A Retrospection: Rothko in Britain @ Whitechapel Gallery

The sixties – A flourishing age of abstract modernism. But while the rest of Europe blossomed in abstracts expressionism, Britain was still recovering from war in terms of art. The awakening came when the Whitechapel Gallery in London presented Mark Rothko’s first solo exhibition outside of America in 1961.

He was everything else than a new discovery by that time. Rothko played already a major figure in the art industry since the 1950s. And his European premiere was huge, pulling over crowds from all over the country.

From September 2011 to February 2012 the Whitechapel Gallery took us 50 years back, celebrating the show that introduced Britain to the American artist. The exhibition was much smaller this time, but still represented a meaningful subject. The show took part in one little room of the gallery, presenting eyewitness accounts, letters and pictures of Rothko’s visit in England.

Rothko made contacts during his time in Britain, which later became important, when he donated his „Seagram“ to the Tate in 1970 – shortly before he killed himself. Next to the glass cabinets, the exhibition showcased photographs by Sandra Loussada, who captured the visitors from 1961 while they engaged with the artist’s paintings. Her pictures spread a feeling of the past, capturing men in elegant suits and women dressed with hats and stilettos. Her photographs reflect the admiration of the viewers, who have never seen modernist influences in art before and therefore gave a pure and truthful response to their experience with Rothko’s work.

In the centre of the room, today’s visitors saw a white cube, including recorded interviews, which showed the relationship of British artists, historians and photographers with Mark Rothko. Personalities such as Sheila Lanyon, John Hoyland or Paul Feiler remembered the artists and looked back into the modernist age of 1961, when Rothko pushed American painting forward. All of the eyewitnesses were aware that Rothko created something remarkable. The artist John Hoyland remembered Rothko’s work as something “magnificient and noble”, something extreme that has never been there before. Sandra Loussada said Rothko had an effect on her, which remained for the rest of her life.

There was only one painting shown in the whole exhibition, Rothko’s “Light Red Over Black” from 1957. And it is exactly this emptiness, which emphasised essentialism as a central phenomenon of Rothko’s art. Rothko’s “Light Red over Black” is the first work by Rothko to be bought by a British public collection. At first glance, the artwork appears as splashes of colour, which are symmetrically spread over the white canvas with a simple household roller. But why does it work?

Despite other abstract modernists, Rothko’s pieces did not just present squares within squares. The art historian Tom Rosenthal said once “there is nothing easy about Rothko”. There is a technical and intellectual composition involved in his artwork, which makes him outstanding towards other modernists like Josef Albers or Piet Mondrian.

The design element of his artwork is simple, but with the outstanding fuzzy edges, which surround the coloured squares, Rothko includes a certain gradual mergence in his pieces. The observer can feel the glow of his paint and grab that Rothko was a painter to his fingertips. Even today, 50 years after Rothko’s first performance at the Whitechapel Gallery, people are just sitting and looking at his extraordinary artwork, and starting to talk about colours.

Mark Rothko was one of the great colourists in modernism. The extraordinary blaze of colours in his pieces creates a sensual otherness and awakens a relationship between viewers and his artworks. It is the quality of colours that makes people respond to Rothko’s work. There is a depth of feeling, that goes into his pictures, which allows a tremendous sensuous enjoyment – and isn’t this exactly what good art should be about?

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