02/21/2012 10:20 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Rothko Won Over Britain


The exhibition that made an indelible mark on the art world: Mark Rothko's 1961 exhibit at Whitechapel Gallery. Photograph: Sandra Lousada.

Talk about making an impression: Mark Rothko's 1961 solo show at Whitechapel Gallery is still described as nothing short of electrifying. "Shocked... spellbound... transformed," were just a few of the adjectives elicited by viewers who witnessed the monumental show. Simply put, Rothko bowled over the British public, who were overwhelmed by the vastness and vibrancy of his work. And the impression has been a lasting one -- Whitechapel is now hosting an innovative exhibit which pays homage to the artist and the show that stunned a nation.

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking London debut, Whitechapel's Rothko in Britain highlights the artist's connections with the country and his British contemporaries. The show spotlights one of Rothko's most important works, Light Red Over Black (1957) alongside photographs, testimonies, and archival footage from the '61 event, as well as interviews with artists and visitors to the show.

2012-02-16-retg.JPG Rothko first came to Britain in the summer of 1959, and resided with fellow painters William Scott and Peter Lanyon, respectively. Terrified of flying, the artist journeyed back to the country two years later by sea, due to the personal and professional relationships he established within the British art scene. In addition to his friends in the art circle, Rothko was drawn to the U.K. by a sense of historical and cultural kinship. "I feel so in tune with people like Shakespeare and Dickens I often think they must really have been Russian Jews who emigrated to New York," the artist once wrote. Over the next decade Rothko continued to develop close ties with Britain as his art evolved. (Left: William Scott and Mark Rothko at Elm Tree Cottage, Hallatrow, Somerset, August 1959. Photograph: James Scott, (c) James Scott, Courtesy of William Scott Foundation.).

"Rothko, like any artist who is at the beginning of their career, experimented with different themes and styles. He made portraits and landscapes and slowly shifted to the works that we recognize as color fields, and which was later categorized as 'abstract expressionism.' Nevertheless, he did not consider himself as an abstract painter," said Whitechapel curator Nayia Yiakoumaki, in a recent interview with MutualArt.


Installation View, Mark Rothko 1961, Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive. Photograph: Edgar Hyma

Based on the audience reactions at the infamous 1961 affair, it certainly seemed as though Rothko's style of painting defied all classification. The works on view were some prime examples of his celebrated "multiform works," 48 in total from a touring show that originated at N.Y.'s MoMA. These paintings personified the culmination of Rothko's signature style -- enormous canvases depicting large blocks of contrasting yet complimentary colors. "The familiar rectangles hovering on large fields of color, are perhaps what established him in the art world," said Yiakoumaki. (Below: Rothko's Light Red Over Black (1957) is featured in the new exhibition. Oil on canvas; (c) 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.).

2012-02-16-red2.JPGThe paintings were startling, not only because of their vivid immediacy, but the manner in which they were displayed in the gallery. Surrounded by the large-scale canvases, viewers felt fully immersed in Rothko's colors, while simultaneously the gallery space made the atmosphere seem cavernous. Rothko himself stressed the importance of the 2012-02-16-yliglitgi.JPGpaintings' size -- he wanted viewers to feel "enveloped within the painting;" even today, the paintings continue to overwhelm the senses.

"The viewer is drawn to [the paintings], experiencing the artist's understanding of space and time at the same instant," Yiakoumaki said. "The large volume of color is very enchanting too, as well as the fact that one is constantly trying to center one's self onto the image as well as arrest the imagination on something more schematic." And while Rothko wasn't the only artist of the era working with abstract forms, his particular style set him apart. "This element of eliminating the figure, and concentrating on the depiction of some kind of 'organized' void, was what made his works differ from other painters of the same period such as Jackson Pollock, or Robert Motherwell," she explained. (Above and below right, both images from Rothko's 1961 Whitechapel show; Photographs by Sandra Lousada.)

The success of Rothko's solo exhibit in Britain literally transcended all high hopes for the show. One patron, a Muslim man, knelt in front of the paintings and began to pray -- a reaction that delighted the 2012-02-16-jfyul.JPGartist, who frequently emphasized an aspect of spirituality in his works. Other visitors were moved to tears, a display that reinforced Rothko's artistic intentions. He once said his interest was "only in expressing basic human emotions -- tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them."

Rothko in Britain captures the essence of the original show, which marked a turning-point in the artist's career. "This exhibition was very important because it introduced his work to the British pubic for the first time, in such a large volume and at a public gallery." And everyone was suitably impressed by the works that, as Yiakoumaki says, "from this exhibition on, the art world was captivated by Rothko and subsequently, [Tate Director] Norman Reid, approached the artist to discuss a purchase of works... culminating with the substantial donation of eight of the Seagram Murals to the Tate in 1970."

Tragically, the large canvases arrived at the famed British institution the same day Rothko committed suicide. Yet Rothko's approach to painting continued to affect later generations of artists, inspiring others to take risks in their art, and his influence is certainly still tangible at the gallery that brought his art to a whole new audience.


The artist with one of his celebrated 'multiform' paintings

Rothko in Britain is now open at the Whitechapel Gallery until February 26, 2012.

Written by MutualArt writer Lauren Meir