Rothko at Tate Britain: the Seagram murals

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After the bright glare of the river, your eyes take a moment to adjust. The room is long, high-ceilinged, the lights dimmed almost to darkness, and at first the images that hang here seem muted, muffled, almost colourless. 

And then, slowly, they begin to sing.

There’s really no other word for it. These enormous canvases, conceived and painted to be hung together, can only be understood in harmony with one another: a rich dark melancholy music all their own. You look at one of them and it seems drab: look at another and then back, and the first seems brighter, more intense. These are paintings that play off one another, each one altering the others as you move around the room.

Like music, too, they have a simple surface that masks the depth of thought beneath. Spend some time with any one of them and you notice the different layers of the paint, each of a slightly different opacity, creating a pulsating, sombre glow. These paintings are not passive: they play with your perception, shifting colour, depth and focus in front of your eyes. They warn you not to trust your instant judgement: context is all. Beware, too, a simplistic emotional response: yes, these are dark colours, but the effect is not entirely sombre. Look closely and there are purples, oranges and blues amid the dominant maroons and blacks. This isn’t the adolescent darkness of a Batman movie, but something richer, harder to pin down.

When Rothko was commissioned to create the Seagram murals, he was at a point of creative crisis. His work was popular, but often dismissed as merely decorative, its bright colours and simple shapes seen as a comforting alternative to the more overtly confrontational work of his contemporaries. This exhibition is a powerful demonstration that, by eschewing clunky symbolism or obvious interpretation, it’s Rothko who created the more lasting, troubling work. These are not paintings to be looked at. They’re paintings to be watched.

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