Mark Rothko in a whole new light

    When news emerged that a Mark Rothko exhibition was planned for Tate Modern this autumn, my heart soared. Rothko is one of the Brobdignagians of modern art, a gripping painter of big moments of transcendental abstraction. When it turned out that the Rothko show was going to concentrate on his late work, my heart slumped. The late work is so notoriously sombre and depressing that a show consisting of nothing else would surely make a perfect venue for a suicide convention. When I finally visited the exhibition, however, my heart soared again. What an intelligent and important attempt to see and understand Rothko differently. We really have been getting him wrong.

    Rothko’s problem – the reason why he appears to have been so thoroughly misunderstood by posterity – is the dark myth that he allowed to emerge around him while he was alive and which overgrew his entire reputation after his suicide in 1970. This tremulous Rothko story line presents him as the Melancholy Martyr of Modernism, a deeply pessimistic presence whose painted fogs sag, paradoxically, with tons of heavyweight spirituality. Rothko’s paintings are almost invariably understood as religious art without the religion; Judaism without the Torah. At its most purple, the myth seems even to note an accord between these gloomy Turnerisms and the Holocaust. His suicide topped it all off splendidly.

    I am not embarrassed to admit that this, more or less, is how I too have always understood him. We all did. Being enveloped by Rothko’s glowing abstract sunsets is a thoroughly meditative and ecclesiastical experience. It will surprise nobody that he was often accused of Zen Buddhism. Rothko himself did nothing to correct such impressions. Notoriously secretive and reticent, he worked hard on his mystery. “There is more power in telling little than in telling all,” he lectured to the Pratt Institute in his final public address in 1958. There are no photographs of him at work. Nobody was ever allowed to watch him painting. You can count on one hand the number of interviews he gave.

    Because Rothko gave so little away, even his studio assistants had no clear sense of his final intentions for the celebrated suite of claret-coloured murals commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York in 1958 that is now the focus of the Tate’s startling reexamination of his late work. The restaurant was housed in the most prestigious slab of spartan modernism on the Manhattan skyline: the newly built Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.

    Rothko was initially flattered and delighted by the commission. But after a boisterous meal there with his wife, he decided abruptly that the glamorous food hall was unsuitable after all, withdrew from the commission and donated the paintings to the Tate, where they have since played a key role in the creation of the Rothko myth: the day they arrived was the day he committed suicide – February 25, 1970.

    Rothko asked that the nine momentous murals he gave to the Tate be hung together in a single room. No other instructions were left. And the vague advice he passed on about the colour of the walls was thoroughly ambiguous. So the poor old Tate has spent 38 years struggling to honour his wishes without ever really knowing what those wishes were. In its various incarnations – first at Tate Britain, now at Tate Modern – the resulting Rothko room has tried out assorted combinations of wall colours and lighting. But the only consensus nervous curators were able to arrive at did not concern the arrangement but the meaning. Dark, grumpy, pessimistic, magnificent, the Tate’s Rothkos have always been presented to us as unavoidably tragic. Until now.

    The show looks at the art Rothko produced in his final years, from 1958 to 1970. It is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on these late paintings, and the first to seek a fresh opinion of them. Put crudely, the show wants to rubbish the Rothko myth. And the chief reason it succeeds in doing so is because it proposes a new reading of the Four Seasons panels. To achieve this, the Tate’s pictures have been joined here by half a dozen loans from the same series borrowed from Washington and Japan. The result is a spectacular Rothko Super-Room that straddles the centre of the show and is, frankly, astonishing.

    The reason no final arrangement for the Four Seasons project has come down to us is because there never was one. Rothko was a die-hard ditherer. We know the restaurant had space for only seven pictures, but he actually painted 30 of them, in a glorious ocean of linked variations. The nine Tate panels – those famously morose burgundy twilights in which Stonehenge shapes loom up fuzzily in a claret-coloured gloom – turn out to be curiously unrepresentative of the project as a whole. The loans from Washington and Japan are altogether brighter in tone and impact.

    What’s more, the new circle of 15 pictures has been hung at the sort of height you would need to be at to clear a roomful of restaurant tables. Thus, all of a sudden, the doomy weightiness has been replaced by a rich set of soaring sensations. Maroons that had always seemed glum are suddenly plummy. Subtle effects of darkness have become subtle effects of light. And the suggestion made here that the entire scheme was, in fact, due to culminate in the brightest of the bright paintings completes a remarkable rereading. We have here a gorgeous restaurant decoration that appears, on this evidence, to be completely uninterested in the big truths of the cosmos.

    If you are anything like me, you will keep returning to this dramatic rethink for further doses of revelation. The upside of Rothko’s chronic inability to make up his mind is the acres of room it leaves for reinterpretation. But my guess is that he withdrew from the Four Seasons commission not because the restaurant was an unsuitable venue, but because he could not decide what to put in it. The rest of the exhibition reinforces the impression that working in series served chiefly to multiply Rothko’s uncertainties.

    The myth-busting ambitions that drive the show result in plenty of excellent revisionist moments. Another of the dark fogs he painted in the Four Seasons years is displayed in such a way that you can walk around and see the canvas from behind, complete with prosaic signature and stretcher. This simple but smart gesture bashes through all the poetic Rothko waffle like a skinhead’s boot and curtly draws your attention to his picture-making skills. Filled with fascinating technical information about the way he worked, the surrounding scientific display discovers how little of his decision-making was driven by emotional concerns and how much of it by aesthetic practicalities. Which is the opposite of what I would have expected.

    In 1964, he was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the chapel at the University of Houston, and although these are still in situ and cannot be moved, a lovely suite of contemporary black paintings has been assembled here to approximate the Houston effect. Black paintings were terribly fashionable in the 1960s. The show insists we see Rothko’s version of them as evidence of his contemporaneity rather than of his existential love of black. It is, again, a point well made. The black paintings are remarkable for their skilled manipulation of glares and reflections and not their tonal bleakness. Indeed, they don’t have any tonal bleakness.

    The last rooms feature an even longer series, in which the canvas is divided sternly into black and grey. That series was begun after a debilitating heart attack, and I have previously suspected the bare horizons of symbolising life’s ultimate pointless-ness. How silly of me. This, too, is a fine display of conscientious minimalism. All the way through the show, the thick fog of spirituality is blown away from Rothko’s art, allowing it to breathe more easily.

    I went into the display fully believing Rothko to be an emotional tragedian who put his finger on the dark spirit of his times. I came out knowing he was nothing of the sort.