phalanx of brown and greys, black on greys, studies and tryptichs. To walk in to the exhibit is to be faced down by Shield after abstract Shield of Achilles. Colour is a defensive weapon here: a sea–wine-dark, eternal and dangerous.

Unexpected when you walk into the exhibit is this feeling that you are at war. All those years of seeing Rothko as merely decorative had lulled me into feeling that I would find peace with these canvases. Not so, not so. Rothko’s violence isn’t a Francis Bacon scream–no bloody, reeking wounds cry out here. Instead we have a waiting battlefield and fields of colour braced against the eye.

Yet the sense of being at war was hardly distinct as I swam against the Saturday crowds in the Tate. Instead, the first large feeling to settle on me was something like dissatisfaction. Moving past the paintings in a zigzag, avoiding other punters, I felt it. Standing still, almost close enough to let my breath fall on the Murals, I felt it. Sitting on one of the long benches in an attempt to let my eye absorb these giant blazons, I felt it. What I wanted from the Rothkos was being withheld. What I wanted to feel was just beyond what I actually experienced.

So I left the exhibition, all my dissatisfaction intact, and began to do battle with what I had seen. Usually, most of the impact of seeing art in the flesh happens instantly. I was immediately struck dumb by Hammershoi’s silence. Lee Miller was a flood of exhilaration: her images embraced me in all their reckless abandon and erotic wit.  Only Rothko confronted me with a refusal, holding his ground against me. I would need to fight harder to see his full value.

Why struggle so much? If Rothko refuses you like this, why bother with him? Isn’t art supposed to gift you something rather than just turn you away? Or did the fault lie with me? After all, the artist Brice Marden talks of Rothko having a ‘transcendental’ effect on him one time in the ‘early 1960s,’ when he was travelling to Monterey and felt he was ‘in a Rothko painting’ (something to do with ‘peculiar light,’ a ‘storm approaching’). But look: the experience he describes did not take place in front of a Rothko. It was ‘the memory of it’ rather than the painting’s ‘life’ that rendered up this experience.(1) 

Memory is where Rothko’s work lives. It sets up a long echo. Whilst I might wish to bin the word ‘transcendental’ (it belongs with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the meditating Beatles) it is important to speak of the paintings’ reach.   Only in retrospect has the experience of being with these shield-murals, these wine-dark meditations, begun to make sense. With Rothko, I have begun to discover, a long-distance view helps.

Long-distance perspective is necessary for works on this scale. Giants, the eye and the mind can scarcely hold them. In fact, no exhibition space seems able to contain their brute vitality. They began life as an act of war against the super-rich patrons of the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building. Rothko had been commissioned to provide canvases to dignify this elite space, and had been renumerated handsomely for doing so. As Rothko told John Fischer:

I accepted the assignment as a challenge, with strictly malicious intentions. I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won’t. People can stand anything these days.(2)

These murals start out as insurgents, but even here, Rothko is acknowledging the insurgency will fail. Would the rich bastards actually notice the murals? If they noticed would they care? Would they be capable of caring? Would they not just read them as a gargantuan ode to their own importance? In the event, Rothko’s first instinct proved correct. Dining at the Seagram after the paintings had been completed, he realised that the paintings would not have the desired effect and so he refunded his fee and later, in the last years of his life, donated the paintings to the Tate, on condition that they formed part of the gallery’s permanent collection.

In doing this, Rothko gives the paintings a distinct meaning. He makes them fugitive (even in the Tate they seem homeless and angry)  and he acknowledges the difficulty in fully appreciating them. When he withdraws them from the Restaurant he is showing us what they require from their public: a contemplative response akin to a state of total immersion. Not religious contemplation is suggested, but a clear imaginative and sensual engagement, a state of being totally abandoned to perception.  This is a state in which the perceiver realises, through his confrontation with the Murals, where he is, right now. He is in jail, and there are walls surrounding him, giant walls wherever he goes, walls all bloody and wild. His house is on fire but won’t yet burn down. Beyond the flames is the idea of a temple, the faint outline of Grecian columns, a temple for Orpheus. But it’s a temple beyond his reach: there is too much heat between him and his sanctuary, heat and smoke.

Rothko presents an ideal with Seagram. His ideal is the Greek Temple, as he once revealed to some Italian guides on a visit to Paestum: ‘Tell them I have been painting Greek Temples all my life without knowing it.’ (3) But his ideal is dying. As Jonathan Jones puts it, these are ‘not religious paintings. They are furious meditations on the American Empire.’ (4) Starting life as slaves to America’s wealth, they make an escape and end up in the Tate, thousands of miles from their original destination. Yet they seem to want to break even these bonds and march on, out of the Tate’s industrial Acropolis and into the fane of the mind. There, Rothko’s scrapings and layerings of colour can resonate, as can his charred-grey, blackening later canvases: the Tate has done us a great service in showing the connection between Seagram and the ‘Black Form Paintings’, the ‘Brown and Grey on Paper’ and the final ‘Black on Grey’ series. But make no mistake, these later pieces show who lost the war–and it wasn’t Corporate America. After the blaze of Seagram came a long, long living night for Mark Rothko. Only when he lay in the midst of his own last canvas, his blood pooling around him that day in 1970, would the colour he unleashed in his shield-murals ignite, briefly, one last time.(5)


(1) ‘Landscapes of the Mind’: Brice Marden talks to Simon Grant. TATE ETC Issue 7, 2006

(2) ‘Temple of Mysteries’ John Banville on Rothko. TATE ETC Issue 14, 2008

(3) ‘Temple of Mysteries’ John Banville on Rothko. TATE ETC Issue 14, 2008


(5) Jonathan Jones’s image of the ‘wine dark sea’ of Rothko’s blood sparked a host of Homeric associations here. His reading of the Seagram Murals is one of the most incisive available, and one of the most secular.

(6) For detailed information on the Tate’s exhibition, go to: