I Told Them So. 4 October 2008
Mark Rothko at the Tate Modern and Gerhard Richter at the Serpentine Gallery; we saw these two shows in the same day and I was struck by the similar approach of each gallery, and the reluctance of each gallery to explain the meaning of what was on display.
Each gallery leads the visitor with a hearty endorsement of, and recognition of the status of the artist, and then goes on to explain the meaning of the exhibits by describing the means by which they were produced, and the palettes they utilised.
The Gerhard Richter paintings are defined by a palette of 72 colours that are derived from the medieval glazing on the south transept window of Cologne Cathedral.
Mark Rothko consciously changed his palette to more sombre colours to avoid the charge of being “decorative” This much was explained by the Tate, but we are left wondering what Rothko would have made of the Rothko trinkets in the Tate shop? The tee shirts and mugs.
So, both artists seemed to have an element of randomness in their choice of palette.
Richter has taken the randomness theme yet further by selecting a fixed minimal arrangement of his chosen palette, 100 squares x 100 squares of colour, in no particular order. Repeated on every available wall on every available room in the entire gallery.
Similarly Mark Rothko has adopted a system repeating his palette but applying one colour upon another exploiting the transparency, of the pigment applied, in a simple format repeated many times.
Richter is hard edged on this occasion, Rothko is feather-edged on almost every occasion.
Why have these artists chosen to produce this art in this way and at that time? Both the Tate and the Serpentine have failed to explain the meaning of the work and have simply observed the method and choices of the respective artists. Every artist must choose a palette, and every artist most decide how and where to apply pigment, and whether it should be flat or shiny, transparent or opaque and so on.
This is of course interesting in itself, but the process of production is hardly salient, unless there is nothing else to be said about the work. Both galleries failed to address the fundamental issue of what it all means?
Nevertheless, I recommend both shows that can be enjoyed, subjectively or otherwise for what they are. I should report the audible gasps as visitors entered the new hanging of the Rothko Seagram Murals. Partitions had been removed and gallery had been opened up, as if the Tate had read my comments on the concurrent Francis Bacon show at Tate Britain. I told them so.