The Tragic Palette of Mark Rothko's Seagram Murals
On the 25th of February in 1970, two things happened. Nine paintings by the Latvian-American artist Mark Rothko (born 1903) arrived at the Tate Gallery in London. And earlier in the day, across the Atlantic Ocean in New York City, the 66-year-old painter was found dead in his East 69th Street studio. The cause of death was suicide.
Before the paintings made their way to London, they hung in the ultra-upscale Four Seasons Restaurant, located in the Seagram Building, a beaming and expansive Manhattan tower built by famed Bauhaus architect Mies van de Rohe. (To this day, the series is still known as the Seagram murals.) Rothko, then not a well-known name, was commissioned to deliver "600 square feet of paintings" for the sum of 35,000 USD. At the time, the painter worked out of an old gymnasium in the Bowery. The project took him two years to complete: deep maroon and black, some of his first works to experiment with a darker, more menacing palette. His paintings in the 1950s were vibrant, full of floral and sunny hues, but the following decade is when he started to paint with a more downtrodden palette of colors, said to be a reflection of his swelling depression.
Throughout his career, Rothko had fans and critics in equal measure. (At the time, abstract expressionism was only beginning to woo the art world's old guard.) He also seethed with a tension of his own creation: a battle with art and commerce, success and failure. At the time of his death, he seemed stuck somewhere between both. His work was featured in two prominent New York shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. There are also many stories of art dealers and collectors stopping by his studio only to leave empty-handed. The Seagram commission—and the surrounding conflict—served as the central plot point to "Red," the 2010 Tony Award-winning play starring Alfred Molina staged in both London and New York. (It's also the focus of two documentaries.)
Rothko told fellow painter John Fischer, he agreed to the Seagram commission with one secret malicious intention: "I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room." It turns out, that his disgust with the upper class outweighed his ability to ruin their appetites in secret. After he dined at the Four Seasons with his wife, he immediately demanded that he would return his commission payment in full and take back his paintings. "Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine," he is said to have barked at a studio assistant at the time. And so, the canvases sat in storage until a deal was struck with the Tate, which included copious notes and instructions on how to properly hang. ("Walls should be made considerably off-white with umber and warmed by a little red. If the walls are too white, they are always fighting against the pictures")
Some half-century after his death, Rothko's influence can still be felt equally in New York and London. "His work is simple and striking, intimidating in its scale," says the London-born painter Joe Henry Baker, who now lives and works in New York. "The colors swallow you whole." Baker mentions when he travels to his home city, he still seeks out the Seagram murals time and time again. There is something "monolithic and immersive" about being in the room, he says. Pre-pandemic, some six million visitors would travel to the Tate Gallery; the Seagram murals have long been a can't-miss attraction.
Rothko was fond of saying that tragedy was the only theme noble enough for art. His gruesome death seemed to be foreshadowed by his paintings, and it's hard to think of a more tragic palette than black and maroon. But with time, tragedy can give way to inspiration, and that is precisely the legacy Rothko left behind.