Sunday, 4 October 2020

And Rothko

Jennifer Campbell visits the Rothko room at Tate Britain and has an evolving experience.

Deep shades overlap and hover. Colour becomes a repeating sound that subtly changes inside the flesh-glow of a human ear. I turn to another surface where veils of pale violet filter a cherry maroon, creating a new colour that my eye cannot fix. All the shades are flat, but not shallow. The shadow areas morph like oil, absorbing and regurgitating the light from outside of the painting. I move to another painting and the pale violet becomes a fine blue mist, as if a damp morning from outside of the city, came by to leave its breath marks on this stained taught fabric. No such breathy wisp exists though - it is clear that every part of the image before me has been made by a human hand and manual tools. I’m breathing in my own muffled breath as I look at this touched surface, a surface that is saturated and rich from contamination. 

Photo Szandra Mile 


I am in the Tate Britain with my friend Szandra, whose obsession is art and architecture and where the two meet. I cycled here to minimise contamination risk, but I am also craving contamination: I need influence from outside of my isolated unit, having spent most of the first part of lockdown in my windowless studio making paintings upon paintings upon paintings. Szandra and I communicate through our masked mouths, interrupting and collaborating with each other’s thoughts. We admire the looseness of the paint, the scrappy edges, the confidence. I try to steal the confidence for myself because it is my duty to. We admire the drips and splashes of paint and their permission to remain. I think about Japanese ideas that I have browsed in fashionable coffee-table books in a previous dead-end job. I think about how these ideas would have been less accessible at the time these were painted, more hidden from the bright white light of consumable tastes. Those ideas seem real in this room and in these paintings and at this particular moment. I try to hold onto this effect because I know it is fragile and the next moment it might become phoney and dead. 


He was supposedly a nice man, I say. He was an introvert, she says. We can never know how true these statements are and we know that no person is one thing. We have the gallery to ourselves, we feel the rarity. These paintings are like a portal back to a very specific time, I say. It is strange thing for them to travel out of their original context, to become separate from the soup of communication, exchange and human interactions, of post war New York and the abstract expressionism neighbourhood. You cannot make these paintings now, I say, or if you did it would mean something different. We read that they were originally meant for a restaurant, but then Rothko cancelled the commission. I’m happy to know that all painters have to deal with these shitty decisions. Szandra points my attention to the room we are in and the natural light that is being filtered down from above, so that we have a better chance of seeing the fleeting thing that these paintings can show us. They show themselves differently in different times, like us. Now she makes me see how the room is too small. I had not realised. Now I see that the floor is stuffy and jarring: an orange shade of wood that intrudes part way up the bottom of the walls. I can gladly drink in a jarring colour combo in the right context trying too hard and yet not trying hard enough. We peer into Szandra’s phone screen, at small backlit images of the chapel where Rothko’s paintings are so perfectly at home, on tall white textured walls. The spell is broken, but I fed off it before it dispersed. 


Jennifer Campbell



Mark Rothko, The Seagram Murals

Part of the Turner Rothko Collection Route

Tate Britain, London