Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals: What Makes Them Great Art

It is pre­cise­ly the pos­si­bil­i­ty of exer­cis­ing choice where­in our lot dif­fers from that of the artists of the past. For choice implies respon­si­bil­i­ty to one’s con­science, and, in the con­science of the artist, the Truth of Art is fore­most. — Mark Rothko

Born Mar­cus Rothkowitz in 1903, the painter Mark Rothko immi­grat­ed with his fam­i­ly from Rus­sia at age 10, flee­ing the per­se­cu­tion of Jews in his home coun­try. He grew up poor in Port­land, Ore­gon, won a schol­ar­ship to Yale in 1921, but “found him­self once more an out­sider, stig­ma­tized as a Jew,” says James Payne in the Great Art Explained video above. Feel­ing alien­at­ed and dis­af­fect­ed, he dropped out and moved to New York (to the dis­may of his fam­i­ly), “to wan­der around,” he lat­er wrote, ”bum about, starve a bit,” and paint. He co-found­ed a group of mod­ern artists who exhib­it­ed fre­quent­ly togeth­er and won crit­i­cal atten­tion, but Rothko strug­gled finan­cial­ly into mid­dle age and only began sell­ing his work dur­ing the “col­or field” peri­od that made him famous in the 1950s.

It wasn’t until 1958 that Rothko received his first major com­mis­sion, for what would become the Sea­gram Murals, so-called because they were meant for the lux­u­ri­ous Four Sea­sons restau­rant in the new­ly-built Sea­gram Build­ing on Park Avenue, a glit­ter­ing sym­bol of New York’s opu­lence, designed by archi­tects Mies van der Rohe and Philip John­son and filled with paint­ings by Rothko’s con­tem­po­raries. Rothko spent two years work­ing on the project, a series of paint­ings to fill the restau­ran­t’s small­er, exclu­sive din­ing room. He pro­duced a total of 30 pan­els, sev­en of which were to fit togeth­er in the restau­rant. Then, almost two years after receiv­ing the com­mis­sion for $35,000 (rough­ly $334,000 today), he abrupt­ly changed his mind, returned the mon­ey, and with­drew the works.

Ten years after Rothko’s deci­sion, “on the 25th of Feb­ru­ary 1970,” Payne tells us, “the Tate gallery in Lon­don received nine Mark Rothko can­vas­es” — pan­els from the Sea­gram Murals col­lec­tion — “a gen­er­ous dona­tion from the artist him­self. A few hours lat­er, Rothko was found dead in his stu­dio on East 69th Street in Man­hat­tan. The 66-year old painter had tak­en his own life…. His sui­cide would change every­thing, and shape the way we respond to his work.” But per­haps it’s not that trag­ic event that best pro­vides us with an under­stand­ing of the artist’s moti­va­tions. “Rothko’s con­tract with soci­ety was not torn up that day in 1970,” argues Jonathan Jones at The Guardian, “but a decade ear­li­er, in 1959,” when Rothko, “intense, soli­tary, left­wing, used to pover­ty and fail­ure,” con­ceived of an art to “har­row” well-heeled din­ers at the Four Sea­sons.

Rothko explic­it­ly mod­eled the Sea­gram Mur­al project after what he called the “somber vault” of Michelangelo’s Lau­rent­ian Library in Flo­rence, which he vis­it­ed on a trip to Italy in 1959. “He achieved just the kind of feel­ing I’m after,” said Rothko. “He makes the view­ers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and win­dows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads for­ev­er against the wall.” Aban­don­ing the brighter col­or schemes of his past works, he turned to blacks, reds, and maroons, a palette drawn from mosa­ic walls he’d seen in a Pom­pei­ian vil­la. Rothko report­ed­ly told jour­nal­ist John Fis­ch­er, an edi­tor at Harper’s, “I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.” Aware of how his col­or field paint­ings moved view­ers, often to tears, he hoped the murals would ampli­fy the effect to an unpalat­able degree.

