Rothko’s Seagram Murals return to Tate Liverpool

My dear master, explain red to somebody who has never known red.’

‘If we touched it with the tip of a finger, it would feel like something between iron and copper. If we took it into our palm, it would burn. If we tasted it, it would be full-bodied, like salted meat.If we took it between our lips, it would fill our mouths,. If we smelled it, it’d have the scent of a horse…’
– Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

This morning we all went down to the Tate to see the Rothko Seagram Murals, that have returned to Tate Liverpool after 21 years. In 1988 Tate Liverpool opened  for the first time with a display of the Seagram Murals, and we remember our daughter,  four-years old, on the floor with paper and crayons  in front of them.

The story of the Seagram Murals is well-known: how they were originally commissioned for the select Four Seasons restaurant of the Seagram Building in New York; how he stated his intention was to paint ‘something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won’t. People can stand anything these days’; how he later pulled out of the project and donated the paintings to the Tate; how the paintings arrived in London on the morning after he had bloodily killed himself.

Rothko told John Fischer, editor of Harper’s magazine,

“I accepted this assignment with strictly malicious intentions…I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room. [He wanted to make them ‘feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall’.

From Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E.B. Breslin:

Sometime after his return from Europe that summer and after the restaurant had opened in late July, Rothko decided that he and Mell should have a meal there. Rothko believed that it was ‘criminal to spend more than $5 on a meal,’ but he did like to eat; and he could, now that the restaurant was complete, see how and where others would eventually see his work. After passing a Miró tapestry hung in the travertine lobby, walking up the short stairs to the smaller lobby where the Picasso stage curtain hung, turning left and walking down the dining room vestibule, past the concierge, past the glass-in wine cellar, through the French walnut doorway and into the main dining room, Mark and Mell Rothko entered a sumptuous, high-ceilinged room… The two interior walls, divided into a grid of vertical panels, were covered with natural rawhide. Beyond the marble pool, nine steps rose to the smaller dining room, where Rothko’s murals would be installed and Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles now hung…

Seated in ‘Brno’ chairs designed by [Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe] himself, Mark and Mell Rothko contemplated a menu which offered them a cuisine ‘derived from many of the cuisines of the world’… Rothko had hoped to paint something that would ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever ate in that room. Instead, the concrete reality of the restaurant probably ruined his appetite, and certainly ruined his project…

When he got home that evening, he called Katharine Kuh ‘in a state of high emotion’ to say he was returning the money he’d received and withdrawing his paintings. ‘When he was working on the project, his imagination plus a dash of wishful thinking projected an idyllic setting where captivated diners, lost in reverie, communed with the murals. I’m afraid it never entered his head that the works would be forced to compete with a noisy crowd of conspicuous consumers.’ But ‘real transactions’ were not on the Four Seasons menu. The next morning, arriving at his Bowery studio, ‘he came through the door like a bull, as only Rothko could, in an absolute rage,’ said Dan Rice. ‘He said quite explosively – no good mornings or anything… slamming his hat down on the table and pounding, ‘Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine.’

TateShots Issue 16: Rothko

In autumn 2008, Tate Modern presented an exhibition of the late works of Mark Rothko. In this video, the show’€™s curator, Achim Borchardrt-Hume, takes us on a tour featuring the iconic Seagram Murals, Black-Form paintings, and the Black on Grey paintings -€“ the last series made before Rothko’s death in 1970.

Afterwards, we adjourned to the Buddleia restaurant in the Contemporary Urban Centre (CUC) on Greenland Street, where all members of the party were deeply impressed by the superb Sunday roasts. Two of us had the veggie option – a nut roast – which was, as the waiter promised, outstanding. The quality of the food was superb – the vegetables were just right – al dente – and the roast potatoes were to die for. Definitely coming back here to eat in the evening!

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Rothko at the Tate

Rothko at the Tate

Another destination in London was the Tate to see the Rothko exhibition. It reunites Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals, originally commissioned in the 1950s for The Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, New York. The artist was always uneasy about the commission, reportedly saying

I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.

Ultimately, he withdrew the works and donated a group of nine to the Tate. After months at sea, the paintings arrived safely at the London docks on February 25, 1970, the very day he committed suicide in New York.

Rothko’s paintings are amongst the most iconic of late 20th century canvases, their luminous, soft-edged rectangles saturated with colour in diffused bands of red and orange, yellows and rich browns. This exhibition also includes many of his lesser-known, austere works, in a more stark palette of black, brown and grey, remniscent of Goya’s late black paintings. For example, this late work, Untitled, 1969, of grey and black, painted shortly before his suicide:

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