On view through January 2nd in the Tower of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art is a small show, “In the Tower: Mark Rothko”. The exhibition consists of just two rooms in a somewhat hard-to-find space in the upper reaches of the museum, at the top of a spiral staircase. The first of the two, an installation of Rothko’s paintings from the Rothko Chapel in Houston, is a brightly minimalist, cube-like space featuring both Rothko’s works and appropriately nihilistic music. The second, more intimate space to the side, features a selection of Rothko paintings documenting his development, as well as a brief but informative film, giving an overview of his career.
Regular readers of this blog can already imagine what The Courtier’s opinion is of Rothko’s work, at least in its later incarnations. So rather than waste his gentle readers’ time in decrying the obvious, it may be more interesting, albeit surprising, for said readers to know that he intends to pay some compliments to the National Gallery for putting together a show which is very well-thought out. Even if one does not care for the subject matter of an exhibition, the staging of the show itself can be appreciated when it is done well, as is the case here.
When the visitor arrives at the top of the staircase and enters the first room of the exhibition, the contrast of the brilliantly-lit white walls via the skylights, with the wood floor, charcoal square carpet, black leather seating area, and the black-on-black paintings is stunning. Even if you do not like this set of canvases – and The Courtier most certainly does not – the combination of these elements takes the viewer out of their everyday space and into Rothko’s world. The addition of the softly piped-in sturm-und-drang music is not obtrusive, but rather an element of the show that helps to set the tone and give an insight into Rothko’s mindset at the time he created these pieces.
Facing the reconstructed chapel space, to the right one sees an entrance to a low-ceilinged space where the remainder of the works of show are displayed, as well as the screen with the continuously looped documentary on Rothko’s biography. The volume on this is kept just loud enough for those standing nearby to hear, but not so loud as to interfere with the experience of those in the adjacent display of the black paintings. The monitor is on a diagonal in the corner, so that those looking at the works in this room can circulate without having to walk in front of the film.
The works themselves in this second space are not numerous, but they are examples of earlier and, to the uninitiated, lesser-known currents in Rothko’s work. Here one can find swooping and curving elements depending on Expressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Surrealism, that may come as a surprise to someone who is only aware of Rothko’s paintings of colored squares from dorm room posters or around the desk of your hip 7th grade homeroom teacher. The space in which they and the film are displayed is softer than the chapel space, carpeted and painted in off-white, beige and pale gray. The effect is like a room or passageway in a mid-century modern Manhattan apartment, rather than an imposing gallery space.
In essence, these are two completely different shows, which in execution could have been terribly disjointed. At least in theory, as they are described above, the rooms are united only by the identity of the creator of the works on display, and by the architectural layout of the building. What works here, in the design of the exhibition, is the fact that the more intimate second room gives the visitor a comfortable respite from the intensity of the first room. The chapel space can very quickly come to feel overwhelmingly oppressive because of the nature of what is going on there; having an adjacent space to which one can retreat and compose oneself in a more comfortable setting is psychologically very wise. It is rather like finding a place to sit down and rest after having passed through a jaw-clenching experience.
Credit must be given when and where it is due, and in this case it is not given grudgingly. As said at the outset, this reviewer did not care for most of the art on show, but found the exhibition itself to be very well-done. To be able to impress someone with a rather reactionary aesthetic, such as The Courtier, one must be a very good exhibition designer indeed. In this instance, the National Gallery has most definitely succeeded.