Rothko Sugimoto Amplifying A Common Thrust Pace Gallery - Review
Because I’ve never attended the London or New York fashion week shows, I assume the opening of Pace gallery’s new London space was like one; or at least like the gallery openings in films, where people you apparently should want to know only whisper in each other’s ears. Pace have had (what now looks like a) gallery-sized office in Lexington Street, Soho, for about two years, which always seemed a footnote to their 4 New York galleries and their Beijing space, not to mention a kind of metaphor for where the power in the art world is shifting. Now it seems Londoners shouldn’t have worried about being left out. After a series of will-they-won’t-they bargainings with various landlords, as well as having to deal with some pretty England-specific legal complexities, Pace London finally has its flagship exhibition space: the 9,000 sq ft west wing of 6 Burlington Gardens building, rented from the Royal Academy and redesigned by Royal Academician David Chipperfield. There is no denying it is a classy space- spotless white and Pace’s neat, stencilled font in black, matching the staff’s dress and the colours in their first exhibition. Contrived and precise.
The work- Sugimoto’s monochrome seascapes and Rothko’s late, dark paintings- seems like an obvious choice to be hung together. The Rothko/Sugimoto show is the latest in a series of dual-artist shows that have been going on at Pace since the 80s, and have featured Rothko before (alongside Bonnard in 1997). The idea is to illuminate each artist in the light of the other, which is a good and graceful move, despite Rothko’s dislike of group shows which “only detracted from the concentrated power of his work displayed in its own company” (report Rothko’s heirs) and Sugimoto’s similar dislike of being shown with anyone but himself. Occasionally, say the Rothko heirs, “we have made exceptions in the case of a kindred spirit where the juxtaposition of works by two artists serves to throw new light onto each, the differences between the two in some way amplifying the common thrust.”
I’ll get back to what thrust they have in common. Sugimoto’s first brush with Rothko was in 1978 at a retrospective of his at the Guggenheim, and he saw a place where painting history and photography history intersected. Painting history is as long as cave paintings are old, photography turned up and ran painting out of representation into the metaphysical, therefore, to Sugimoto, Rothko represents the highest achievement of painting as the most forceful, dramatic, pure-abstract painter. His version of Art History has lead Sugimoto to follow, using photography, where he considers painting to have gone. Here the two cross over: photography becomes abstracted and devious, whereas Rothko does not try to describe and thus is totally honest in only painting paint.
The seascapes are drained of all colour except black and white, all bisected into equal halves by the horizon line to make two rectangles of the sea and sky. They look very much like Rothko’s late work, which is black and grey, with some dark brown, maroon or blue, cut horizontally (although you must never say the word “horizon” due to critical tetchiness). So what they look like is almost exactly the same- 2-tone blocks- which makes for a slightly one-note exhibition, but you realise they both do reach out for something. The Rothko heirs consider them both to explore “not the sensual but the metaphysical”, and in that they are “soulmates”.
I suppose that is a common thrust, but they are thrusting at very different things, which is, yes, refined in the contrast between the two. Which identical twin is which is difficult when you only meet one, but together it becomes much easier. Something like playing spot the difference with only one picture, then two. It is exactly the same here. Both these artists are dramatic, but their characters are different, and actually, although perhaps not surprisingly given the power of Rothko, Sugimoto proves the more complex study with Rothko occasionally a key, occasionally a litmus.
I have never seen Sugimoto on his own, although I can see how you could endow him with a metaphysic. Rothko’s Seagram pictures have recently been given to the Tate, and they loom large with a kind of all-consuming threat you hope they are too nice to carry out. And they are enormous, bigger than their already large canvases. But these Dark Paintings are not the Seagram memorials, and let’s start with them- the key to Sugimoto.
For me, these two lose metaphysical import when put next to each other- they lost that mural/altarpiece quality that especially Rothko has (the Seagram paintings were commissioned as a display of power for the lobby of a skyscraper- another display of power). But this isn’t a deflation. They become less like icons and more like characters in a play. Not metaphysical- just metaphysical in the way any human or character is slightly metaphysical because they have thoughts and opinions and motive apart from those of animals. Rothko and Sugimoto gain personality and human interest next to each other, and they take on human tragedy and/or sentiment.
Rothko has denied being a colourist, which seems an odd claim if made infront of any of his works apart from these, where there is no colour as such. These paintings have the finesse of someone who has dealt with colour, and has now stopped using it but retains the life colour supplies. But then maybe he isn’t a colourist, because he seems intent on creating an emotion that normally comes at a set moment or from a set character in a play. The Seagram ones are of a mighty power that is visible and as yet static. The Dark Paintings are from maybe the late-middle of a Greek tragedy, when it is becoming obvious to the characters they have been in a tragedy all along. Rothko here is scratchy and occasionally bare, like exposed brick. The coloured surfaces show the canvas or the underpainting through them. It is as though the previously pristine colour-field has been gone at with wire wool, or lashing wind and rain. They have the look of old, weather-beaten totems that are still upright despite everything that has been thrown at them, like a kind of beaten-down king-in-exile. The emotion in Rothko’s Dark Paintings comes from containing and pinpointing this point in the tragic arc. The fact that they still have their chin up, and still carry their old armour that was once so bright, enhances the effect. Although circumstance is starting to injure them and they are about to fall, they are proud and autonomous still like a Greek warrior-hero. They are honest, like all pure-abstract paintings.
Henri Cartier-Bresson used to insist that his photos be reproduced by with a border of black negative around them, to show they were composed entirely in the viewfinder rather than chopped and shaped in the darkroom. This border implies they are a complete vision, rather than bleeding into the edges and out into the wider world. Rothko’s Dark Paintings too, and uniquely for Rothko, have a border around them in the way of Cartier-Bresson- they are acrylic on paper, mounted on slightly bigger canvas. Like Cartier-Bresson’s negative, the white border, on the front of the canvas, facing you, forces a very strong vision of where the painting stops. They are complete, single visions. They end at a definite point, and this is what I mean about them being proud and autonomous like a Greek warrior-hero: they have a rigid, single-minded persona, like a code of behaviour and like the play they are in. Rothko’s paintings, to me, look like they are about to be handled, smoothly and inevitably, by the Gods they have transgressed. They are ragged, drained and strong. They can’t disappear- it isn’t time yet, everything in its proper course- but they have to stick around to be lashed by rain. And, extraordinarily, in this they do something that very few narrative paintings achieve emotionally. It is something like Goya’s “Third of May 1808”- tragedy about, about, to fall (after the implied past jubilance of the central prisoner dressed in white and bright yellow), with none of the posthumous grandeur or martyrdom that awaits the saints. Proud, down-at-heel, and doomed, but standing and accepting, waiting for the prophecy/inevitability that will kill them to come true.
Sugimoto, on the other hand, does not have borders. His seascapes stretch out, off the edge of the canvas, and actually seem like they are just one section of a vast, 360 degree expanse that has no land anywhere, and you are just an eye floating above that early bit in Genesis where there is just calm on the waters but no land or anything. The complex thing about these, character-wise, is that they aren’t heroic like Rothko’s. They are gelatin silver printed photographs, they make a pure monochrome that looks even purer alongside the now-weatherbeaten Rothkos. When I first looked at them I thought they perhaps had the same kind of still power that the dark Rothkos have, and maybe inherited that kind of as-yet-still threat from Rothko’s earlier colour-field work. But the threat isn’t of crushing power, like a cathedral falling on you or St. Michael suddenly flying at you with flaming sword from a portal in the Seagram lobby, it is actually of a kind of deceit or tricksiness. Sugimoto acknowledges the difference in the thrust between his and Rothko’s work when he says that “I sometimes think I see a dark horizon cutting across Mark Rothko’s paintings. It’s then I unconsciously realize that paintings are more truthful than photographs and photographs are more illusory than paintings.” Rothko’s work has no such horizon- it only has paint, on a canvas, which produces emotion. It is Sugimoto’s work that has a horizon as its subject, and Sugimoto’s work that creates a mystery about whether it is still there. If you’ll let me say that Rothko’s Dark Paintings are Oedipus at Colonus, then Sugimoto’s seascapes, in contrast, are more like Iago: they have that magic of turning the word “honest” into the least honest word they say (which is fine for a painting to do, less fine for a person).
Sugimoto gives us a view. It is of the sea. We are looking straight out to sea, and it is endless. In-between sea and sky is pure distance. This view has been the subject of many poems and folk songs and emotions and etc. that it almost looks like what it is the symbol of even in real life- it’s variously promise, infinity, lost love, adventure, etc.. In the black and white of these photographs, it also takes on the emotional/romantic power of moonlight on the water, which is an even more specific, common and thus evocative symbol. Immediately you are transported by them into a solid vision of a simple emotion.
For a start they are more polished, silver, and shiny. They are also photographs, and they are all tied by their title to specific locations and years. “Lake Superior, Cascade River, 1995”; “Bay of Sagami, Atami, 1997”; “Bass Strait, Table Cape, 1997”. You start thinking that maybe Rothko started out looking like this and went off the rails. But the locations that the titles imply, and the fact they are photographs (which implies in turn that Sugimoto must have been to these places, and that therefore these photographs carry with them something of the specificity of that place), become irrelevant. You see read the titles and think “oh right, Cascade River”, but then after walking around a few notice that Lake Superior looks very similar to the Bay of Atami, which in turn looks like the Bass Strait, the Tyrrhenian Sea and the English Channel. I suppose they do in reality, actually, from a certain angle- sea and sky, both kept in place by forces that have nothing to do with what part of the earth they are over. But the fact they do not look the same as gelatin silver prints is down to Sugimoto’s artifice and skewed/biased storytelling- something that we all know the camera is capable of, but is simultaneously slightly uneasy-making when we think of it.
The effect of this possibility for lies has an impact on the emotion that the combination of black and white and sea and moonlight creates, and makes for a very complex mixture of emotion and re-qualifying emotion. Rothko stands there like a worn statue, focusing on destiny, but Sugimoto’s Seascapes kind of look back at you, or speak to you more directly. It is almost like they promise you something in their being seascapes.
They first provide you with an object about which to rhapsodise over. “Lake Superior, Cascade River” has all the bright haze of a vision about to happen, or that a great light is about to come and impart something. An armada is about to come over the horizon and into the “Bay of Sagami, Atami”. Your beloved will soon come back from a long voyage and land at your feet in the “Bass Strait, Table Cape”. But all these things are about to happen. You become sure they will, soon, very soon. The promise is in the photograph, but the abstraction makes the promise worryingly suspicious. Sugimoto’s Seascapes hold a simple, emotional beauty which is offered as truth. But truth comes in the end, and we aren’t at the end, so instead we have a promise from Sugimoto’s seascapes that they will act on it soon. The longer you wait, and pine, the more chance these scenes have to recant that promise. But they neither recant nor confirm that they are what they are, and that they’ll do what they say. These pieces have a quiet psychological violence to them, which comes purely from placid inaction. They look like your friend, they’ll help you, they’re your old friend Iago.
**** 4 Stars Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012
Photo: Installation view of Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes, Pace London, 6 Burlington Gardens, London, October 4 through November 17, 2012