Mark Rothko’s paintings at their best are richly coloured, glowing and with a mysterious depth. Paint handling was at the service of conjuring up this sense of undefined forms floating in a pictorial space – think of the feathered edges of the forms in the Tate’s Seagram murals. Late in his life he chose a palette, materials and paint handling quite different from what had gone before. The paintings at London’s new outpost of the Pace Gallery are in acrylics not oils, and with most of the colour drained out of them. Blacks, greys and dark browns dominate, with one exception in a pinkish mauve and blue combination that provides light relief from the darkness elsewhere in the gallery.
Instead of forms apparently floating in a larger colour field, here the image is divided horizontally into two areas which extend to the edges. Black or brown is above and grey below, occasionally with a rough division between. There is little sense of depth. The black tends to be even and matt, the grey and brown brushed rapidly on with many broad marks. The dominant sense is of a dull flatness; that feeling is enhanced by the loosely taped edges that leave a slightly ragged white border around many of the works. It’s hard to separate the works, painted in the last year of the artist’s life, from the biography. These works are bleak and desolate, as Rothko’s life may well have become before he committed suicide in 1970.
It’s a relief, then, that these paintings are shown in juxtaposition with a selection of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large-scale seascape photographs. While there are certainly formal affinities between the two sets of work, the contrasts are stark. While the height of Rothko’s ‘horizon’ varies from work to work, Sugimoto places his dead centre every time. The seascapes draw you in, the prolonged exposures softening detail and blurring the horizon – an affinity with Rothko’s feathered brushwork. Looking at an empty sea and sky, an infinite horizon, we are invited into a void and a sense of expansion. But there’s a contrasting force at work, the build-up of light over a long exposure, the light radiating from some of the photographs with the force of a painting by Turner. In one of the two images entitled Bay of Sagami, Atami, the light bulges over the horizon as if breaking through a boundary. At the other end of the scale, a sequence of three images of the Tyyrhenian Sea goes from a pale grey to a deep, satin black. The horizon is invisible and the only differentiation in tone is a subtle darkening at the corners. We have to take it on trust that there was anything in front of the camera, and I’m reminded of Wolfgang Tillmans’ abstract photographs – these too are experiments in light, not depictions in the usual sense. Sugimoto’s greys are smooth and subtly detailed, such as the soft ripples of water visible in Lake Superior, Cascade River. Rothko’s greys seem rather dull by comparison, but the most appealing of the canvases has striations that echo the water that fills Sugimoto’s images.
The radiance and softness of many of the photographs is a direct contrast to the dull blankness of Rothko’s late paintings. Sugimoto is opening up the world; for Rothko it was closing down.