Have you looked at the way clouds swirl, changing shape and tone, grey against grey?  Have you gazed out from the top of a cliff and seen how a shadow alters the tone and texture?  How you examined flames as they constantly vary in shape and intensity?   Have you observed the way wisps of cloud break free and slowly evaporate against the impenetrable blue?   Have you watched smoke rise and layer on a late autumn evening?   Have you seen how blood falls, swirls and spreads when it drops into water?  Have you studied field of wheat, riffled by the wind?   Have you experienced how love, losing fear and suspicion, spreads and deepens?  Have you noticed that melancholy constantly changes meaning, dark against dark?  Mark Rothko has. 


His paintings seem to capture the evanescent, complex nuances in mood and emotion,  how anger boils and simmers and goes cold,  how a smile blends pleasure with fear, how insincerity plays around the eyes.   But did he think of that when he is sat in his green deck chair, smoke curling from the cigarette held between the yellow stained fingers of his left hand, contemplating the possibilities of the canvas in front of him.  I doubt it.  I suspect that it is instinctive with Rothko.  The painting emerges from him.  He has a sense of the effect that he is searching for, but if he knew what that was, his cognition would instantly wreck it.  It’s up to others to provide the meaning. 


Rothko’s canvases are big.  They draw you in.  You feel you could walk through them.  And yet, the large blocks of colour are not without meaning.  The ever so subtle differences in texture and tone, the way one colour bleeds or rather smokes into another, the misty overlay, creates an enigmatic field – like a Rorschach ink blot -, upon which the observer projects his own meaning.     


Rothko’s paintings seem alive, organic, like body parts.  They beat, they throb, they grow, they spread.  The margins are indistinct, they blend and develop out of each other. To look at a Rothko painting is like listening to music; it captures the mind.  Little wonder that he always painted to the accompaniment of music.    



Mark Rothko was born Markus Roscovicz.  His parents were orthodox Russian jews who fled to America from the Cossacks.  As a child he was full of himself, he never stopped talking.  As an adult he wanted to change the world with his art.  His early figurative works were not very good; his surrealism a pale imitation of Dali, but then he found his style – some have called it abstract expressionism.  Don’t labels rob things of their soul?  Painting the murals for the exclusive dining room on the ground floor of  The Seagram Building in New York was a massive opportunity, but he was always ambivalent about it.  When he accepted the commission, he said that he hoped the lurid blocks of maroon and reds and black would make the rich diners feel sick.  In the end, he reneged and gave the paintings to the Tate. 


Centred on the Rothko donation, the exhibition at The Tate Modern covers the most interesting period of Rothko’s career, from 1958 until his suicide in 1970.  The paintings for the Seagram commission occupy the large central space of the exhibition.  The large blocks of colour, dimly lit as in a cathedral,  have a spiritual intensity; they inspire a sense of awe.  All you need for a fully overwhelming emotional experience is the accompaniment of serious music; Taberner, Arvo Part, Bach or the Beethoven string quartets. 


In the surrounding rooms are darker works, black on black,  brown-grey on black – fascinating tonal paintings rich in meaning,  paintings that lead the eye to the horizon the vanishing point place where sea and sky lose their identity.


Many have said that these dark paintings are indicative of his depression, but I found hope and comfort in the swirls of dark on dark, the impression of lights on the horizon.  But Rothko was ever an enigma.  He would not explain.  I like to think he didn’t know.  ‘The sense of the tragic is always with me,’ he would say.  Films of him reveal a reflective though talkative man, though there was a cynicism in him, a sense of cruelty.  The reason for his suicide at 57 is not explained. 


Perhaps for him, his art lost his purpose.  Perhaps, despite giving up the Seagram commission, he has become commercial.  His mind was no longer his own.  


‘Painting thrives through companionship,’ he once wrote.  It’s a risky act to send it out into the world.