The Tate Modern – Rothko’s Seagrams Murals

I went to the Tate Modern over the weekend. From the outside, the building is a hulking concrete former power station on the south bank of the Thames.

Me watching tourists watching the north bank of the Thames from the Tate Modern cafe

Me watching tourists watching the north bank of the Thames from the Tate Modern cafe

Inside, the Tate Modern “reads” like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City architecturally. Each floor is a series of plain white box galleries each leading to the other with some open communal space in the center of the museum for the escalators.

That’s where the similarity between the two institutions ends.

Inside the Tate Modern galleries, the walls are jumbled with a mix of paintings and works arranged all over the wall and floor (for sculpture). Many pieces are not at eye level, they are well above the heads of the viewers, and the glare from the lighting makes viewing a challenge. Moreover, the pieces are not arranged chronologically, or by artist or even in what seems to be a logical grouping of artists. Instead, each of the gallery areas are arranged by theme on each floor.

I didn’t like this way of viewing works. I found the gallery experience random and while the curators of these themes must have felt the pieces went together well, for many of the floors I didn’t find the pieces inter-related in a way that made me feel cohesion or integration in the viewing experience.

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And then, there’s Rothko.

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Rothko Seagram Mural (1 of 7) - black box on red background

Rothko Seagram Mural (1 of 7) – black box on red background

I’m sure I must be stealing lines from my favorite art series, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, on Rothko (Click Here for the episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEIn1914XSM,) when I say that the experience of seeing these seven Rothko Seagram’s murals was intense.

Rothko’s works are shown together in one gallery, barely large enough to contain these huge canvases. And the effect is overpowering. The lighting in the room is dim, mausoleum-like. It’s a crypt.

Rothko Seagram Murals - purple background and black boxes

Rothko Seagram Murals – purple background and black boxes

There is one large wooden bench in the center of the room, from which you can contemplate the enormity of death crushing down on you from these works. And while I may be prone to exaggeration, I’m not exaggerating here.

Rothko detail

Rothko detail

The hazy transitions within the paint, the way you have to squint your eyes to view the canvases… And the questions – should you get close, or further away for viewing? It’s all a kind of torment to comprehend what’s being shown.

But Rothko wouldn’t have wanted you to process these works with your logical mind anyway. He would have wanted you to stand before these monuments to his genius (I say that full knowing Rothko’s hubris, and anti-hubris) and just feel them.

Rothko Seagrams Mural - Red Box Purple Background

Rothko Seagrams Mural – Red Box Purple Background

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Maybe because I saw Picasso’s Guernica on this trip at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, which is the logical home of that piece of historically significant Spanish art in a Spanish art institution…

I could not help but think that Seagrams, a company with a landmark building located in New York City, commissioned Mark Rothko, a New York City based artist, to produce works to adorn the walls of the Four Seasons, a landmark New York City restaurant, meant that these iconically important New York City elements of the story of these paintings should mean that they should be on view and permanently exhibited at MoMA. Let’s face it – that’s where they belong.

Before Franco left power as the head of Spain, Guernica found a home for 30 some odd years at MoMA. So the irony of my comments is not lost on me. But I cannot understand how the Tate Modern, a British institution, gets to own these pieces.

Is it simply about who has the money to purchase them and a mad-dash to acquire important pieces, or should important works of art also be about the contextual relevance of their own history and therefore, where it is logical for certain works to be shown?

I’m sure arguments can be made on both sides (see my previous posts about the Cubist works of Picasso scattered to the winds across many different museums globally, and in general the repetition of certain artists works in many museums, securing their place in art history.)

But there is only ONE Guernica by Picasso. There is only ONE set of Seagram’s Murals by Mark Rothko. There is only ONE Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch.

And it’s entirely possible I have reached my limit of “art first’s” on this particular journey to Europe.

In fact, the day after I visited the Tate Modern, I tried to go to the Saatchi Gallery – which would have taken me from a view of Modern Art in Britain to a view of what is happening in Contemporary Art.

Outside view of the Saatchi Gallery - King's Road - London

Outside view of the Saatchi Gallery – King’s Road – London

And perhaps this is a larger comment on all of my art experiences and ponderings over the last several posts… the Saatchi Gallery, a private art institution, was closed to the public on the one day I had to see it because they were hosting runway shows for London’s Fashion Week.

Yes, the best known contemporary art space in London was closed to host the fashion elite. So I was a poor pauper left gawking at the entrance, but turned away at the door.

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2 Responses

  1. This was really interesting and thought-inspiring… where does art belong, what does a sense of place mean, beyond the museum setting itself, where is it, who gets to see it.

    Thinking of this makes me wonder about all the art that was preserved in relative or total secrecy — either in private hands, or in monasteries, etc over the centuries. I know very little about this. only that it explains how art survived various violent upheavals through the ages…

    • Excellent point Jess, and thanks so much for commenting on the blog.

      It’s true, there are many people who have contributed to the preservation – or destruction – of art over the centuries. A lot of the reasons behind the earliest efforts would have likely been religious, or works that would have been controversial from a religious standpoint.

      Carravagio is a good example of this. You should check out this link I posted for Simon Schama’s The Power of Art on Carravagio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUeGRGLGXFY.

      The Schama series is incredible, and it’s worth watching all of it… there are episodes on Rothko, Turner, Picasso, and many others.

      In any case, some people would argue that art does not need a geographical or other kind of context – it is as you see it, whereever you see it. For those people, it would not matter if Guernica was shown at MoMA or in Madrid, because it’s the act of viewing the painting itself.

      Others might argue that the context of where a piece is shown enhances the viewing. You already know what I think about Guernica and the Seagrams Murals, so I lean in this direction… but even I could not argue that all art should stay in the home country of the painter who produced it, or even that art should stay in the country where it was produced (artists tend to travel and to produce art in a variety of places, after all.)

      I’d probably say that *certain* individual pieces could benefit from being shown in a certain place to enhance the viewing experiences. And the more unique one particular painting is in the history of painting, I think the case gets stronger for contextual viewing.

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