Rothko in Paris

The Fondation Louis Vuitton has set up a retrospective dedicated to Mark Rothko. Stephen Hitchins takes us on a tour through the Parisian exhibition.

THESE PAINTINGS are worth a fortune and they are fragile. Museums do not lend them out. Somehow, the Fondation Louis Vuitton has assembled 115 works, as many as the National Gallery of Art in Washington managed 25 years ago, but in Paris the show includes pictures from a much wider range of collections, both public and private.

The Tate has even lent the Seagram Murals, the brooding burgundy canvases originally destined for the Four Seasons restaurant inside Mies van der Rohe’s skyscraper on Park Avenue. There is the Subway Series from the 1930s; the attempts at ‘a new frontier for painting’ from the 1940s that are fruity, mannered, over-elaborate, anthropomorphic mythological visions, produced as a reaction to the arrival in New York after the Second World War of so many Parisian surrealists.

And then, at last, the pictorial language grows increasingly recognisable and abstract as the relationships between the figures and their background became less and less pronounced.

The pivotal year was 1949 that definitively marked the shift to his ‘classic’ style from which The Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection of 1960 is recreated in Paris – the first and only installation established during the artist’s lifetime. The prize exhibit in the exhibition is from 1960, the three metre high No. 14 that has come from San Francisco, radiating orange over ultramarine blue.

Instantly familiar and unexpectedly complex at the same time, these enigmatic images frequently summon forth excessive commentary, ‘out come the violins’ wrote Robert Hughes about the glut of turgid poetic analysis that accompanied Rothko’s work in the 1950s and 60s. When it comes to violins, however, Rothko himself had always been fond of Paul Valéry’s remark that to walk into a museum was like listening to ten orchestras all playing at the same time. He was never happy participating in group shows, and longed to see his paintings inhabit a space in which no other artists were present. So he would be happy in Paris this year.

His donation of the Seagram murals to the Tate was an attempt to realise that ambition. Total immersion was always Rothko’s intention.

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960. Oil on canvas. 290.83 cm x 268.29 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – Helen Crocker Russell Fund purchase © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko – Adagp, Paris, 2023
Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960. Oil on canvas. 290.83 cm x 268.29 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – Helen Crocker Russell Fund purchase © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko – Adagp, Paris, 2023

‘They are not pictures,’ he said of the murals. ‘I have made a place.’ It is one of the enduring myths of 20th century art, the solitary figure of the misunderstood artist defending the gravitas of his project. To the same end, in 1964, he accepted John and Dominique de Menil’s commission to be the sole artist represented on the walls of a college chapel in Houston – by contrast, a story with a happy ending.

The life of Mark Rothko was filled with unhappiness and ended in tragedy. He died a miserable death over 50 years ago, a death so dramatic that it marked the end of abstract expressionism, and set off a most remarkable case for malpractice and conspiracy to defraud brought by the artist’s estate that gripped the New York art world over a period of four years in the 1970s, frequently being compared to Watergate in its complexity. The orphans eventually won, the value of the work doubled in price, and then doubled again, and again.

Every painting was now considered to be a blue-chip masterpiece. A colour field painting last sold for $87m in 2012. In art, a fair price is what you think you can get, the market being well aware that a corpse does not paint.

The best sort of artist as far as the galleries and the auction houses are concerned, is a good, dead artist. Rothko suffered decades of disappointment and neglect, and endured painful personal losses and crushing poverty before he finally achieved recognition and became the tragic victim of the system he little understood and came to despise. And once he died, everything he produced, all that sensuously nuanced colour was widely assumed to be where one could discover ultimate truth and boundless wisdom, containing the seeds of profundity, of infinity and the rudiments of Paradise. But then, if Proust was right, and the only true paradise is a paradise that we have lost, then to view these paintings is a privilege. There is unlikely to be another chance to see such an assembly of Rothko’s paradise. Ever.

He was a Latvian Jew, Marcus Rotkovitch, born in 1903 in Dvinsk, a trading hub of 75,000 inhabitants within the Pale of Settlement, now renamed Daugavpils. He wanted to be a great religious artist. Today, it is not easy to engage with him as a religious painter, whilst one has to admit that whatever it is which takes place between viewer and picture has a spiritual dimension. ‘We assert,’ he stated in the 1940s, ‘that the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.’ After which he produced anguished luminous incandescent blurs in an endless stream of production. There was nothing but colour, but what diaphanous stains of colours they were, awe-inspiring wash upon wash of thinned pigment. Any interpretation is left to us.

Whatever you make of it all this, the FLV exhibition is a milestone; a blockbuster if ever there was one, one that fills the entire building, culminating in a quite remarkable display that derives from an unrealised project, a 30 sq m mural for the UNESCO building in Paris. It was to have paired Rothko and Giacometti. How much one meant to the other is unclear, but the connections were never more evident: the anxiety is there, the hieratic stillness, haunting, tragic, vulnerable, extreme, two great artists of existential austerity, the monomaniacs of modern art, not distracted by success or failure, together at last, lost in space yet dominating it, perpetuating the transient.

Mark Rothko, Self Portrait, 1936. Oil on canvas. 81.9 x 65.4 cm. Collection of Christopher Rothko © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko – Adagp, Paris, 2023Mark Rothko, Self Portrait, 1936. Oil on canvas. 81.9 x 65.4 cm. Collection of Christopher Rothko © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko – Adagp, Paris, 2023

What a finale to any show! Rothko ultimately turned down the commission but continued to work on the series for the final two years of his life, an aesthetic step beyond abstract expressionism and a harbinger of minimalism.

Both Rothko and Giacometti had problems with figuration to which Picasso replied, ‘in the first place there isn’t any solution, there never is a solution, and that’s as it should be’.

In 1958 Rothko had explained that although he belonged ‘to a generation that was preoccupied with the human figure’, and although it was something he studied, he found ‘with the utmost reluctance’ that it did not meet his needs. ‘Whoever used it mutilated it. No one could paint the figure as it was and feel that he could produce something that could express the world. I refuse to mutilate and had to find another way of expression.’

Here there are faces in the crowd on the subway that most art students today would never recognise as by Rothko, there are great swathes of vivid colour to counteract the severity and melancholy of the famous dark work from the 1960s, and then there is the UNESCO project to transport you to what might have been.

Few artists have been more obsessive, more imperious, more awkward in their insistence on precisely how their pictures were to be hung, illuminated or viewed. It is a bitter irony that although the artist was obsessive about protecting the physical integrity of his works and trying to control the conditions under which they would be seen, a number of them have been severely compromised by his use of poor materials and by the inadequate care of those who owned them. Here by contrast, everything looks magnificent, and agreeably overwhelming. As Rothko phrased it, ‘A painting is not a picture of an experience.

It is an Experience.’ This exhibition is certainly that, compelling and comprehensive. Go if you possibly can. Looking at Rothko is a great antidote to reading about Rothko. The show is on until 2 April 2024.

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