The Movie-Like Story of Mark Rothko's Seagram Murals
Oct 28, 2020
I consider traveling to see art to be a metaphysical experience: a pilgrimage to secular sanctuaries. Some of my most memorable art passages have involved Mark Rothko. I fondly remember journeying to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I also recall two trips to see the infamous Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern in London. I failed both times to see the murals. Yet somehow, that detail seems almost apropos. The whole story of the Seagram Murals is one of changed minds and missed connections. Rothko painted the Murals as a commission—the most lucrative public commission ever offered to an Abstract Expressionist at the time. The paintings were supposed to hang in the extravagant Four Seasons Restaurant inside the Mies Van Der Rohe designed Seagram corporate headquarters on Park Avenue in Manhattan. The Bronfman family, who owned Seagram, paid Rothko $35,000 to paint the murals. In 2020 dollars, that would be about $300,000. That was a fortune to Rothko, who was only beginning to sell work. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), recommended Rothko for the job. Despite that high profile endorsement and several years spent painting the murals, when the time came to deliver the work to Seagrams, Rothko reneged on the deal. He gave the money back, and eventually ended up donating the Seagram Murals to the Tate. The Rothko Room at the Tate Modern now beckons thousands of visitors to it each year from all over the globe. Thousands more saunter right past it without any idea what they are missing. Both times I made it all the way to London, and all the way to the museum, to see the Seagram Murals, I ended up getting distracted by other art. Nonetheless, I feel that somehow the comedy of my failures fits in with the cinematic tragedy of the Seagram Murals themselves.
The Walls Are Closing In
Fans of Rothko often point to what they call the transcendental, or contemplative aspects of his paintings. They speak about being pulled into the works; or of being transported by the work into an introspective mental state. Some even call the work spiritual. Certainly, that was the intent Rothko had in mind when he designed The Rothko Chapel. When you visit this special place, you notice right away that the sacred texts of every major world religion are sitting in the lobby, waiting to be taken into the gallery with viewers. Yet, each time I have visited, none of the people in the gallery were actually holding any of the sacred texts. The art was evidently all they needed. That comes as no surprise to me, considering that the art and architecture itself carries ample sacred weight. The sensation conveyed by the monolithic walls and the gigantic black canvases feels very much like being in a tomb.
That is the exact same feeling Rothko hoped to achieve with the Seagram Murals when he took the commission. In the midst of painting the murals, Rothko took a trip to Italy. He visited the Michelangelo-designed vestibule of the Laurentian Library, in the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence. That rather imposing, stone room is surrounded by what appear to be massive, rectangular windows sealed shut with stone. They were never windows, though. They were intended to give visitors a claustrophobic sense of being sequestered. Rothko also visited The Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, another somber, vault-like room—this one completely surrounded by deep, dark, red and black murals. Rothko cited both of these places as inspirations for his Seagram Murals. He hoped the installation would take over the architecture of the restaurant and completely surround the diners, giving them the sense that the walls were closing in on them.
A Mysterious Gift
The plot of the Seagram story unravelled when Rothko finally dined at the Four Seasons. He had already completed his murals, but wanted to eat in the room where they were supposed to hang before actually delivering them. The experience repulsed him. He complained about the price of the food, and insisted that his paintings would never hang in a place like that that was frequented by people like that. In all likelihood, what he actually realized is that the architecture of the room was only half wall space. The other half was floor-to-ceiling windows. No matter how somber, how contemplative, or how vault-like his mural was, the room would never feel claustrophobic or sequestered. Instead of dominating the architecture and confronting the wealthy elites with their own insignificance and mortality, his paintings were in danger of being reduced to decoration.
After withdrawing from the commission, Rothko kept the Seagram Murals in his studio for several years. His opportunity to engineer a different fate for the paintings came in 1965, when Sir Norman Reid, Director of the Tate Gallery, reached out to him with the idea of creating a dedicated Rothko Room at the museum. Following a four-year negotiation, Rothko ultimately gave the Tate nine of the 30 panels he completed for Seagram. Accompanying the donation, Rothko sent precise instructions for how to exhibit the murals, including the color of the walls, the lighting, and the height each painting should be hung. The murals arrived at the Tate on 25 February 1970, the same day Rothko was found dead on the floor of his New York studio from an apparent suicide. Many have speculated about the connection between his death and this donation, but how can anyone unravel the thoughts and intentions of an artist who was so clearly suffering from profound depression? The inherent drama of the Seagram Murals nonetheless continues to draw new audiences to Rothko and his work. To me, the story is a reminder that even when art and life are beyond our understanding, we can find meaning in the missed connections.
Featured image: Mark Rothko Seagram Murals at Tate Modern. Image by dvdbramhall via Flickr.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio