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Mark Rothko - The Seagram Murals










The[se] nine pictures were among those originally painted to decorate the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building, New York (the skyscraper in Park Avenue designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson). Writing soon afterwards in the catalogue of Rothko's touring exhibition, Peter Selz recorded: 'For about eight months [in 1958-9], Rothko was completely occupied in the execution of his mural commission. When it was finished, and the artist had actually created three different series, it was clear to him that these paintings and the setting did not suit each other.' Rothko therefore decided to withhold his pictures, which remained in his possession, and returned the amount already paid to him.


The mural project was initiated jointly by Philip Johnson and Mrs Phyllis Lambert, acting for her father Samuel Bronfman, the owner of the Seagram Company. There was apparently no formal commission. Rothko was simply invited to do what he wanted in that particular room and was given the dimensions of the space (27 x 46ft) to work from. He erected scaffolding of the exact dimensions of the dining-room in his studio in the Bowery, where the pictures were painted.


Mrs Rothko told the compiler in 1970 that, as far as she could remember, her husband did not know what the room would be used for when he undertook the commission and certainly was unaware that it would be turned into a restaurant. However Philip Johnson states (letter of 30 March 1972): 'The space was always intended to be a restaurant and Mr Rothko was thoroughly aware of this. The number of the pictures for the room was never specified. He was given carte blanche to design the wall decoration any way he chose. There were no other conditions.'


In an earlier letter of 25 February 1970, Philip Johnson recalled that the pictures 'were intended to be hung high up on the wall in order that the heads of the diners would be below the paintings. The bright orange vertical was to be on the end wall as a sort of theme piece.' The retrospective exhibition of 1961-2 included a picture called 'Mural for End Wall' 1959, measuring 266.7 x 287cm.


Further light is thrown on the project by the reminiscences of John Fischer recorded in Harper's Magazine. Mr Fischer met Rothko by chance on a transatlantic liner in June 1959 at a time when the artist was still working on these murals, and Rothko talked freely to him about them; Mr Fischer afterwards made notes of their conversations.


'Rothko first remarked that he had been commissioned to paint a series of large canvases for the walls of the most exclusive room in a very expensive restaurant in the Seagram building - "a place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off".


'"I'll never take on such a job again," he said. "In fact, I've come to believe that no painting should ever be displayed in a public place. I accepted this assignment as a challenge, with strictly malicious intentions. I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won't. People can stand anything these days."


'To get the oppressive effect he wanted, he was using "a dark palette, more somber than anything I've tried before".


'"After I had been at work for some time," he said, "I realized that I was much influenced subconsciously by Michaelangelo's walls in the staircase room of the Medicean Library in Florence. He 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, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.


'"So far I've painted three sets of panels for this Seagram job. The first one didn't turn out right, so I sold the panels separately as individual paintings. The second time I got the basic idea, but began to modify it as I went along - because, I guess, I was afraid of being too stark. When I realized my mistake, I started again, and this time I'm holding tight to the original conception"' (copyright 1970 by Harper's Magazine).


Commenting on this, Bernard Reis added (21 February 1974):


'Rothko did not give up the Four Seasons commission because he felt his paintings would not shock "every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room". He gave up the commission because he felt that a fashionable dining room would be the wrong place to display paintings such as his. He was always interested in having his paintings establish a certain contemplative mood for the viewer.


'On one occasion, we had a conference with Mr Stone, the architect for the Kennedy Memorial Center. Mr Stone started the conference by pointing out that there would be two dining rooms - one for the caviar high-class trade, and one for the general public. He wanted Rothko to do something for the fashionable restaurant. Rothko conveyed to Mr Stone that his pictures were not suitable as a decoration for a restaurant or any other place where people gathered only to eat and drink.


'The Harvard murals were entirely different. They were placed in a room which was intended to be the meeting room of the Board of Trustees.


'Rothko stated to Stone that he would be willing to create murals for a room in which memorabilia of Kennedy would be displayed. This offer was not accepted.


'I know that Rothko admired the dark murals in the Medici library. He felt that these created just the kind of feeling he was after. That was because he wanted viewers to be affected by his pictures. As you know, Rothko never wanted his pictures to be brightly lighted. In addition, he never wanted them to be shown with other pictures. He always wanted a room. He was, therefore, happy when Mr and Mrs De Menil approached him for the murals for the Houston chapel ...


'Even though he had not made up his mind about the restaurant job, before he left for Europe he told me that he thought it would be foolish to be tempted by a large commission rather than continue along the lines he was following in creating rooms of a proper contemplative mood.'


Neither Bernard Reis nor James Brooks, who occupied a studio the floor above Rothko's at the time the Four Seasons murals were being painted, recalls Rothko saying anything about his 'malicious intentions' and Mr Reis suggests that this is the kind of remark he was more likely to make to a stranger than to an intimate friend. However Richard Arnell told the compiler that he had also heard Rothko say that he wanted 'to put the diners off their meals'.


Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.657-61, reproduced p.657