Narrator: These paintings are part of a series of huge canvases made by Mark Rothko in 1958 and 1959. They were originally commissioned for the up-market Four Seasons restaurant of the Seagram Building in New York. In his studio Rothko constructed stud walls covered in brown paper to recreate the dimensions of the restaurant space. And he let the paintings develop as he experimented with paint. Tate conservator Mary Bustin:
MB: "He knew that he wanted to paint maroon paintings so he decided to prime his canvases with a maroon priming made of rabbit-skin glue and a red and a blue pigment to make the maroon. And his assistant recalls making up huge batches of rabbit-skin glue, heating it up in a pot, and then adding pigments and then stirring it up well so that the paint was well mixed.
Then the two of them - had to work very fast - because if they waited, and just made one area let it dry and then did an area next to it, you'd end up with a patchwork.
They had one man on top of a ladder, one man below, two of them with big brushes and they'd start and work furiously from one side to another. And this stuff is very wet so they'd get absolutely plastered with it. They'd get covered in red paint from tip to toe but at the end of it they'd have one perfectly evenly primed red canvas.
Rothko used a fairly traditional basis for his paintings. He used tube oil paints, artists' oil paints, that he would squish out into tins - often old coffee tins - and then add a bit of turpentine so that it would be silky and softer. And you can see in this black painting in the middle of the wall on the left - with almost like a window form with two openings in it. If you look at the black paint, and look carefully, you can see Rothko's used a fairly thin paint and a large brush and he's scuffed it on; he's scuffed it from side to side; flicked it a little bit so you can just see feathered edges. The lines that he's making are not strong and heavily defined, they're sort of soft and he's playing with the forms. It looks as if the black is blurring into the maroon on either side. But it looks more simple than it really is because he hasn't used just one black: he's waited until this black is dry and then he's gone over the top of it with a bluer black and then a browner black. And the maroon too is not a simple maroon: he's added a bit more, he's stabbed it a little bit with the ends of the brush. So you can see in the top right corner there's a bluer maroon and a redder maroon.
And he's working quite fast too. If you look at the window-openings you can see black splashes, places where the paint has sort of flicked onto the surface. And he doesn't seem to mind about that, likes the fact that there's a little bit of accident in there.
Rothko rather played with his paint and if you look around the room you can see ways in which he adapted his oil paint by adding extra things, or by diluting it so much that say if you look at the painting on the right - the one with the red window and the white haze behind. The white haze has arrived because he diluted his paint so much that it in fact became pale as it dried. That pale area there is in fact a very dark grey paint it's just scattering the light so much that it looks like haze. That's part of the fun of these paintings - the longer you look at them the more that things appear."