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Before Pop there was Abstract Expressionism. From September 26, 2008 to February 1, 2009 the Tate Modern in London will be presenting a major exhibition of the late work of Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko including, for the first time, 14 of his Seagram murals.

Achim Borchardt-Hume (curator of the Tate Modern's Rothko exhibition):

This is the first exhibition to examine Rothko's late work from 1958 to 1970 in greater depth... One of the highlights of this exhibition will be a large gallery dedicated to the Seagram murals bringing together for the first time 14 murals including Tate's nine murals - the first time ever since they left Rothko's studio really. This exhibition could only happen at the Tate in this current shape as Tate has nine of the Seagram murals which were specially selected by the artist and because of their condition are generally not lent... It's just because of the unique nature of this exhibition that we agreed to bring these works together so it will really happen once and that will be it." (

Mark Rothko's Seagram murals were originally commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in New York. But after Rothko visited the restaurant he backed out of the project, angrily commenting "Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine." (

The murals were eventually distributed to various museums. The Tate ended up with nine of them. They arrived at the Tate Gallery on February 25, 1970 - the same day that Rothko's body was found on the kitchen floor after he committed suicide. (

Pop art, relying on figurative imagery, was the antithesis of Abstract Expressionism. Whereas Warhol often utilized "found" imagery in his paintings, Rothko used abstract forms and colour - although he denied being an "abstractionist" as recalled by Selden Rodman in his book Conversations with Artists.

Mark Rothko: "You might as well get one thing straight... I'm not an abstractionist."

Selden Rodman: "You're an abstractionist to me... You're a master of color harmonies and relationships on a monumental scale. Do you deny that?"

Mark Rothko: "I do. I'm not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else."

Selden Rodman: "Then what is it you're expressing?"

Mark Rothko: "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on - and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!" (Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists (NY: Capricorn Books, 1961) pp. 93-4)

Despite his denial of being an "abstractionist" Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists had fought hard over several decades for public acceptance of abstract art - through exhibitions, protests and writings. When Pop reared its figurative head in the early 60s, Rothko saw it as a step backward rather than forward. When Sidney Janis presented many of the Pop artists (including Andy Warhol) in his 1962 exhibition, "The New Realists," Rothko, along with Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston and Robert Motherwell, resigned from the gallery. Guston's daughter Musa Mayer recalled that "Overnight, it seemed, the art world changed. My father was in despair over the selling of art, over the slick, depersonalized gloss - not only of Pop Art, but of Minimalism as well - that was taking center stage in New York. Art was no longer struggle; art had become marketing." (

Ruth Kligman recalled that when she attempted to introduce Rothko to Warhol when she and Warhol ran into him on the street, Rothko walked away without saying a word. Warhol (via Pat Hackett) also recalled attending a party given by Yvonne Thomas, where Rothko was one of the guests during the early sixties. Marisol, who was with the same gallery as Warhol, brought both Warhol and Robert Indiana to the party. When they arrived Warhol overheard Rothko say to Thomas, "How could you let them in?" Thomas replied, "But what can I do? They came with Marisol." (

Despite their aesthetic differences, Warhol and Rothko do have one thing in common. They are the only American artists with paintings on the list of the "10 most expensive paintings sold at auction."

The Rothko exhibition at the Tate Modern and the Warhol exhibition at the Hayward this autumn are both rare chances to see the work of two modern masters of their respective art movements - Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Both exhibitions are not to be missed. (Specific details of the Hayward's Warhol exhibition will be posted here when confirmed.)
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