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Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals: Great Art Explained

Mark Rothko loved music, and was obsessed with 
Mozart – which he listened to as he painted.   A classicist like Mozart might not be the first 
composer we think of when we look at Rothko’s   abstract paintings, but Rothko considered Mozart’s 
stylistic and formal principles a direct influence on his art.  In Mozart he saw a fellow artist 
who like him had rejected artifice in favour   of clarity of line and simplicity of structure. 
What Rothko had called “the simple expression   of complex thought”. Mozart’s music is so balanced, 
clear and rational in its order, that it is easy to   miss the drama. And it is drama that unites Mozart 
and Rothko. When Rothko was asked why he admired   Mozart more than any other composer. He replied: 
“Because Mozart was always smiling through tears”.   It is not uncommon for people to get emotional 
or to even cry when listening to music,   however visual arts rarely 
invoke those same emotions. Rothko wanted to do with paint, 
what Mozart had done with music. On the 25th of February 1970, the Tate gallery 
in London received nine Mark Rothko canvases,   a generous donation from the artist himself. 
A few hours later Rothko was found dead in his   studio on east 69th street in Manhattan. 
The 66-year old painter, had taken his own life.   He was found in a pool of blood, six by eight feet 
wide. Roughly the size of one of his paintings.   His suicide would change everything, 
and shape the way we respond to his work. Rothko was aware that people often burst 
into tears when confronted with his painting.   He said: “I’m interested only in expressing basic 
human emotions – tragedy – ecstasy – doom and so on. Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in
1903 in Dvinsk, part of the Russian empire. He was born to  a family of left-wing, intellectual, atheists
and he retained those beliefs until the day he died.   After Anti-Semitic persecution in Russia,
his family moved to the U.S. when he was ten. They arrived as immigrants, speaking
no English at Ellis island in late 1913.   Only eight years later Rothkovitz – an academic 
prodigy – was accepted into Yale university,   on a scholarship, but he found himself once 
more an outsider, stigmatised as a Jew.   So he dropped out and moved to New 
york with ambitions to be an artist.   He attended classes, and became friends with 
young experimental artists including: Barnett  Newman, Jackson Pollock Adolf Gottlieb,
Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still.   Later, they would create a new visual language – and be
known as “The Abstract Expressionists”, a term Rothko disliked. Over the years Rothko went through many 
artistic styles, until reaching his signature motif,   of soft rectangular forms, floating on a stained field of colour. Rothko who grew up poor, struggled for money throughout his career but by the 1950s, his paintings were finally beginning to sell.  Then in 1958 the relatively unknown – and middle-aged – 
artist received his first major commission   Seagram distilleries offered Rothko $35 000 to 
create 600 square feet of mural scale canvases,   for the dining room of their new corporate 
headquarters on Park avenue in New York.   The Four Seasons restaurant, outfitted with 
plants, pools, expensive stone and a world-class   art collection, would serve as a reflection of 
the power and opulence of 1950s Manhattan.   35,000 was an enormous sum in 1958, and the commission 
would bring Rothko’s left-wing views into conflict.   In the summer of 1959, Rothko and his family were 
on their second, of three long journeys to Europe.   At the ancient Greco-Roman site of Paestum
in Italy – while they picnicked – two young italian guides,  learned Rothko was a painter,
and asked if he was there to paint the temples? Rothko replied: “I have been painting Greek
temples all my life, without knowing it”. Rothko was deeply fascinated with the history of art, In 1949 the Museum of Modern Art in
New York, acquired this painting by Matisse.   It profoundly affected Rothko, who spent almost 
every day for months standing in front of it.   Matisse’s use of colour, was one of the key 
factors that influenced the evolution of his work.   Then in the late 50s the time of the Seagram 
commission, he would move away from the bright,   intense colours, towards deep reds, maroons, 
and black – inspired by his trips to Europe.   Many of the places he visited in 1959, 
he had previously visited in 1950.  In Florence, he saw Michelangelo’s Laurentian 
library, which he admitted was an important   influence for his murals. The library, with its classical
window frames that instead of letting in light,  are blocked off, had exactly the oppressive 
feeling that he wanted for his Seagram commission.   The library is a very early example of 
architecture, deliberately shaped, not for function, but to alter your sense of space. Rothko’s 
murals would use these architectural illusions,   the idea of space, windows, doors, and portals. In Pompeii he visited “The Villa of the Mysteries”. He was struck by the use of surprisingly deep 
colours for a decorative scheme – black and red.   Rothko sensed a deep affinity between the wall 
paintings and the Seagram murals. He said they   had the same feeling, same broad expanse of sombre 
colour. But it was more than just colour for Rothko.   The rooms are said to be part of an underground 
worship of Dionysus, who relates to the sensual,   spontaneous, and emotional aspects of human nature. 
