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Jonathan Jones on Mark Rothko's Seagram murals in the Tate Modern.


Rothko's not by any stretch of the imagination an easy artist to grok or to think about. Basically, he painted large brooding colour fields.

This article, though, says a lot about the way he thought, and why he went back on his commission to provide "600 square feet of paintings for the most exclusive room in the new Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building in New York - the most prestigious public commission that had ever been awarded to an abstract expressionist painter, a tremendously lucrative and enviable chance to take his work to new heights of ambition."

He wanted to buck the system, do paintings like a fist in the face for the rich, self-satisfied elite who went to eat there, a reminder of the dark, sensual, obsessive, messy world behind the glossy modernist1 veneer of the Mies van der Rohe Seagram Building. He resented, immensely, being patronized - in the pure and exact sense of the word - by these people who ordered Art by the yard and didn't care what it looked like. He wanted to show that art had power, that he was sitting squarely in an artistic tradition leading back to the mystery cults of the Ancient World (the Guardian article has some interesting points about his visit to Pompeii along those lines). He wanted to prove he wasn't prepared to see art, his art, relegated to the background, to wallpaper.

But then he wimped out, he broke the contract, he decided that nobody who went there was going to look at them - and that the plan wouldn't work, the elite would laugh at his attempts and go back to their dinners. He gave them to the Tate instead, just gave them away - and demanded that they be given their own room in perpetuity. What that says to me is that he wasn't sure, in himself, of their value, that he wanted to make absolutely certain that anyone who spent any time near them was going to see them on their own, dammit, and for no other reason than that they wanted to look at those paintings. And to prove, to himself and all the world, that he could set his own terms and see them kept, see his work up there.

One huge, glorious FUCK YOU to the art-patrons, in fact.

Now, to reward you all for reading this far, a poll! Please do discuss further, the options are only the very brief highlights.

[Poll #673683]

1. 'Modernist' refers to two apparently-opposing things, a social and technological tendency, and an artistic tendency that evolved in opposition, and sometimes in accomodation, to it. I stipulate that this is silly.
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