I'm spending Christmas in Liverpool and as luck would have it the Tate Modern down in the Albert Dock is showing Rothko's Four Season murals. Having read so much about these paintings and of the tortured man behind them it was a fantastic opportunity, too good to miss. So off I went.
The Tate has nine of these colossal, mysterious paintings, bequeathed by Rothko himself when he inexplicably pulled them away from their original home-to-be, the snooty restaurant of the Seagram building in Manhattan (the paintings of course were destined to become better known as the 'Seagram Murals').
I had heard tales of viewers being overwhelmed by the power of these colour field masterpieces, of a sense of awe one felt when one stood in their presence. Such is their bleakness and stark simplicity, and lack of any recognisable imagery, the viewer has little choice but to internalise. Dark colours and weak lighting lead inevitably, so it's supposed, to much soul searching. An artist acquaintance of mine told me he had cried in front of them.
Now, maybe that was a level of hype that was never going to be lived up to, or maybe I'm just not the sensitive type, but I'm afraid to say the experience for me was considerably less dramatic than I had anticipated.
I tried. I really did.
I stood long and I stood quietly. I let the bleak colours suffuse into my head and waited for some sort of revelation. I went out and came back in again. But nothing.
Sure, the paintings have an impressive aura but I'm not sure that's not more to do with a certain weight of history they now carry than anything else. They are big and they do menace you as they hang in the dingy light Rothko always insisted they be bathed in. But... well, I don't know.
Can you feel it?
I came, I saw, I looked long and hard, and then, feeling somewhat shortchanged, nipped over to the Walker Art Gallery and looked instead at some of the UK's 20th century modernists, Hockney and Hoyland amongst them. Disappointment however, had already set in.
It seemed that Rothko's murals had sucked something out of my soul and in a way I was glad of that. One of his intentions was to set the viewer in on himself, to make a set of paintings that would make you think you had been trapped in a windowless room that had been bricked up. Perhaps the feeling of antipathy I later felt in the Walker was a manifestation of that?
And now I'm glad I saw them. The experience didn't move me in the way I expected, but the paintings certainly left an impression and without doubt they coloured my day. I imagine them now, brooding on the walls of the closed gallery like a malevolent alien species, waiting to draw life from tomorrow's visitors. I kind of like that idea.
In an interesting aside - the Tate took delivery of these paintings on the same February day in 1970 that Mark Rothko committed suicide. Something else I fancy, that adds fuel to the whole myth surrounding them.