September 24, 2008 / 2:31 PM / 10 years ago

Rothko show looks at enigmas surrounding artist

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - London’s Tate Modern gallery has reunited 15 of 30 Mark Rothko paintings originally intended for a swanky New York restaurant before the artist, who committed suicide in 1970, withdrew from the commission.

A gallery worker sits on a stool in front of an untitled work by Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko, during the press view of the first major exhibition dedicated to his late works, at the Tate Modern, in London on September 24, 2008. "Rothko, The Late Series" opens at London's Tate Modern on September 26 and runs until February 1, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

No one knows why Rothko, now one of the world’s most collectable painters whose works fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction, abandoned the bright, intense colors of his earlier canvases and painted in dark maroons, reds and black.

But one popular theory, or “myth” as the Tate itself calls it, is that the artist said he wanted to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.”

The room he was referring to was in the plush Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building, which commissioned Rothko in 1958 to paint seven canvases for the eatery that already boasted works by Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro and Picasso.

By painting dark, claustrophobic works, the story goes, Rothko hoped to put high-paying diners off their food by replicating the tomb-like feeling of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence with its sealed windows.

Rothko eventually painted 30 canvases, but in 1959 withdrew from the lucrative and prestigious commission, possibly disillusioned by the idea that diners would not give his works the attention he thought they deserved.


That decision adds to the enigma surrounding canvases which critics say are among his finest and mark a shift toward darker colors and themes culminating in his death aged 66.

“The Seagram murals are really the starting point of what I think was my father’s richest decade of painting,” said Christopher Rothko, Rothko’s son, at a press preview of Tate Modern’s show which runs from September 26 to February 1, 2009.

Curator Achim Borchardt-Hume said Rothko struggled for recognition early in his career then struggled with the commercial success of his works later on.

Perhaps by abandoning the vivid colors that were so popular, he sought to encourage deeper reflection of his works.

“Part of what motivated, perhaps, Rothko to go with the darker colors was to take something away from the brighter works and say, ‘Look at this, look at these paintings’,,” Borchardt-Hume told reporters.

In 2007, Rothko’s “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)” fetched $72.8 million in New York, in what was then a record for a post-war artwork at auction.

The Tate Modern is an apt setting for what the gallery calls the biggest ever collection of Seagram murals which have been gathered from the Tate, the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in Japan and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Shortly before his death, the painter presented nine Seagram paintings to the Tate Gallery, referring to his affection for the gallery and Britain in general.

On February 25, 1970, Rothko was found dead in a pool of his own blood with a razor lying by side on the same day that the donated murals arrived in London.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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