Thursday 25 September 2008

Rothko from two sides

Two markedly different takes on the installation of the just-opened Rothko show (blogged earlier here) at Tate Modern.

From Adrian Searle in the Guardian

The dim lighting and contained feeling of the Rothko Room at the Tate has always given it, for some spectators, an air of immanence and mystery. I prefer paintings in plain sight, without the heavy breathing, never mind the intimations of tragedy in the shape of Rothko's suicide at the age of 66. His death tends to obscure his achievements even more than the peculiarly low light levels he preferred for the work's display.

From Mark Hudson in the Telegraph

These pictures work best when they are hung in an enclosed space of the right scale, at low light levels - just as they have been shown at Tate Modern since 2006. In general, the lighting of Rothko's paintings is especially important because over time their condition has deteriorated, so that if they are over-lit you see areas of paint slick or sheen on the surface that completely destroys the illusion of immanence - rather in the way a snapshot is ruined by the reflection of the flashbulb in the subject's eyes.

Which is why I absolutely hated the installation of Tate Modern's new exhibition `Rothko's Late Series'. Tate's Seagram Murals are shown next to paintings borrowed from the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in Japan and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in an enormous gallery under relatively strong light in a way that utterly destroyed for me any feeling of atmospheric cohesion or unity.

Where Searle sees benefit in being able to see the effects of time and crappy restoration attempts on Rothko's work, Hudson sees an undermining of the paintings' impact. Ditto their discussion of the curators' decision to hang one work so both its front and verso can be seen:


The show makes a careful study of Rothko's technique, his materials and paint application. One painting, owned by the Tate, is shown alongside close-up photographs of details seen under ultraviolet light, revealing the complex layerings and reworkings the artist subjected his work to. The painting is displayed on a false wall, with an aperture behind that enables us to see the back of the canvas.


The organizers are determined to knock the sacred on the head by emphasizing the status of his paintings as objects made of wood, canvas and paint, even going to far as to display one picture in such a way that we can walk behind it to look at the stretcher, lest we get it into our silly heads that there is something magical about what Rothko did. Turn up the houselights! Away with the smoke and mirrors! After all, they're only paintings.

In New Zealand we rarely get two critics' views on the same show (at least, while it's still on) but it's even more unusual to get criticism of the way shows are hung (at more than the most basic "too crammed" / "small but perfectly formed" level). I don't know if writers don't think the general public would be interested in the decisions curators have made, or if they're generally not interested themselves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe because NZ is so small that crtiquing curatorial judgement isn't a "safe path"? I got all sorts of snipey comments about not liking how the Angus exhibition was arranged eg 'you obviously didn't get it'. I'd love to see more varied views and am always intrigued by curatorship.