Mark Rothko 1968: 'Clearing Away' review

Art Free
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
Copyright © 2020 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
Copyright © 2020 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Mark Rothko is hard to think about clearly. He’s hard to talk about, examine and consider. His work has become such an integral part of our cultural landscape – especially here in London, where the Tate is home to his Seagram Murals – that it’s almost impossible to separate his art from the narrative, the myth of Rothko; this tortured artist who painted his pain. 

And that’s everywhere in this show of his late works on paper. These were all made when Rothko was at his sickest, barely mobile, crushed by depression. So the temptation is to read these as the product of an ailing man, an artist in ill health, physically and mentally. The narrative is so strong around Rothko that you WANT to find the torment and anguish. And that’s a shame, because whether it’s there or not – and it probably is – you end up missing the actual art, the paintings.

And that’s a pity, because they are beautiful, beautiful things. They’re full of blocks and lines of shimmering colour that pulsate and throb. They feel familiar, too. Many have the deep, bloody, bodily reds and browns and blacks of the Tate works. But they don’t dwarf and envelope you here, they're too small for that. Instead, they suck you in, pull you eyeball to eyeball. The big, bold, angry marks of the bigger Rothko works are replaced with small, gentle gestures, soft drips, blurred smudges. It’s Rothko crying on your shoulder instead of screaming in your face.

There are some duds here – including one yellow and white one that looks like I did it – and the gallery is brutally sterile and horribly lit. But Rothko’s paintings still manage to stand on their own. Beyond the noise, the myth, the torment, the lighting, what you end up with is painting, and this is it at its purest.

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