Instead, when Rothko him­self dined at the Four Sea­sons for the first and only time, he spoiled his own appetite for the com­mis­sion. “Any­body who will eat that kind of food for those kinds of prices will nev­er look at a paint­ing of mine,” he told his assis­tant. That very evening he with­drew the paint­ings. “The fact that Rothko accept­ed the com­mis­sion in the first place is puz­zling,” Shi­ra Wolfe writes at Art­land. “He was revolt­ed by cap­i­tal­ist Amer­i­ca, and felt dis­dain towards any­one who con­tributed to it – and the Four Sea­sons Restau­rant, in New York’s swanki­est sky­scraper, was des­tined to become the very epit­o­me of America’s cap­i­tal­ism.” From its begin­nings, the artist “felt ambiva­lent about the com­mis­sion, and had a con­tract drawn up which would allow him to back out of the deal and retrieve his paint­ings if nec­es­sary.”

It was the neces­si­ty of choice, even in the face of pover­ty and obscu­ri­ty, that most moved Rothko, as he wrote in a man­u­script from the 1940s, posthu­mous­ly pub­lished by his son Christo­pher Rothko as The Artist’s Real­i­ty: Philoso­phies of Art. In the book, Rothko con­trasts the mod­ern artist’s fate with that of artists of the past who lived by the whims of dukes, kings, and popes.

It will be point­ed out that the artist’s lot is the same today, that the mar­ket, through its denial or afford­ing of the means of sus­te­nance, exerts the same com­pul­sion. Yet there is this vital dif­fer­ence: the civ­i­liza­tions enu­mer­at­ed above had the tem­po­ral and spir­i­tu­al pow­er to sum­mar­i­ly enforce their demands. The Fires of Hell, exile, and, in the back­ground, the rack and stake, were cor­rec­tives if per­sua­sion failed. Today the com­pul­sion is Hunger, and the expe­ri­ence of the last four hun­dred years has shown us that hunger is not near­ly as com­pelling as the immi­nence of Hell and Death. Since the pass­ing of the spir­i­tu­al and tem­po­ral patron, the his­to­ry of art is the his­to­ry of men who, for the most part, have pre­ferred hunger to com­pli­ance, and who have con­sid­ered the choice worth­while. And choice it is, for all the trag­ic dis­par­i­ty between the two alter­na­tives. 

Rothko was “obvi­ous­ly torn between his hatred for the wealth and greed of cap­i­tal­ism and his desire to cre­ate his own spe­cial place for his art,” writes Wolfe. In the year after his death, just such a place would open, a mur­al project that real­ized a very dif­fer­ent set of inten­tions.

Orig­i­nal­ly a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Philip John­son and Rothko – until the archi­tect bowed out due to the painter’s pecu­liar vision – the non-sec­tar­i­an Rothko Chapel in Hous­ton debuted in late Feb­ru­ary 1971. An octag­o­nal, clois­tered build­ing with four­teen large Rothko murals, the Chapel was com­mis­sioned by col­lec­tor and patron Dominique de Menil when she saw the Sea­gram Murals tak­ing shape in Rothko’s pur­pose-built New York stu­dio. It’s pos­si­ble, and per­haps mor­bid­ly tempt­ing, to judge Rothko’s work by the tragedy of his final per­son­al act, but he had more to say in his work after death. In the Sea­gram Murals, Rothko attempt­ed to real­ize a phi­los­o­phy of art he had artic­u­lat­ed years ear­li­er in The Artist’s Real­i­ty: “The law of Author­i­ty,” whether that of the Church, the State, or the Mar­ket, “has this sav­ing grace; it can be cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ed.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch the Tate Mod­ern Restore Mark Rothko’s Van­dal­ized Paint­ing, Black on Maroon: 18 Months of Work Con­densed Into 17 Min­utes

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

The MoMA Teach­es You How to Paint Like Pol­lock, Rothko, de Koon­ing & Oth­er Abstract Painters

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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