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.

Apocalypse? No.

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The latest installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall is TH.2058 by Dominique Gonzales-Foerster.  And it’s a disaster; just not, unfortunately,  in the way that the artist intends. 

As you enter the Turbine Hall the first thing you’re conscious of is the sculptures: outsize, mutated versions of pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder and others. These tower over an array of plain steel bunks, on each of which is placed a work of apocalyptic fiction, from J.G.Ballard to H.G.Wells. Next, you hear the sound: dripping water, far-off sirens and deep bass industrial shivers.

And then you see the signs.

The signs explain that TH.2058 is an installation that’s set in London fifty years from now: an apocalyptic future London where it never stops raining, where people have been evacuated to the Turbine Hall, and where public art has grown vegetal, mutated into gigantic versions of itself. 

This is what the signs say. What they mean is that TH.2058 is a gigantic failure: a work that fails to dramatise its thinking well enough to stand alone. And, worse, that it’s a work without mystery. Because that’s the real problem here: there’s nothing unexplained, so there’s nothing for the audience to add. Imagine, for example, if Gonzales-Foerster had left out the sculptures, the books, the explanations, and simply filled the Turbine Hall with rows of plain steel metal beds. Then we would have wondered: are we in a hospital? A fall-out shelter? A mortuary? A boarding school? Are we in the past, the future or the present?What kind of institution is this — and who are we, inside it? 

Alternatively, for a truly Ballardian installation, try the amazing indoor rainforest at Madrid’s Atocha station, which offers no explanation, no interpretation — is this a primeval past? a warming future? a colonial adventure? — but inspires everyone who passes through it to wonder, warmth and conversation:

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Peter Doig and the Uncanny

Tate Britain’s recent retrospective of the work of Peter Doig was a perhaps unexpected blockbuster. Doig’s work is, of course — to his own admitted embarrassment — some of the most highly priced by any living artist. But it’s not, by any standards, populist. In fact, it can feel almost aggressive in its denial of easy sentiment or beauty. So what made the show such a success?

I wrote at the beginning of the year about Gregory Treverton’s division of intelligence problems into puzzles and mysteries. Puzzles can be solved if you have the correct information, whereas mysteries are multi-faceted, showing different parts of themselves from different angles, or to different people. A lot of popular contemporary art — think of Banksy’s work — is puzzles. Like a political cartoon, or a visual pun, it’s something you can look at, “get” and then move on. Doig’s work, on the other hand, is all about mystery. It teases you, nags at you, seeming to offer clues but always remaining tentatively out of reach.

Freud defined “the uncanny” as “the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar,” and this is exactly what Doig offers in his work. The setting are often absolutely familiar, even artistic cliches — a boat on a lake, a house in the trees, a moonlit pond — but Doig makes them strange and haunting, pregnant with a sense of the unknown. There are several ways in which he does this. One is a direct physical denial of our expectations of beauty: his sometimes jarring use of colour, or white dots spattered on the image. Another is the isolation of his subjects: there are often people in the pictures, but they are almost always turned away from us, or chopped abruptly at the limbs. Above all, perhaps, is the angles that he chooses. In Doig’s work we are almost always lurking: we’re hiding in branches, avoiding the road, crouching low down in the scrub. Even when there’s sunshine on the buildings, we are skulking in the shadows, peering through the trees:

Doig makes voyeurs of us all; but he also makes us authors. He puts us in a position of intrusion, but leaves it to us to figure out why. Are we spies? burglars? stalkers? That’s for us to answer — and that’s why these paintings work so well as mysteries, because we all bring our own fears and desires to the work. We spend a good deal of our lives observing — often judging — other people, feeling either vindicated or ashamed once the truth is revealed. With these silent, haunted landscapes, Doig illustrates Freud’s point exactly: that we can never look at anything without applying something of ourselves.