In 1984, with the long legal battle over Rothko's estate finally settled, the NGA mounted a huge show of his work on paper. I'd been a fan for some time, and could hardly wait to see it. What I remember the most about that show, which I saw several times during its run, is wandering through gallery after gallery, empty of other people. Unlike most of the blockbuster shows that NGA puts on (the Modigliani retrospective, for example, from around that same time), the Rothko show was not popular.
But in 1984, fourteen years after his death, and a full thirty-five after the artistic breakthrough that gave rise to his mature work, Rothko wasn't very popular anywhere, despite his critical reputation. It baffled me, because I found the pictures to be tremendously powerful and rich with emotion, and I couldn't figure out why most people who could be found strolling through the big museums thought his work either not worth a look at all, or, even more puzzling, deeply offensive. Tourists, making the obligatory rounds, would become angry seeing these big glowing pictures. More than once I saw parents nearly drag their kids out of a gallery of Rothko paintings, as if fearful that the work would do some damage.
Over time, these perceptions change, and in recent years it has become much more common for me to see people sitting contemplatively in front of his work, taking the time (Rothko's work requires time) to become absorbed in it. At some point in the last twenty years, whatever was so frightening about it has melted away.
And so it was that at the Tate Modern a couple of weeks ago, the room holding the Seagram Murals was crowded on a Friday afternoon. What a difference from the very first time I saw those paintings, when I spent over an hour with them at the NGA in the late eighties, and in that time, scarcely two or three people stayed for more than a moment. At the Tate, the benches were full and there were people standing in twos and threes in front of the work, whispering to each other, pointing things out and turning from one to another to see the relationships and to take in the whole. As we were leaving the museum to walk along the Thames to the Archduke Winebar, I stopped in one more time, and saw two small children, with their parents, sitting on the floor with paper and crayons, the parents beaming at the kids, looking from their drawings back to the huge murals hanging on the walls.
The Tate Modern itself has taken some criticism for being too popular. The guide on our boat up to Greenwich the next day had great fun, as we floated past, pointing out that the collection included a pile of bricks, a smashed up car, and a room with a light bulb that kept turning on and off. He mentioned that it was free to get in -- otherwise no one would bother -- but that he'd heard it was ten quid to get out. I was amused. Fifteen years ago I suppose he'd've been talking in the same derisive tone about that room full of big purple squares.