Mark Rothko is the modern American artist the British love best. He seems to strike a chord with the public here that other famous US painters don’t. As an enthusiast for American art, I have often stood in disbelief at an exhibition that seems absolutely mindblowing to me, wondering why it fails to fire the great British art lover. Arshile Gorky, a great modern painter, seemed to go down like a lead balloon at the Tate a couple of years ago; even a retrospective of Jackson Pollock at the height of the Young British Art years did not appear to grip audiences as much it thrilled me. But Rothko? We love Rothko. When his late paintings were shown at Tate Modern they were a hit.
Now the Whitechapel Art Gallery is staging an exhibition-about-an-exhibition that looks at the origins of this love affair between the brooding colourist and the British. It uses photographs to bring to life a renowned show at the Whitechapel in 1961, when Rothko was seen solo here for the first time. The uncompromising severity of his floating rectangles of colour awed artists and critics alike.
Rothko saw an affinity between his art and the British heritage of Romanticism: he felt a connection with the sublime landscapes of JMW Turner. He was a cultured man who was very good at seeing relationships between abstract art and older work – he even claimed inspiration from Michelangelo – so perhaps it’s no surprise that he was able to throw out this idea. But it’s true that his art is different in spirit and arguably more “European” than that of some other great Americans. Pollock is unambiguously American and his theme is freedom, the big American idea – he paints like a jazz musician improvising.