Stranger in a Strange Land – Mark Rothko

Dec 11, 2023 | News

Mark Rothko, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris,

    18 October 2023 – 2 April 2024

Ten very hazy days ago, bright eyed and bushy tailed, I set off from my studio in sleepy France Profonde for the bright lights. I have lived in Paris on and off, through thick and thin, over the last 30 years, have missed it terribly, and haven’t set foot there since the pandemic. So, it is painfully ironic that I caught a very nasty case of le virus while I was there. Relentless rain, crowded metros, museums, shops, cafes, and streets clearly did for me. Not Paris when it sizzles, but definitely Paris when it drizzles.

Je ne regrette rien.

The Mark Rothko retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton has filled my feeble heart, nourished my sad depleted soul, and given me a sense of haste now that am back in London. I am impatiently waiting for the energy to get back to the studio. Food still tastes rather strange, but my taste in painting has been amplified, enlarged, expanded, and magnified. Rothko does this to me every time.

Aside from it’s being an amazing silver-sailed architectural wonder anchored in the boring old Bois de Boulogne, I’ve never rated the Fondation Louis Vuitton as a place to see art. Frank Gehry is a brilliantly idiosyncratic architect but to my mind his museums — and I include the Guggenheim in Bilbao — don’t serve their purpose, with their arbitrary flying, suspended walls and showy, glittery surfaces. The building is always the star of the show, not what’s inside it. But I have been converted. I think Rothko, up in painter’s paradise, would be pleased.

I follow Rothko shows around the world if I can — he is a lodestar for me as an artist — but I have never seen Rothko (b.1903 Dvinsk, Russia, d. New York 1970) look so good. The curation here in Paris is more sensitive and careful than the many shows I have seen before. The muddy, edgy early figurative work from the late 1930’s and early 1940’s is given its respectful due — echoes of early Pollock,  Ben Shahn, and Raphael Soyer — but the vertiginous ascent into abstraction that begins for him in New York in 1949 is literally breathtaking. I could hear audible gasps among my fellow culture vultures.

We, the viewers, make a long and intense journey.

The work has been given the space to breathe, and Rothko’s almost Talmudic obsession with the eternal verities, what the curator calls the “human drama” is carefully calibrated. It’s always hard not to see Rothko painting through the lens of tragedy in the darkness of his suicide, but here his work comes truly alive with light. As Monet said — and there is a real connection between Rothko and Monet’s oceanic Waterlily paintings from 1890 to 1926 — “light is the only person in a painting”.

Both Monet and Rothko deftly manipulate veils of saturated colour, skeins of light and darkness, sometimes thin, sometimes fat. Layers of transparency and opacity and the delicate balances in Rothko are so beautiful. There is order and chaos, deepest darkest melancholy and luminous ecstatic joy all at the same time. Counter to the laws of physics one can almost see the two-dimensional paint expand into the three-dimensional gallery space, like music. We can get close to the paintings, and, as I have an abiding and unresolved fascination with Rothko’s painting process, this is a true gift.

What comes first? Light over dark? Dark over light? Life over death? What is the chronology of the paint? The paintings pulse with polarities of energy. Did he go as far as he could ? Did he paint himself into a corner? Was his end in his beginning? Did he become a stranger to himself? Was he always a stranger in a strange land? An alienated exile? The show ends with the so-called black paintings. They are hermetic and sealed off. Cauterised. It’s very, very sad. Numbing.

A suggested antidote for grief: take the little navette bus back from the Fondation to the Étoile and get on metro number 1, direction Vincennes. Get off at the Concorde. The Waterlilies await you in the Orangerie.

Don’t breathe.

Good luck.


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