Friedrich Nietzsche had written about Dionysus   in “The Birth of Tragedy”, and this book, was the 
most crucial philosophical influence on Rothko.   Nietzsche’s idea that, art should dramatise 
the terror and struggles of existence,   struck a chord with Rothko, whose work 
aimed to invoke such primal emotions. He was already deeply familiar with the 
Roman wall painting from Boscoreale.   One of the frescoes there, could quite 
easily be a Rothko if we remove the figures.   But in particular, it was Fra Angelico’s frescoes 
in Florence that excited Rothko the most. He found something unexpectedly “contemporary”
about the interaction of image and space.   Rothko aspired to do, what Fra Angelico does:
Create in the viewer a feeling of contemplation,   of transcendence, of having been transported 
to another purer world. For Rothko, an atheist,   there was no other world, but like Nietzsche, Rothko 
felt that what he called “tragic art”, could give   meaning to life, in a modern secularised world. The trip was invaluable to Rothko –
seeing work in spaces it was designed for rather than museums, was inspiring and revelatory.   He became fascinated by the idea of creating a room with
his art, using abstract painting as a type of “architecture”. Rothko’s work is very labour-intensive and 
uses many different techniques and materials.   To really appreciate a Rothko, you need to see it 
in the flesh, AND give it time to reveal itself.   It’s simple: The more you look, the more you will see. For these works Rothko rented a former gymnasium on 222 Bowery, He then constructed a scaffold in the studio, to
match the exact dimensions of the restaurant. He had a pulley system – to raise and lower the paintings,   Not just to help him paint them, but also to try 
and get a sense of where they would go in the room.   He would start with sketches, 
working out proportions,   and then make several maquettes 
of where they would be hung.   For these works, he altered his usual horizontal 
format to vertical, to complement the restaurant’s   features. As his colours got darker, from 1957, 
so did his prime coats. These canvases were   primed with a base coat of deep maroon paint in 
rabbit skin glue. The glue will tighten the fabric   as well as make it stiff. Layers and layers of red 
paint were then added, in fast brush strokes, using   big 5 inch house-painter’s brushes. The paint was thinned,
using lots of turpentine, to form a “wash” or “stain”.  You can think of it, almost like a watercolour 
technique, translated into the oil painting medium.   We can see here, on the back of the canvas, 
how the paint has penetrated differently,   depending on the wash used. Rothko would muddy the 
edges, between the blocks of colour, creating a sense   of movement and depth. Later he will use those 
same household brushes to get the feathered edges,   as we can see here. As he painted, Rothko would sit and
consider the painting for long periods of time. Sometimes hours, sometimes days, staring at the 
canvas. At times paint drips can be seen running   upwards or sideways across the surface. This 
is because Rothko often inverted a picture   while working on it, sometimes changing 
the final orientation at a late stage.   Imperfections like these, are found in most of 
Rothko’s work – they remind us of the human touch,   remind us that viewing these paintings, is an 
interaction between two people: Rothko and us.   His works are designed to be seen up close, so 
that the viewer would feel engulfed by them.   For this series of work, Rothko departed from 
his usual choice of dead flat matt finishes,   and instead, he introduced changeable subtle 
surfaces, by creating a play of matt and gloss.   The paintings change as we walk around them.
If the light catches it, shapes seem to hover,    then as we move around, the colour shifts, and we slip 
back into the deep reds. Unlike Rothko’s earlier,   lighter hued paintings, these dark paintings 
reveal themselves slowly. They are very complex   paintings, that require a lot of time, maybe more 
time than the average restaurant-goer could spare? In 1959, Rothko and his wife Mel, returned from 
Europe and booked a table at the newly opened   Four Seasons restaurant, where his paintings were to be installed. It was not, a happy evening – the next day in an absolute rage, he announced he was sending 
back the money and withdrawing his paintings,   saying: “Anybody who will eat that kind of food, for
those kind of prices, will never look as a painting of mine”.   It seems that Rothko always felt ambivalent about the commission,   as his contract had a clause, which would allow him 
to back out of the deal and retrieve his paintings,   if necessary. It has been said that Rothko 
believed his works would hang in a meeting room.  That they would be accessible to ordinary 
workers.This would fit in with Rothko as   “the artist of the people”, but it sounds 
far-fetched. Evidence shows that Rothko   knew exactly where the paintings were going, and 
wanted to make a statement. On the European trip   Rothko told John Fisher, a journalist, that he had 
been working for several months on the paintings.   He told Fisher, he wanted to “upset, offend, and 
torture the diners, with paintings that will make   those rich bastards feel like they are trapped 
in a room where all the doors and windows are   bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their 
heads forever against the wall” it is possible that Rothko, who had often described himself as an 
anarchist, had accepted the commission as an act of subversion. That he saw it, as a way of “biting the 
hand that fed him”. But as they ate their expensive   meal amongst the wealthy elite of Manhattan, as 
waiters buzzed around the crowded noisy restaurant,   as diners ordered wine worth hundreds of dollars, 
Rothko must have realized that his art wouldn’t   change anything, even worse it would be seen 
just as “decoration”. Rothko never fully explained   his conflicted emotions over the incident, and 
the canvases were put into storage. Years later, after a series of lengthy negotiations with
the Tate gallery in London, he donated nine of them   to the museum, where they still hang today. By 1970, his marriage had collapsed. Rothko a heavy drinker, who smoked several packs of cigarettes a day and 
took five to six different types of medication,   had suffered from depression all his life. As his 
depression increased it had enveloped his painting,   his palate had moved from yellows to oranges and 
reds – to darker purples greens and then maroons,   to the final greys and blacks – which have been 
interpreted by some as “pictorial suicide notes”.   It is inevitable, that his suicide would 
give every painting a terrible significance.   After his death, the Tate gallery set up Rothko’s 
works to exact specifications by the artist,   in a room of their own – a room that to
this day has an uncanny silence. In an increasingly secular age, Rothko’s room
has taken on the aura of a “temple” or “shrine”.   iI is somewhere to sit quietly with one’s thoughts. 
To contemplate – a place where we can find peace.   Rothko himself never found peace, but he has created a place that moves us to a kind of inner illumination. A place that is as complex and as simple – as music
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