Friday, December 16, 2011


I hadn't read closely the description for the exhibition Rothko in Britain. I expected perhaps paintings by Mark Rothko done in Britain or at least from a collection in Britain or maybe painted while eating digestive bickkies in Britain, but the exhibition turned out to be really an exhibition about an exhibition.

There was only one painting present by Rothko, Light Red Over Black (1957) which was shown during Rothko’s first British solo show held at Whitechapel Gallery in 1961.

The exhibition is about this particular exhibition. It displays wonderful photographs, film footage, detailed correspondences between Rothko, galleries and other artists as well as a series of recordings made by visitors to the original 1961 event.

It captures a slice of art history that is sometimes overlooked when speaking about art - the making of an exhibition. The Whitechapel Gallery’s 1961 exhibition introduced the work of Mark Rothko and abstract expressionism to Britain. It was ground breaking and effective. People spoke about it for months. I believe much of its success lay in Rothko's keen involvement with its installation.

Rothko’s detailed instructions on how to display his works are wonderful to read. They are specific and include explanations as to what height a painting should be hung and why a particular color white should be used on the walls - important elements in creating the most impressive visual experience for the viewer.

I overheard a docent speaking about Rothko’s compulsive and overly obsessive instructions and about a canvas just being painted red and black, then being sold for exorbitant amounts of money.

The docent also spoke about how Rothko’s early works were far better than anything he ever did after 1949, and "would you really want something like this hanging in your kitchen?"

To which a voice from the crowd cried "I'd love a Rothko in my kitchen!"

I wonder what would make a docent-type-like person go off in such a way...

Rothko was Rothko. He painted - hard. His life was utter drama. He was clear with people why the art was worth what he expected from it. And people have continued to make a ton of money from his work long after his suicide in 1970. 

Rothko's detailed instructions allowed a richer experience for the viewer. Written music comes with instructions - why not art?

Rothko did create awesome artwork before 1949, that's for certain, but I’m not quite clear what having a Rothko in your kitchen had to do with the exhibition - but there yah go.

Though I was really craving me some Rothko paintings, I’m glad I went to this exhibit. It was an insight into Rothko and into the world of art during a highly creative period, which I found important to learn about as both an artist and as a viewer of art.

The William Sasnel exhibit is also currently at Whitechapel Gallery. It’s a good, juicy retrospective of the artist’s work from the past ten years. It’s worth seeing - just try not to be overly critical of the pukey wall color used in the main gallery.

Below is a short clip of curator Nayia Yiakoumaki speaking about the Rothko in Britain exhibit. 

Whitechapel Gallery
About Mark Rothko 
Nayia Yiakoumaki

Image above:
William Scott, Mark Rothko and Kate Rothko in Somerset, August 1959 

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