Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Mark Rothko's Last Judgement

The story of the mural commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the newly completed Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York is among the most famous in the lore of Mark Rothko.  It formed the plot of John Logan's 2009 play about Rothko titled Red.  In 1958, Mark Rothko was commissioned to make a set of large murals for the walls of the soon-to-be-open Four Seasons Restaurant in the newly completed Seagram Building, a masterpiece of architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe; a building that I've described as the Parthenon of glass skyscrapers.  After a lot of work and a trip to Europe that would inspire even more work on the commission, Rothko completed 40 large panels and numerous studies.  In 1959, Rothko and his wife Mell dined in the newly completed Four Seasons in a room temporarily decorated with Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles in anticipation of the permanent installation of Rothko's new work.  Rothko declared that he did not like the kind of clientele the place attracted, and that he did not like the idea of people dining casually in front of his work.  He cancelled the commission, and returned every penny of the cash downpayment on what would have been a $135,000 commission (!).
Wow!  A son of Russian Jewish immigrants who spent most of his life in poverty walks out on a $135,000 commission!  What chutzpah!  As temperamental artists' episodes go, this one takes the prize outclassing every brawl Jackson Pollock ever started.

The Four Seasons was no corner diner, it was the most lavish celebrity adorned expensive eatery in New York from its opening in 1959 to its closing in 2016.  I knew a young man years ago who worked as a maitre'd there; a poor boy from Trinidad, Colorado who ended up dating the future Lord Balfour, and knew all the celebrity regulars.  Rothko certainly knew what kind of restaurant this place was.  From the beginning, he had no intention of enhancing the diners' experience there.  "I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who eats in that room," he said to John Fischer, the editor of Harper's Magazine in 1959.  "If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment.  But they won't. People can stand anything these days."
My!  Why such churlishness in the face of such a golden opportunity?  Rothko spent his youth in Portland, Oregon, then a hotbed or radical labor activity.  He spent his formative years among the rank and file of the IWW.  He heard Emma Goldman and Bill Haywood speak.  From the beginning, he intended his dining room murals to be intimations of a justly deserved hell for the wealthy class enemies who frequented the place.

Reds, blacks, umbers, maroons -- infernal colors -- dominate all 40 panels of the series.  Brilliant fiery scarlets glow hot against backgrounds of stygian darkness.  Profoundly black shapes emerge out of fields of dark maroon and burgundy.  These paintings are amazingly beautiful.  Their hollow squares form one of the very few departures from the format of stacked rectangles of color of Rothko's final mature work.  Conventional wisdom associates this kind of darkness with the paintings of Rothko's last years.  In fact, he had been working in a darker key since the mid 1950s.

I love these paintings, though I've never seen any of them in person.  I think this series is one of the high points of mid 20th century painting, and testimony to the deathless romantic impulse.  These are great Romantic paintings, heirs to Friedrich, Turner, Blake, Cole, Ryder, and others.

I'm puzzled why Rothko accepted this commission in the first place.  Lucrative as it was, he didn't really need the money.  He was about five years into financial security as an artist with international fame, and a permanent teaching post at Brooklyn College.  I've done commissions myself from time to time.  They can be easy money at worst and opportunities to shine at best.  I can't imagine any Rothko painting forming the background music to fine dining, beautiful as they are.  Even without any imagery or narrative, these are powerful and frightening paintings.  Rothko always said that he aimed for the "tragic and timeless" in his art, and he succeeded.  Rothko's interviews and essays seem so embarrassingly grandiloquent fifty years after his death.  Rothko was a skilled writer and an experienced public speaker, but reading him now is like listening to Wagner after spending a week playing The Velvet Underground.  It can be cringe-worthy sometimes.  But we feel no such embarrassment looking at his paintings.  Sadly, some of them are fading with time, but perhaps they mean more to us now than they did when they were painted and first exhibited.  Rothko worked on these paintings at the zenith of American imperial glory in the years that followed the Second World War.  We live past its twilight in the midst of its collapse in ignominy.  "Tragic" is not the empty cliché that it was for the young of 50 years ago when Rothko committed suicide.  For us living through epidemic, economic collapse, climate change, terrorism, global migrations, resurgent fascism, "tragedy" is all too real and concrete.  That pain and horror that Rothko poured into his reds and blacks speaks to us anew.

Rothko kept the paintings from the Four Seasons commission until 1968 when he gave the bulk of them to the Tate Gallery after long complicated negotiations.  The remainder is divided between the National Gallery in Washington DC, and the Kanamura Memorial Museum in Japan.
Above, a couple look a two of the panels in the National Gallery of Art.

The Four Seasons photographed not long after it opened.

A photo I took a few years ago of the Seagram Building.

Mark Rothko in 1959

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