“A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive onlooker.” Rothko
Pace have a track record of pairing up artists, notably Dubuffet and De Kooning with their ‘Women’ show in 1991, and lately Dubuffet and Basquiat in 2006. These matches were apt and interesting but I’m not so sure about the pairing of Rothko and Sugimoto at their new gallery in Burlington Gardens. As an idea it was very seductive; eight so called Dark Paintings and a group of black and white photographs of bodies of water. It was what I would call a ‘slow’ show in that it demands time of the viewer, and this is a rare thing in exhibitions these days – how refreshing to be away from that all pervasive WhamBam instant hit syndrome. Here one had to take time, to adjust to the apparent sparseness of the works, which in the case of Rothko appeared to be made of two blocks of colour; umber and grey or black and grey, and the variations of black and white and half tones in the Sugimoto prints.
Trying to juxtapose painting and photography is a difficult thing and it seemed rather incongruous to use six of the umber and grey and only two of the black and white paintings to set alongside the black and white prints – I do not feel that this was kind of companionship that Rothko talked about. This is a shame because the Sugimotos, shown as a body of work on their own, or perhaps with some other b/w photographs such as those of Adam Katseff, who also explores dark and the landscape in a very particular way, would be a different issue.
Putting aside the initial fact of the difference in colour, with Rothko’s paintings the layered, scumbled paint and open brushwork draws us into them, and there is a sensuousness to even the two denser black ones which open out to us as we give them time; with the Sugimoto prints we bounce off them, are reflected in them with their slick, high gloss finish – the difference between walking through an open door into an imaginative space or banging into a dark mirror, being thrown back onto yourself by the hard surface; the latter is untouchable while the former is utterly tactile.
The pairing also encourages us to look at the paintings as landscape or seascape, emphasising the often ragged line that separates the two blocks of colour as horizon, which of course flies in the face of all that Rothko and abstract expressionism stood for – with its rejection of three-dimensionality, illusionism, narrative and the representation of the object – i.e. the traditional subjects of still life, landscape and the figure. This is reinforced by Sugimoto saying “sometimes I think I see a dark horizon cutting across Rothko’s paintings’ (quoted in the press release) and in his catalogue essay, Shiff talks about the way Hess, Goldwater and Kelly all resort to descriptions of void, sea, sky and space and suggests that ‘the sum of responses implies that abstraction in art must connect to an experience of nature. If not in the artist’s immediate situation, this experience must be somewhere in the individual’s past, or even beyond this, deep within the human psyche. What can we infer? Because Rothko knows the sea, or has the sea in his cells, he paints the horizontal.’ Why must it connect to an experience of nature? This just takes us back to the concrete or literal; we seem to be hard wired to try and make sense out of any visual input and it is very difficult to get out of that possibly evolutionary mindset of ‘finding the object’ in seeming chaos (ie abstraction), like trying to identify the spots or stripes of a predator in the confusing mass of colours and textures of the forest. Thus, that horizontal break between two areas of painting must be a horizon – whereas it is simply (!) the meeting point between black and grey or umber and grey. This also touches on the conundrum of titles for abstract paintings, as for example (as noted in Robin Greenwood’s article) when Gillian Ayres called her work Cwm or Cwm Bran and writers take this as license to wax lyrical about the particular landscape they might have emerged from and the landscape references that are in them – instead of the qualities of them as paintings in themselves. Rothko’s paintings in this show are all Untitled which leaves them completely open and avoids any associations in this way. Had he called one ‘Atlantic Ocean’ or ‘Dark Sky’ this would have been a clear signal that we were looking at some sort of seascape. But he didn’t and we aren’t.
In this exhibition we also run into an area which I feel more sympathy for – that of poetics and metaphor as a way of looking at paintings; the press release declares that ‘the pairings mine the affinities between the two artists, each offering a meditation on universal and cosmological concerns…’ this I take to be a reference to origins and creation, the coming forth from the void or chaos, which is usually described as a Darkness or state of non-being as depicted, for example, in Medieval illuminated manuscripts, particular Tantric watercolours and the work of Robert Fludd, with black being the primal state from which all emerges. Black after all contains all other colours and is a ripe symbol of potential – but these afore-mentioned examples were of a particular type; they were meant as descriptive or ‘educational’ and were not made as abstract images in the sense that some might now take them to be. Rothko’s Dark Paintings were not made with this intention either, they were simply (!) paintings that he was moved to make.
With these late paintings we also have to deal with the ‘darkness’ of them, especially the black ones, which have always been entangled with the idea of the symptoms of depression or despair (curiously this never tainted Motherwell, Kline or De Kooning’s work) – and of course, as I was relieved to find stated later in the press release that ‘the dark works relate less to any personal tragedy… and more to eternal and depersonalised metaphysical questions.’ (my emphasis). And no one is leaping to the conclusion that because Sugimoto or Katseff are making dark photographs they are in danger from depression or despair. But all this is additional material that takes us away from the paintings and photographs themselves. I leave the last word to Rothko;‘any picture which does not provide the environment in which the breath of life can be drawn does not interest me.’
Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes was on at Pace Gallery, London, from October to mid-November