Saturday, December 31, 2011

Lights Off

”Untitled” a 1955 painting by Mark Rothko, sits on display during a fall auction preview at Sotheby’s in New York. (Tom Starkweather/Bloomberg)

Large paintings immediately framing an entrance in a Mark Rothko show at Sidney Janis Gallery in the mid-fifties.

’As in the past Rothko placed works close together; and if, as happened in one case, a canvas extended beyond its wall and into a doorway, that didn't bother him. He wished, as he had written Katharine Kuh, to ”defeat” the actual physical space of a room. As Janis realized, Rothko ”created an ambience that way. He knew very well how his paintings worked, probably better than . . . any other artist in his generation.” Rothko also used lightning to create an ambience, not the bright light he had sought for his ”Fifteen Americans” room at MOMA, but a very dim light, an obscurity from which the paintings – soon themselves to grow dark – only slowly emerged. This insistence caused some troubles for Janis, who didn't want his commercial space looking like a cave. ”No matter how low it was he would reduce it,” Janis complained. ”It made the gallery so dismal, but he wanted some kind of mystery attached to his painting.” Philip Guston recalled coming with Rothko to visit one of his Janis shows: ”they strolled into the gallery and Mark, without a word, switched off half the lights.” When Janis came out from his office, the three men ”chatted a bit and, in a pause in the conversation, Janis slid off and turned all the lights back on. Rothko didn't say anything.” Janis returned to his office. As the two painters were leaving, just before they entered the elevator, ”Rothko turned half the lights back off again”’

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

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