Rothkos reunited in Chiba

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

The surfaces of Mark Rothko’s canvases loom large, impenetrable and formidable, inviting you in but simultaneously denying you entry. Their deceptive simplicity has long posed a riddle to those who stand before them.

Since the American artist’s death in 1970, his major works have been split between art museums on different continents, and rarely have art lovers had a chance to see a large number of Rothkos together in one exhibition. Now they can at Chiba’s Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in the exhibition “Mark Rothko,” showing till June 7.

Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in the part of the former Russian Empire known as Latvia, and emigrated to the United States as a child, where he shortened his name. Bright and quick, he earned a scholarship to Yale University but dropped out and later studied art in New York. His earliest works, urban landscapes and Expressionist interiors, gave way to more colorful scenes of nature under the tutelage of his teacher Milton Avery, before he embarked on a period of Surrealist works heavily influenced by the contemporary European art that he saw in the city’s galleries and museums.

An avid reader, Rothko absorbed ideas on mythology and, from Freud, on psychology, and his discovery of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, along with the outbreak of World War II, were pivotal influences on his ideas and art. Though he found success with canvases featuring pure form and color — often bright and vibrant — the Kawamura exhibition focuses on a later period when his stark, flat canvases became increasingly dark and claustrophobic.

Rothko’s art was associated with Abstract Expressionists such as his contemporary Jackson Pollock, but he disavowed the label along with comparisons to artists such as Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann, who were interested in the formal aspects of art.

“I’m not an abstractionist,” Rothko once said. “I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else, only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions.”

The centerpiece of “Mark Rothko” is a collection of the “Seagram Murals” that were done in the late ’50s when Rothko was at the peak of his popularity. Pop Art had yet to come along and steal the crown he and Pollock had been sharing, and Rothko was commissioned to provide artwork for the prestigious Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. Built as a display of wealth and success, the building boasted the latest architecture (courtesy of the master of Modernism, Mies van der Rohe), the finest, most expensive food of any restaurant in the city, and impressive examples of modern art, including works by Pablo Picasso and Pollock. Rothko envisaged a series of paintings covering the entire walls of the restaurant, and, although there was only room for seven works, Rothko finished 30 paintings.

On visiting the restaurant, however, Rothko concluded that his intention to shock and disturb its patrons with his apocalyptic vision would fail and his work would end up merely as background decoration for the rich at play — his worst nightmare. Rothko looked around for more suitable locations and in 1969 presented the Tate Gallery in London with a gift of nine of the murals on the condition they be given a dedicated room where they would be put on permanent display. Similar “Rothko rooms” were created over the following decades at the National Gallery of Art, Washington and the Kawamura Museum of Art.

These museums have joined forces to bring together 15 of the murals for the “Mark Rothko” exhibition, which was held, in a slightly different form, at the Tate Modern in London late last year before opening at the Kawamura.

“Kawamura owns seven of Rothko’s Seagram Murals,” says Sumi Hayashi, curator of the exhibition at the Kawamura. “Just before the inauguration of the museum in 1990, we purchased them as a set. The Rothko estate wanted this set of Seagram Murals to go to Japan as there are other spaces dedicated to Rothko in Europe and in the United States, but not in Asia.”

The Seagram works take up most of the space of the largest room in the museum and offer slight variations on the same motif. While earlier works often consisted of a rectangular block or two of color against a plain background, the solid blocks in the murals are more often rendered as an open box, or perhaps more accurately a frame. The areas inside the frames are usually the same color and tone as the background area, and, typically are painted in muted, somber tones of dark red, maroon and burgundy.

In the last room of the exhibition, Rothko reaches his ultimate expression — three canvases from 1964 share the same composition: a square, black against black, barely perceptible and daunting in its opaqueness.

Morbid for some, cathartic for others, Rothko’s art always elicits a gut reaction.

“He created a space,” says Hayashi, “where people could feel free from everyday occurrences, meditate, or reflect upon themselves on a profound level with ‘art.’ “