Poor Mark Rothko. An intensely private individual whose brooding canvases are enough to reduce one to existential uncertainty (why is that painting moving?), has been rendered banal by over-reproduction of his works – a framed, poster-sized reproduction of sunshine yellow and burnt orange hanging on the wall is as predictable an element of a dinner party in certain circles as the two single friends the host invites in the hope of playing Pandarus (if the matchmaking is a success, their wedding gift will no doubt be a framed reproduction of the same print, just to remind them of the night they met). Rothko has become the acceptable face of abstract art: the mix of colours soothing enough to please Mum, the careful progression suggestive of enough thought to counter Dad’s suggestion that a five-year-old could have done it.
Tate Modern’s current exhibition Late Rothko could be seen as an attempt to rescue Rothko from that state of reception. Yes, there are the predictable crowds (earplugs are recommended to deal with the noise), but the palette of Rothko’s late paintings is not a party pleaser: black, grey, a maroon that could be dried blood, brown; with the brooding colours accentuated by the low-wattage lighting, the pale, fuzzy, orange outline of a square in one of the Seagram murals is a dazzling eruption of colour that virtually beams across the gallery at you.
The so-called Seagram Murals, painted by Rothko for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building but never hung there, are the main focus of the exhibition. Six of them hang in Tate Modern all year round, so you could be forgiven for feeling a little aggrieved at having to pay to see them now, but this is a rare opportunity to see them hanging alongside other Seagram paintings from as far afield as Japan, as well as to see maquettes of how they may have been hung. It’s hard not to understand why Rothko had misgivings about hanging these paintings in a restaurant (and just as hard to imagine anyone engaging in small talk while sitting beneath them) – these paintings are anti-background; they shift, float and fuzz under the light, the paint seemingly leaving the surface to surround the viewer in an interactive experience of colour and blurred edges so delicate they look less like brushstrokes than of powder dropped onto the canvas. They are also, you realise, paintings that must be seen in the flesh: the sheer, overwhelming scale of them is part of the artistic project; the moment a reproduction shrinks the scale, the effect is lost.
Yet if the Seagram murals physically dominate the exhibition (the room is so large you have to pass through it twice), there is plenty to interest the viewer afterwards. One room is hung with four paintings whose only palette is black on black. They glow with a queasy light, like a photographic negative, and lull the viewer into a state of spiritual contemplation – where the other rooms in the exhibition are full of chatter, this one is taken over by a cathedral-like hush as you contemplate the layering of the paint.
Perhaps the real gems in this exhibition though, are to be found in the final two rooms, both of which show simple, two-field compositions. One room is limited to browns and grays, their scale limited to formats no bigger than forty inches due to Rothko’s failing health, while the final room is limited to the even more restrained palette of black and gray. These paintings are fascinating for the way they show how Rothko could produce infinite variety within extremely constricted confines, whether of size or colour. The black and gray paintings in particular are stunning – appearing at first glance as nothing more than lunar landscapes with a black sky above, closer inspection reveals careful layering of paint and occasional spaces that allow the white primer to show through like the threat of light or colour in this monochromatic world. They are a haunting end to the exhibition, paintings you feel reluctant to turn your back on and leave behind as you pass through the heavy wooden door.
Stepping from the galleries into the inevitable gift shop, you want to buy something to take home and remind you of this tremendous exhibition, but nothing from the postcards to the eyewateringly expensive prints can give you what you long to hold onto, that sense of the paint enveloping you as a viewer. Tate may these days be organising exhibitions with one eye on the gift shop experience afterwards (perhaps never more so than this year’s Klimt at Tate Liverpool), and they try their best here to milk the merchandise with T-shirts, mugs and other paraphernalia, but none of them can capture Rothko in the way that Andy Warhol can be infinitely reproduced (the Hayward’s current exhibition hangs apologetically on the arm of the overstuffed gift shop). In his lifetime, Rothko defied the commercialism of the art world by donating the Seagram murals to art galleries even though they would have brought him millions at auction, and now, 38 years after his death, he remains uncommercial in that he can’t effectively be reproduced. These are paintings you have to see in the flesh.