Tuesday 30 December 2008

Rothko at Tate Modern: Seagram Series

I'm still thinking about the exhibition we went to yesterday at Tate Modern of the late paintings of Mark Rothko. The highlight was the Seagram Murals, 14 of them from several museum shown together for the first time as a series. Since the 1980's I've visited them regularly when they were at what is now Tate Britain and in their newer (darker) room at Tate Modern. In their apparent simplicity, they are pieces for contemplation and meditation. The displays of sketches and explanations on the techniques used to construct them , as revealed by 2 years painstaking work by conservators, added rather than detracted from their mystery.
I bought a catalogue but was a bit frustrated that they didn't have some detailed photos in close-up besides those of the whole canvases ( which are huge) For instance this one pictured above ( Untitled 1958) has the most amazing brush work, feathered edges floating on the background maroon surface. For once , quick drawings in my sketchbook were useless, I had to describe in words the different textures and colour shifts: variations in transparency;hard and soft edges. In 'Red on Maroon Section 2' (above) the colour differences are very subdued, a shift between matt and gloss (more obvious viewed at an angle)

I was rather taken with the sketches executed on paper for this series. You can see the texture of the watercolour paper in the red paint of this study 'Untitled,(study for Seagram Mural) 1958-9', less visible under the thicker grey-red gouache.
These tiny studies are charming-exploring the qualities of transparency in watercolour instead of oils. What is so special about the huge canvases is that some of that immediacy is captured.

I wasn't so grabbed by the 'Black-form', 'brown and grey' and 'Black and grey' series ( although I enjoyed the vigorous brushwork exhibited in the latter). I love my colour too much and those reds and maroons speak to me ( we realised when we got home that the living room walls and sofa are shades of 'Rothko Red'!) Having said that, I was interested in the studies for 'Black-form' pieces carried out in graphite on black paper - another example of the variation in matt v shiny rather than in hue. I don't think they photograph easily ( the example above looks like it was done with white ), so scribbling in my sketchbook and on the cover of the room guide gave a better idea.
This exhibition made me think once again of the work of Ian McKeever ( quoted in the 'Tateshot' videoclip on Rothko) whose paintings use different shapes but share some of the same qualities of translucency and layers.
A lot of food for thought. In the December issue of Artists and Illustrators there were some tips on having a go at painting colour fields: swapping primer for glue; keeping layers thin; building up areas of differing density; varying degrees of matt and gloss; mixing things up.
What colour shall I go for in my experiments? And will acrylics work or will I have to return at last to oil paints?


Eva said...

Acrylics (as long as you take transparent pigments) are ideal for painting in layers and deepen the tone with every coating. As the light actually penetrates all layers, the effect becomes very deep. The same effect can be obtained by many layers of oils, but it takes so much more time! With acrylics, lots of experiments are possible: wipe a layer in red, highten with white, paint a layer in Indian yellow over it and so on.

Sandra Wyman said...

It's also worthwhile experimenting with different artists' quality paints of various kinds - some pigments have greater density/opacity than others. I too am working on colour fields and various techniques inspired by the same exhibition and work on Rothko I am doing for an art-school project.

Victoria Findlay Wolfe said...

those Rothkos are my Favorite paintings ever. that room is so amazing, I go every time I'm in London...

neki desu said...

those rothko edges!all the truth is there.

don't know if you've considered encaustic techniques.

neki desu