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The series that dominates the exhibition, the Seagram murals, arose from a commission for paintings to line the walls of a private dining-room in the Four Seasons restaurant in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue. In the fifth and seventh sections – both long letterbox shapes, both red on maroon – the fuzzy rectangles that are the central motif in all the canvases have risen towards the top, like bubbles in a thick liquid. The fuzziness, the darkness, the redness, the unevenness of the margins, make the pictures active and unresolved. The effect is romantic, quite unlike the reposeful geometry of abstract pictures in which something like the solution of an equation takes place. But there are limits to what even active, unresolved abstraction can communicate. From Rothko’s point of view it is a defeat if his pictures have come to be merely beautiful – not tragic, not poignant, just blissfully absorbing. On the first page of the catalogue a remark of his is set in large type: ‘If people want sacred experiences they will find them here. If they want profane experiences they’ll find them too. I take no sides.’ But he does, because to say that there are sacred and profane readings implies that his art will do more than finally float down to a level that may be solemn, but is essentially, and merely, aesthetic.

tag Rothko/Seagrams series
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