Rothko Archives Shed Light On 1961 Whitechapel Exhibition

Rothko In Britain Whitechapel Gallery 9 Sept 2011 – 26 Feb 2012

Rothko in Britain is an exhibition about an exhibition. It recreates, at least through archival material, the Whitechapel Gallery’s ground-breaking 1961 show that displayed the works of Mark Rothko in Britain for the very first time. Despite only having one actual Rothko painting on display ( Light Red Over Black (1957), the first work to be bought by a British public collection), the curators have deployed a wealth of material –  photographs and documents, letters from the artist, and new recordings of visitors’ memories – to bring this now-iconic exhibition to life.

What comes across particularly strongly is the high degree to which Rothko himself was in fact involved in the creation of the 1961 show, one document containing a set of brilliantly precise instructions of how he wanted the work to be displayed so as to create the most immersive experience possible for the viewer: we hear, for example, that the walls were to be made ‘considerably off-white’ for fear that white walls ‘are always fighting against the pictures which turn greenish’, and that the lighting should not be too strong given that ‘the pictures have their own inner light’.

The great success of this exhibition is that it provides an opportunity to step back in time – to the moment when Rothko was thrillingly avant-garde, and before his works had become what he would describe as ‘official art’. As the recorded interview with painter John Hoyland reveals, visitors to the 1961 exhibition were left ‘reeling’, ‘mystified’: ‘We didn’t know what to make of it. … We didn’t know how to analyse it, or put it into any kind of historical context.’ In this, Hoyland echoes The New Statesman’s review of the original show which described how ‘faced with Rothko’s paintings at Whitechapel, one feels oneself unbearably hemmed-in by forces buffeting one’s every nerve’.

Today we are given a chance to recall the monumental impact of this initial showing, and to imagine what it must have been like to have been confronted with Rothko’s luminous rectangles that seemingly hover on the surface of the canvas for the first time. The only shame is that we could not actually be there – the most overwhelming sensation generated by the exhibition being one of jealousy of those who were, with the archive photographs seeming like dozens of smug ‘wish you were here’ postcards.

It would have been sublime if the Whitechapel gallery had been able to recreate the 1961 show in the present-day. But fortunately, that this was not able to happen is mitigated by the wonderfully-timed ground floor exhibition of Josiah McElheny, the New York-based artist whose abstract film installation saturates the whole gallery in colour and light, and appears in this context to be a postmodern, neon homage to Rothko’s paintings. The complementary vision of McElheny’s The Past was a Mirage I’d Left Far Behind ultimately serves as a fitting tribute to the colossal legacy of Mark Rothko, something which we do well to reflect upon on the 50th anniversary of his British premier.

Words/Photo:Thomas Keane © ArtLyst 2011 

Rothko In Britain Whitechapel Gallery 9 Sept 2011 – 26 Feb 2012


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