Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes

3 out of 5 stars
MR_5214.69_Untitled, 1969.jpg
Mark Rothko 'Untitled', 1969, oil on canvas © 1998 Kate Rothko Pritzel and Christopher Rothko / Artist Rights Society, New York (ARS) Courtesy of Pace Gallery

An interesting concept for an exhibition, this – pairing up some of Mark Rothko's late paintings with contemporary photographs of seascapes by Hiroshi Sugimoto. The formal similarities are striking, with Sugimoto's photographs shot from such a distance as to appear almost abstract: just two contrasting bands of sea and sky, in differing shades of grey. But more than that, the exhibition also makes the case for an affinity of mood and theme: for a shared melancholy and sense of sublime, a feeling of staring into the void – an idea helped by the knowledge that these works by Rothko were amongst the last he produced before his suicide.

Pace gallery has a good track record of these sorts of dual-artist exhibitions in their New York space. And for this inaugural London show, some ideas, certainly, come across well: the sense, for instance, of monolithic endurance, of passing time – drawing attention to Sugimoto's use of dramatically long exposures in some of his dreamier, more mistily ambiguous images.

Unfortunately, however, the conceit isn't nearly as successful for Rothko. In this context, the horizontal divisions in his works are inevitably reduced to a singular reading, that of literal horizon lines; and the specific nuances of his style – the paint sometimes thick and glowering, in other cases scratchy and anxious – feel oddly marginalised and overlooked. In the end, it's hard to shake the nagging suspicion that it's all a marketing ploy – using Rothko's paintings, borrowed from private collections, to provide a sense of art-historical gravitas, and bolster the saleability, of Sugimoto's series.


1 person listening