The Seagram Murals: A Matter of Life and Death


I was in London not too long ago when I went to the Tate Modern. I see it as the beacon of modern taste, even if that beacon may seem fairly dim to me. Although, by looking at the artworks, I wouldn’t have noticed any idea of dimness. At one point, I was waylaid by an artwork that consisted of bright neon lights. Tsk-tsk. How vulgar of it to take me out like some ruffian. But this idiocy should be no surprise. Modern art is in a recession. What really sucks about it though is that it has become an imperial bully. I’m just waiting for the steel Koons balloons to pop, and then maybe… maybe… we will see the arrival of TV5D. However, not to stray too far from the subject at hand. The subject? Rothko. In fact, seeing “The Seagram Murals” is an experience of rebirth. Don’t believe me? Well, you shouldn’t. Not if you’re that type of viewer. If you haven’t seen “The Seagram Murals,” then you must approach the works with naivety. Like, say, the protagonist to the rock album “Tommy,” who in our case is deaf, dumb and blind to that sleazy, sadistic public enemy known as Jeff Koons. Right, “not if you’re that type of viewer.” Well, I have to say if you’re that type of viewer, you might as well stop going to cathedrals (you don’t really go to cathedrals, do you?), because the road to Rothko is a pilgrimage and a place of worship. It’s not one to merely be passed by, or taken pictures of. Or worse: to go through like a zombie. (Now, I don’t HATE audio tour guides, but if I have to imagine hell it would be going down a descending staircase listening to an audio guide mentioning all the John Martin apocalyptic-like scenes on the right and the Brueghel-like scenes on the left, finally reaching the gateway to be greeted by a grinning Jeff Koons). Anyway, when you’re in the dim room that houses seven of the ten “Seagram Murals,” you’re ultimately converted. Light would have ruined the room.

There’s a scene in the Powell and Pressburger film, “A Matter of Life and Death,” where an airman undergoes an operation. At around the one minute mark in the clip above, his eyelids begin to close. We as the viewer don’t know if he’ll ever open his eyelids again. Death seems to be imminent. This film shows a fleeting fictional experience that is comparable to Rothko’s “Seagram Murals,” which seem to suggest a person in the face of death. Although I largely think the art critic for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones, is terribly awful, he peculiarly enough had the same experience as I did when viewing Rothko’s “Seagram Murals:”

These are paintings that seem to exist on the skin inside an eyelid. They are what you imagine might be the last lights, the final flickers of colour that register in a mind closing down.

Now, you may think that I’m wrong and think that if he’s capable of such criticism then he must be good. However, recent misadventures would tend to disagree. Nevertheless, Mr. Jones made an excellent observation back in 2002. But fast forward to 2014. As I swash-buckled my way through the  zombies, I realized that not only did the zombies sit down possessed as if someone had told them to, but that I too sat down on one of the benches provided (museums never have enough of them if you ask me). I realized that I had become complicit to a murder, a holocaust or a Greek tragedy as it were. Indeed, the tragedy is the pulse in Rothko’s canvases. His works are more in line with the classical grandness of Renaissance artists. The grandness is the thrust, and Renaissance artists knew how to leverage this with an emotional impact. That impact is what Rothko wanted in his work and can be attested to in this quote by him (also makes for a great excerpt from a Schama documentary):

After I’d been at work for some time, I realized that I was much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo’s walls in the staircase room of the Mediciean library in Florence. He achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after. He makes the viewers feel they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up. So all they can do is butt their heads against the wall … forever.

Rothko was stirring the pot with his bold spiritualism. There is a strong divinity in his the murals that is reminiscent of Byzantine art. That type of art would have been seen in cathedrals where one would have to silently contemplate the sublime divinity of God. Seen in this light, I wonder if Rothko is more of a medievalist than he is modernist. His works have this universal element that smacks of the anti-individual. “But Chris, 1950s-60s/Mad Men era, the individual was dead back then!” Not so fast. Yes, as you speed by the advertisements billboards that seemingly propped up America, and as Don Draper (he’s rather become representative of the white, conservative, affluent ad-man from that era) fed you lies with his conforming clean-shaven, well dressed look, you rather think that yes, back then it was a drab time for the individual. And you also have to consider that Rothko intended his “Seagram Murals” for the bigwigs of Manhattan in the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building. (Yea, try to scoff down your Coq au vin with the Holocaust staring at you, and as Rothko put it: “something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room”). And of course, there was that guy that was just starting to develop his own style, or rather his own ideals that, “good business is the best art.” In short, everything should point to Rothko being influenced by the bourgeois mentality. But Rothko was not a product of his times. The grand tour he had taken a decade earlier influenced his work from that point on. He became an emotional force. He would not become a 100% modernist and delve into questions that the viewer should “theoretically” be considering. Unlike Warhol who would rather disrupt you with outrageous philosophical claims that are evoked from mere imagery (eg. dollar sign that is supposed to confront the viewer about the realization that money has physically become art), Rothko has evoked the best that art can do: create an experience, like the Old Masters in their natural settings (cathedrals, lavish private homes, etc.). If the murals had ever gone to the Seagram Building, I wonder if Business Art might have looked different decades down the line. Yet, let bygones be bygones. It doesn’t really matter. The dollar signs would have obviously been a better choice for the bigwigs. Or maybe the Campbell soup cans. Oh no, couldn’t possibly be too low class (after all, it is The Four Seasons). No, it would have to be dollar signs or some such “good business” art. Commune with art? What an outrageous assumption.

Like the Impressionists, Rothko departed from the traditional three point perspective. Perspective did not interest Rothko, mostly because he was not a talented draughtsman.  He was instead creating artwork on which to reflect the past and basic human emotions, investing himself in the tragedy of his painting. He was destroying Western painting, but elaborating on the Impressionist’s desire to create a mood. This was of course, a natural extension. The Impressionists had sought the mood to better capture the effects of the atmosphere, and Rothko’s blurred horizontal blobs achieved that effect superbly well. Rothko was capturing the existence that could be summed up through the mood of a simple crimson hue. But, as is applicable to Impressionist art, a mood is unsubstantial without an inherent meaning. Robert Hughes pointed out that Rothko was trying to convey “the inner core of truths about human character and fate which, expressed as myth, was common to Greek drama and epic as well.” This idea of “myth” is important, because it expresses something real and tangible from the human condition. And this is what makes Rothko a truly astounding artist that revitalized the art. He finally destroyed the illusion that art can be staged. He was able to channel the experiences he had accumulated as a human being and able to channel these emotions into his work, without delving into representation. He made work that is universal – an attribute that art up to that point wanted to be. Rothko perfected this possibility.


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