Mark Rothko: 1961 Tranquil, transcendent. 2008 Routine, repetitive

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

Sometime in the early summer of 1961 the Whitechapel Gallery staged an exhibition of Mark Rothko, then quite recently famous, and well into what is known as his “signature style”: large, unframed canvases of vertical format, painted with symmetrical rectangular blocks of contrasting colours. Rothko had hit on this idiom some 14 years before, when he often used the colours of spring fields, autumn woods and sunsets. By 1961 he had settled into gloomy mauves, blues, browns and purples - an effect from which he hardly shifted until his death, by suicide, nine years later.

This exhibition had a special meaning for me. I was 17, had recently run away from home, and would walk each day from the Lyons Corner House in Leadenhall Street, where I washed up and cleared tables, to the slum in Mile End where I slept on a floor. I was anxious, lonely and unsure of myself. And I survived by creating the image of another and less sordid world. This other world was pure, serene, its silence broken only by the footsteps of hidden friends. There was a cool ambient light, and the shadows were soft and still like pools of water.

One day I was walking back from work, my anxieties heightened by a quarrel with another washer-up, and reluctant to go at once to the house in Mile End, where the only company was that of drop-outs. On an impulse I stepped into the Whitechapel Gallery. I found myself at once in that other world of which I had dreamt. I looked around in astonishment at these cool, quiet canvases, many of them recently finished and exuding a sweet smell of linseed oil.

Their close resemblance to each other was not a fault. On the contrary, it enhanced their effect of stillness - like uniformed sentries standing before a shrine. And they spoke of an other-worldly tranquillity; looking into them your eyes met only depth and peace. For an hour I was lost in those paintings, not able to find words for what I saw in them, but experiencing it as a vision of transcendence. I went out into the street refreshed and rejoicing, and would visit the gallery every day until the exhibition closed.

I report this experience because it is so far from anything that I obtain from Rothko today, yet also so near to how Rothko himself saw his paintings. “The people who weep before my pictures,” he wrote, “are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.” I didn't weep on that day in 1961: but I might have done. And when I learnt that Rothko was working on a chapel commissioned by the De Menils in Houston, Texas, I accepted this as the natural culmination of his art. Those forms, planes and colours were an attempt to capture the utter tranquillity that lies beyond this world and can be reached only through some act of sacrifice. They were not just symbols of the transcendental, but examples of it. So it seemed to me then.

Rothko became successful through hype - not his own, but that of critics such as Harold Rosenberg, who upped the price of a Rothko from $200 to $20 million. Before that encounter with the force that has made and destroyed every successful artist since Picasso, Rothko was a quiet, serious, intellectual painter, whose works were full of expressionist angst. His signature style came about slowly, through trial and error, but also with a kind of inevitability, as he discarded figurative images and standardised everything, from the shape of the canvas to the forms displayed on it.

Revisiting his work today my first desire is to ignore the critical sycophancy lavished upon him, and to ask if there is anything there. Are these uniformed canvases the angelic visions I thought I saw on that summer evening half a century ago? Or are they the routine product of a mind set in melancholy repetitiveness, as empty and uninspired as the pop art that Rothko (to his credit) was at the time denouncing?

Something in me wants to remain true to my adolescent vision. The beauty I imagined I also saw, and could not have seen without Rothko's aid. But I do not see it today, and wonder how much it was the product of the stress of adolescence, and of the strange, still atmosphere of the Whitechapel Gallery in those days when so few people visited it, and when those few were all in search of redemption from the world outside.

Now that modern art has been cheapened and mass-produced, to become part of that outside world of commercial titillation, it is harder to see Rothko as I saw him then...

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