Mark Rothko Black on Maroon 1958

Mark Rothko
Black on Maroon 1958
Tate. Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969 © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 1998

On first encounter, Rothko’s works often appear as seemingly immaterial painterly surfaces. Rothko liked to talk about his paintings revealing themselves to the viewer just the way they had revealed themselves to him during the process of their making. He did not like to be watched while painting, not even by his studio assistants, and photographs tend to portray him contemplating his works rather than actively making them. However, Rothko left deliberate clues, such as splatters and drips that emphasise the paintings’ materiality.

While photographs tell us a great deal about Rothko’s studio, many questions about his technique could not be answered until recently. Over the past two years, Tate Conservators in conjunction with MOLAB (the Mobile Laboratory) researched Tate’s Seagram Murals to shed more light on their ‘material’ history and what this can tell us about Rothko’s approach to painting. Viewing them close-up under ultraviolet or raking light, for instance, shows that Rothko rotated the paintings while working on them and over-painted certain sections as part of his decision-making process about composition.

In the dim light, in which Rothko preferred his paintings to be viewed, it can be difficult to spot such details. Viewing the paintings under different light conditions, however, makes the ‘invisible’ visible, and subsequently enables one to see with the naked eye what might have gone unnoticed before.