Sunday, 2 August 2015

Restoring Rothko

When I visited Tate Modern with my youngest son last month, as always I made a beeline for the Seagram Murals - the Rothko Room. My son is sixteen and I wasn't sure he would 'get' Rothko. I don't know that I would have connected at his age, certainly not the way I do now. How wrong, and how great to be wrong. More of that later. 

I'm a huge Rothko fan. Without getting too fancy on you, the feeling that comes over me in front of his work has always been akin to the deep shiver of standing in front of the Standing Stones at Stenness or the Ring of Brodgar. Something primal. I'm not embarrassed to say that his work moves me hugely, I feel something powerful that's hard to put into words, so generally, I don't try, I just love to experience it. I visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston in the early 90's and he's had me under his big, profound spell ever since. I was curious to see how my son would react, but hungry too to wallow and drink in his work again myself.

We saw the paintings, lingered, talked a little bit about the work and then watched a video in an adjacent space. Then we went back to look at the paintings again. The 17 minute video (below) was compelling, it details the story of the restoration of one of the paintings, 'Black on Maroon', that had been badly vandalised in 2012. Watching the film of the restoration team at work was quite incredible, a project in itself - such a delicate exercise in precision, respect and love. The responsibility of having to work on - and into - one of the most powerful, iconic Abstract Expressionist paintings ever created must have been absolutely terrifying. The work disappeared from public display for 18 months, and it seemed for a while that perhaps it had been lost and ruined for ever. Incredibly though, every trace of the vandalism was painstakingly removed and worked over - so that on the surface, the work that re-appeared in the public gallery was as it always had been. No detectable trace of the hand of the vandal, or the restoration team. It was as if it had never been attacked at all.

So it does pain me to say that on this visit at least, the special Rothko spell seemed to have been broken. Or at least interrupted. 

The Seagram Room was full, as it often is. But in the past, however busy, the work has never failed to stir something deep. A feeling creeping up the back, tingles, waves. On a good day, a serious bit of out-of-the-body stuff. But in July - nothing. 

Well, not nothing, but definitely a lessening. A vague stirring, yes. Impossible to actually feel nothing. But the viewer shouldn't have to try to feel, to experience, this should just happen. Shouldn't it? What was getting in the way?

Well, sadly, my overriding emotion was annoyance. All these people. And their bloody smartphones. The whole other worldly dynamic of this incredible space seemed dulled down, reverence reduced to clicking, gazing replaced by that familiar inattentive grazing behind a tiny screen. It seemed no-one was actually looking. Are we forgetting how to experience?  Are we actually still interested in feeling? Or is it easier to live unaware, heads down in our 
internet portals? It seemed that an unthinking stream ran through the room, shambling past and clicking camera-phones, seeing nothing but taking away instead some tiny pointless jumble of pixels never to be looked at again. This was not an effect of the vandalism, but a symptom of our careless slide into technological slothfulness. It's possible I was over-reacting, but I felt a pang of disappointment. And probably some middle-aged anger. Ah, maybe it's just me.

This was my first visit in several years, it is very likely that the last time I stood in reverence in front of these immense canvases the iPhone had yet to proliferate on the epidemic scale it now does. The power of the work would easily over-rule even a crowded room. Even someone walking in front of a painting could not disrupt the flow, the intensity and thumping of blood behind the temples that the works transmitted. So what had really 'spoiled' the work? The vandalism? The restoration? Bloody iPhones... or perhaps the combination all three...

Watch the video - it is an act of love. A sacred artifact so lavished with care and attention that the cruel damage has been all but washed away, the violent wrongdoing absolved. In a way, I now wish now I hadn't watched it at all. On this visit at least, it has been my lasting memory - rather then the work itself. Instead of leaving enriched, intensified and stirred up, the principal lasting effect of this visit was my admiration for the craft and technique of the restoration team. Not to belittle their amazing work - but that seems wrong. Standing in front of a Rothko had never before been reduced down to analysing technique, any more than noticing the frame or the colour of the floor. I do hope that this is temporary, that in time this balance resettles itself, and the paintings rise again to stand uninterrupted. And properly appreciated - for I hope too (perhaps in vain)  that the novelty of snapping little pictures with iPhones instead of living in the moment gets re-calibrated. Only time will tell if, one way or another, we are allowing ourselves to forget to feel, to experience, to be open and communicate with great Art - and for that matter with each other. 

I do finish on a note of optimism - with no real pushing or prompting, my sixteen year old son 'got' Rothko. He's the iPhone generation, very much so. But he got the power, the simplicity, in his words "the tranquility but also the commotion and distress... when experienced truly..." He didn't click a single picture, and he just ignored those who did. He simply experienced - and he felt something. So maybe, yes, it's just me.

Suggested further reading (thank-you, Ian Tromp)

Michael Harris  'The End of Absence'

Friday, 1 May 2015

Last Man On The Mountain

work in progress :  film stills

Friday, 20 March 2015

Thursday, 29 January 2015

New Work

Squall 2014

{from 'vesper'}