Mark Rothko – The Seagram Murals

Look at the paintings of Mark Rothko, in particular the huge Seagram Building paintings, now in Tate Modern, which form a solemn kind of tone poem all in shades of crimson.

Mark Rothko American, born Russia (now Latvia). 1903–1970
The Seagram Murals

rothko-seagramIt has to be said that viewing the Seagram Murals online is inevitably a poor alternative to seeing them in real life as one can’t get a sense of the scale or texture of these abstract expressionist oil paintings. I found them challenging initially but this mini research project was revealing and it changed my perceptions of Mark Rothko’s work by giving me a glimpse at  what might have been his motivation and intent in making such stark and gloomy paintings.

Rothko accepted a US$35,000 commission in 1958 to create a series of large-scale paintings (The Seagram Murals) for the Four Seasons, one of the most prestigious and expensive restaurants in New York situated on the ground floor of the newly built Seagram Building, a towering architectural statement in glass and metal.

Rothko withdrew from the commission after completing 30 paintings involving variations on a theme of abstract rectangular shapes executed in gloomy shades of crimson teamed with black and brown and, occasionally,somewhat more vibrant orange and pink. According  to Tate Modern he withdrew because he did not feel it was appropriate for his work to be displayed in such a fashionable establishment.

So what was in Rothko’s mind when he accepted the commission? He believed art was a form of language and the statements that follow reveal something about his thinking.

In Tiger’s Eye magazine in 1949 he stated: “‘The progression of a painter’s work…will be toward clarity; toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.”

In an interview in 1957 with Selden Rodman he said: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom…and if you…are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point.”

Rothko had strong views on the way his works should be displayed. His preference was for them to be hung in groups of paintings that filled a room creating a dramatic and intimate environment without being decorative.

I can surmise from this information that Rothko did not intend the Seagram Murals to simply decorate the dining area. He was aiming to express some kind of  basic emotion. But what?

I gained some further insights from a fascinating article written for the Guardian in 2002, by Jonathan Jones which puts into context the New York scene and what the brash new Seagram Building and the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant may have represented to the artist.

Jones writes: “The paintings arrived in London on the morning of Rothko’s suicide. Dead men tell no tales. It was not clear, when Rothko died in 1970, why he had accepted the unlikely commission to decorate a swanky restaurant on Park Avenue, on the mezzanine floor of Manhattan’s most authoritative new skyscraper. And he never satisfactorily explained why he suddenly and violently decided to withdraw his paintings and return the money in 1959.”

Jones goes on to offer an explanation:

“Rothko did know what he was doing, and what kind of people he was doing it for. He saw his Four Seasons murals as violent, even terrorist art, a savage aesthetic revenge, and relished the chance to bite the hands of those who had made him rich.

“This is what Rothko told John Fischer, a fellow tourist he bumped into in the bar of an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic in the early summer of 1959 after he had been working for several months on the paintings. Fischer was an editor of Harper’s Magazine and their conversations over drinks have therefore been recorded – Fischer published Portrait Of The Artist As An Angry Man, a memoir of Rothko, in Harper’s Magazine in July 1970. Some guardians of Rothko’s memory prefer to think that he was playing up to the journalist, that he didn’t mean what he said, because what he said is so incendiary. Rothko told Fischer he wanted to upset, offend and torture the diners at the Four Seasons, that his motivation was entirely subversive.”

Rothko’s suicide in 1970 led to his late works being interpreted as a reflection of his depressed state, but until the end of his life Rothko continued to maintain that his work was not a form of self-expression but a means of communicating his ideas about the condition of mankind.


Laurentian Library vestibule, Florence

In making these paintings Rothko was influenced by the sombre murals of Pompeii and, in particular, by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, with its blind windows and deliberately oppressive atmosphere, both of which he visited on a trip to Italy in the summer of 1959. Rothko commented that Michelangelo “achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up”.

Nine of the Seagram paintings were bequeathed by the artist to the Tate Gallery, London in 1970. The Tate worked with Rothko to display them in a compact space,  under reduced light so that the “subtlety of the layered surfaces slowly emerges, revealing the solemn and meditative character of the works”.

Solemn and meditative or a kind of aesthetic revenge? You decide!


TATE (Online) Mark Rothko, The Seagram Mural Project  %5BAccessed 24 April 2015]

MUSEUM OF MODERN ART (Online) The Collection: Mark Rothko – Life & Work;  [Accessed 24 April 2015]

JONES, J . (2002)  The Guardian. (Online) 7 December. [Accessed 24 April 2015]


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