Lois Dalphinis

Brushstrokes and breathing space

Mark Rothko, ‘Black on Maroon’ (1958)


I visit the Tate Modern.  Five minutes to look around…it’s been a while since my last visit.  I quickly end up in the Transformed Visions display and head over to where I see six Rothko paintings and sit down in the dimly lit room.


Drawn to ‘Black on Maroon’, I sit in contemplation at the sheer size of the painting.  “You can sit and stare at a Rothko for hours.” That’s all I’ve been told or know of the artist until today (aside from a few postcards and glances in art books).  Maybe it’s the brushstrokes that draw you in, enabling you to see the artist at work – a delicate balance between scale, colour and form, with a simplicity of execution.  The painting is boldly silent.


Leaving the room and hung on the right you see Turner’s ‘Yacht Approaching the Coast’.  Smaller in scale than the Rothko, Turner completed this landscape after several years, returning to repaint areas of the canvas.  Rothko had mentioned being influenced by Turner, which is evident in the handling of paint.  Both artists’ delicate application of tonality create light and shade in different ways.  Turner’s painting radiates light with the relationship of white and yellow, whilst Rothko vertically diffuses with the changing tone of maroon, and throughout the painting, by applying a black floating frame with a similar value to the maroon used for the background of the piece.


Strictly speaking, all that is required to create a potent dramatic event is two characters. Put a pair onstage, and you automatically have a relationship, and from the complicated ways in which two people relate to each other can grow myriad dramatic developments.


J.M.W Turner, ‘Yacht Approaching the Coast’ (c.1840–5)


What do you see?


Although Rothko mentioned his wanting to create a mood similar to Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence for The Seagram Murals commission, I found ‘Black on Maroon’ to be pleasantly absorbing.  For me, the other paintings on display achieved the affect Rothko was seeking by his use of high and low contrasting hues with gloss and matt paint.


[Michelangelo] achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up…


Rothko felt his works were not suitable for The Four Seasons Restaurant and I can see what he meant in that the mood, particularly of ‘Black on Maroon’, could be lost in a busy and possibly quite noisy restaurant.  Taken as a whole happening and performance between the artist and the commissioner, I do find Rothko’s withdrawal of the works very poignant – The value of art lies in more than it’s monetary value and art is in fact more than the work on canvas.


[An] engrossing, often enthralling new play about art, an artist and the act of creation.





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