Rothko: lost in a consumerist society

‘Where does Rothko belong?’ – a question that frustrated me when I visited his ‘Seagram Murals’ at Tate Britain, London.

I enjoy Mark Rothko’s work – a statement which feels almost controversial, which is often met with a scoff or confusion. In part, I blame Google for that. That’s not to say you can’t dislike his work, but before you scoff or screw your brows, I implore you to experience his work – not see it, but experience it.

When I was sat, staring at the murals, Rothko’s works forced a spectacular, spiritual and almost transcendental effect on me. It dawned on me how large the works were, and thus how small I as a viewer am; and, looking deeply into the murals’ canvas – into the intricate, layered abyss of deep red – I felt a sense of resistance, of being shut out and denied something. The room is an echo chamber, reflecting and ricocheting the viewer’s thoughts; it does not contemplate Rothko’s own. The desire to access beyond this resistant barrier unveils a temporal aspect to Rothko’s work: the work becomes about durations – how long can you look, how long is comfortable, how long is long enough? Personally, I sat contemplating the works for 45 minutes – the work absorbing my judgements and me absorbing something intangibly special but oppressive. This is a space for the mind.

But technology removes us from this experiential plane. Uploaded to the digital realm (Google), Rothko’s works lose their potency – not just physically but spiritually too. The sublime – the moral, intellectual and aesthetic vastness – of his work is reduced to mere pixels and hence becomes muddied in its translation to a Google image. His work demands the intimate and present engagement of the viewer.

And I would argue that general galleries, in serialising artwork, have an even more reductive effect too – for I can’t advocate that sitting at the gallery was truly transcendental and contemplative, when this intimacy was constantly interrupted by gallery-goers passing through the mural room at Tate Britain. Despite the efforts within the room itself (the crepuscular lighting and the use of benches evoke meditation and prayer), the room’s situation within the building – as a connector between exhibitions, rather than being its own room – diminishes its stature to a highway where ‘subject’s feet / May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head’ (Richard II). This denies the work any sense of duration, fuelling the ‘glancing culture’ that exists in art galleries today. In this instance the viewer is engaged with no plane – neither experiential nor optical – as they are instead passive participants in a culture of consumption and instant gratification.

Indeed, the absorptive characteristics of Rothko’s work are in direct opposition to the consumerist society we have today. The murals actively judge you – not just through their imposing scale, but because it was, in part, their purpose: the work was commissioned for the fine-dining ‘Four Seasons Restaurant’ in New York City, and Rothko, being from a working class, left-leaning family, almost made it his objective to make the works look down on the snobbish American elite as they ate. A mural of anti-capitalism, perhaps.

This tension between experience and consumption goes further. During my visit to Tate Britain, the mural’s sense of judgement urged me to return the stare back into the works, which emerge as portals or windows; they’re almost like blank cinema screens; there is the sense that you as a viewer project onto the canvas, opening a space for viewer response. Rothko’s work is, in this sense, cinema. And, further to this, I think Martin Scorsese would agree, in the wake of his view on Marvel Cinematic Universe movies as being ‘theme parks’ where there are no ’emotional, psychological experiences’ that comment on the human condition. Acceleration of the superhero franchise for profit has surrendered ‘aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation’ in the same way that the similarly consumptive, glancing culture of modern galleries has deprived a space for viewer response. And we are also too quick to judge Rothko’s work by scrolling through Google images. We have lost our critical faculties.

Where, then, do Rothko’s murals belong? Modern culture evidently makes it difficult to conclude. The digitisation and serialisation of artwork, I believe, denotes our passivity within the funnel of consumption culture. We aren’t linear beings, we’re abstracted, contradictory and fundamentally complex; we are expansive. Our inertness to this renders us numb to felt experience and revelation, which becomes a rarer event: I think that when we remove ourselves from our dynamic, fast-paced society – when we embrace the mind’s expansiveness – we can find absolute truths within us. Art becomes religion.

Rothko’s Chapel in Houston, Texas, removes us from the funnel. It is a nondenominational, spiritual space that succeeds where Tate Britain fails. Rothko’s work stands on its own here, rather than being a mere connecting room – or, as Scorsese might put it, an attraction at a theme park. The art becomes vital and present. On the day of its opening in 1971, Dominique de Menil, who had commissioned the chapel, quoted Rothko: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.” The temporality of these works can expand just as quickly as they diminish; the works are, like us, contradictory and fundamentally complex. Existing beyond modern conformity and consumerist culture, the chapel is the perfect medium for discovering and contemplating our hidden truths.

Perhaps in another space, I would have sat with the murals for longer.

(Image: Catchik Paul Jordan)

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