Currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London is a replica of the first solo British exhibition by Russian-born American, Mark Rothko. The show was originally displayed at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961 and the 2011/12 display marks its 50th anniversary. The reconstructed version however, is not an exact reproduction; it is a different kind of show – more of a descriptive explanation rather than an exact copy of the first.
This 21st century reincarnation is minimal – only one of Rothko’s paintings is on display. There is just one room, dimly lit with archives of photographs and letters marking the correspondence between the painter and the curator of the 1961 show. The spectator is given an insight into the curatorship of the original exhibition with the portrayal of a close relationship developing between artist and curator. We are shown specific instructions about how Rothko wished for the paintings to be hung; including information concerning the lighting, the specific details about the off white walls behind them, and the height in inches, at which the paintings should be hung off of the ground.
With photographs from the first exhibit by Sandra Lousada showing spectators mesmerized by the paintings, it is clear that Rothko understood how to give his audience the optimum response to his work. Indeed, in one sheet of notes from the exhibition, Rothko is stated as saying: ‘You think my paintings are calm?…You should look again. I’m the most violent of all the American painters.’ Certainly, in the feeble lights of the Whitechapel Gallery on a Sunday evening, the one solitary painting, Light Red Over Black – 1957, has an instant effect on the viewer. Maybe it is the contrasting colours, or the rectangles that appear to be so aggressively painted that it has been forced into its support, that leaves a strong effect on the spectator which is not previously expected from this piece of abstract expressionism, which, on first glance, doesn’t appear to be capable of housing so much emotion.
While Whitechapel gives us a unique insight into the preparation of exhibitions and even more interestingly the relationship curators have with artists, it is disappointing that only one work is on display. There is certainly potential for a more in depth look into the planning of the original display, and the inclusion of a few more paintings would have put more effect into the archives on show. Nevertheless, we are given an intimate look into the personal ideas and relationships of one of the most famed painters of abstract expressionism and given an alternative view into the artists influence on their own exhibitions.
Rothko in Britain is open at the Whitechapel Gallery until February 26, 2012.