Saturday, January 31, 2009

Indivisible art

If a thing is worth doing once, it is worth doing over and over again - exploring it, probing it, demanding by its repetition that the public look at it ~ Mark Rothko
Triumph is the only word I can use to describe Tate Modern's Mark Rothko exhibition, which closes tomorrow (Feb 1) after a four month run. The centrepiece is the huge space in which hang for the first time in one room, eleven of the massive murals that Rothko created in 1958/9. These were commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York's Seagram's Building, but Rothko withdrew from the commission and they were never hung in the restaurant. Less well-known, but equally if not more impressive in the flesh, are the Black-Form paintings in Room 6. Pre-booking has been the order of the day at this Tate Modern exhibition. We were there on a wet January weekday afternoon and it was packed and buzzing. Most of that is down to Mark Rothko's genius. But, as classical music agonises over how to reach new audiences, there are also important lessons to be learnt from the way that Rothko's art was presented at the Tate Modern.

I am quite sure that the visual arts have their equivalent of the consultants, commentators, music directors, PR experts, festival directors, talent agents, marketing people, and yes, bloggers, that infest classical music today. But, at the Tate Modern, Rothko's art was allowed to shine without passing through the distorting prisms currently so fashionable in the music world. As I wandered awestruck through the Tate I wondered what would have happened if BBC Radio 3 had mounted the exhibition. There would have be a week long Rothko Experience, Mark Rothko would be a BBC painter of the year, official Rothko BBC bloggers would be appointed, Rothko in the Park events would be mounted, frenzied presenters would ask listeners to text in whether they prefer Rothko to Pollock, there would be Rothko internet message boards, BBC new generations artists would be in there somewhere, and the Seagram murals would be divided into easily digested chunks. And the talking, oh the talking! Never mind the art, just broadcast inane chatter about it - I fully expect the 2009 BBC Proms to include a two hour concert of Petroc Trelawny talking linked by short pieces music.

Instead the Tate Modern took the work of a twentieth-century genius. They hung it on white walls with very small explanatory panels. They did nothing to detract from its impact. And the public flocked to see it. Surely music can learn from this triumph?

* The title of this post was sparked by the engaging Indivisible by Four : A String Quartet in Pursuit Of Harmony by Guarneri String Quartet member Arnold Steinhardt. There are, of course, many musical connections with Mark Rothko. The Tate Modern presented a concert Music of the New York School 1951-65 in November with works by Morton Feldman and Earle Brown. There was also a commission for a new work from composer Jim Aitchison for performance in the gallery. Last year we travelled to Bruges to hear Feldman's Rothko Chapel at the John Cage Happening. But the music I turned to on CD when I got home from the Rothko exhibition was George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children in the Nonesuch recording. I do not know of any direct links between Crumb's 1970 work and Mark Rothko. But, with its resonances of the Round House in the Boulez years, Ancient Voices powerfully evokes a time when hope was in the air and marketing consultants were unknown.

Taschen's book Rothko is recommended, I paid £6 for my copy. Header image is Sketch for Mural No. 1 (Seagram Mural Sketch) 1958, and comes via LondonSketchbook.com with colour adjustments by me to try to better capture the dark quality of Rothko's original. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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