Rothko and sagrantino

Patricio Tapia

August 29.2019


"What is art capable of? Can it catch the white noise of everyday life? Is it able to connect us with the most basic emotions that make us human? Ecstasy, anguish, desire, terror?" These are the words of Simon Schama, historian and the mind behind the essential The Power of Art, a BBC production that summed up the lives of eight artists, from Caravaggio to Rembrandt, from Turner to Picasso.

The question he asked, however, belongs to what may be the most powerful episode of the whole series, the last chapter, dedicated to Mark Rothko, the Russian-born American painter, a key figure in the post-World War II Abstract Expressionism movement, a group of artists, all based in New York—Pollock, Kline, De Kooning and, of course, Rothko.

Schama’s (brilliant) narrative is based on the commission that the giant Seagram Co. gave Rothko in 1958, a monumental work to decorate the first floor of his newly opened building in New York. The Four Seasons Restaurant would be there, and Rothko’s work would be exhibited on those great walls, while the wealthiest of the city dined. None of that happened, of course. Rothko simply could not stand the idea that his art was merely something decorative where "the richest bastards in New York would come to feed and show off," he is said to have exclaimed, half drunk, in a bar.

From an economic point of view, that decision could have been considered bizarre. Or brave. He would have been paid thirty-five thousand dollars, something like two and a half million at present . However, by 1958, Rothko was already considered the most important living artist in the United States and, along with Pollock, the two key figures in modern art in the world. His problem was not money. Besides, today that two and a half million sounds like a bargain. Rothko paintings now sell at auctions for ten or twenty times that price.

Money was not the issue. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. "One does not paint for design students or for historians, but for human beings. And the reaction, in human terms, is the only thing that is really satisfactory to the artist ," Rothko said. What would Rothko’s intriguing, dark and profound work do, hanging there among the "rich bastards of New York? It would ruin their appetites.”

Take a look at his paintings, those of that time. Sheets of colors, generally of similar tones, fused together. Blocks as enigmatic as they are powerful—but powerful if you approach them, if you look carefully at how they merge into such a cryptic abstraction that, at least in my case, it has taken years to understand ... and then, only in part. But when you finally understand, it starts to be addictive. Spend a few minutes in front of them and those red, brown, and blue blocks start transmitting things to you; they transport you, move you. And when you go to the next room in the museum, they follow—they accompany you. They can be hypnotic, of course. But that would be too simple a way to describe them.

Rothko reminds me of baga, of sagrantino. Wines made from strong, powerful grapes; wines that make you hit a wall at first. On my first trip to Umbria, my throat was destroyed, my tongue atacked by barbarians disguised as tannins. How could anyone drink that? The same thing happened to me in Bairrada with baga, and, perhaps something similar happened with tannat—those hard, monolithic tannats from the calcareous and clay soils of Las Violetas, in Canelones, Uruguay. Wines that ask complicated questions, wines that demand attention, Rothkos that make you wonder what the fuck is behind those rectangles that dissolve into others; what is it that exists just before it dissolves—waterfalls, rivers, mountains or just colors mutating into other colors?

The world that the Abstract Expressionists had to live in was a world of horrendous contradictions, such as ours may be. On the one hand, the recent ghost of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Korea. On the other, the advent of consumerism with its cans of Coca Cola, opened by happy housewives magnificent in their joy; refrigerators, toasters, huge department stores. Rothko, on the other hand, wanted his audience, the sensitive public (a perfect public that does not exist) to realize what was happening, to connect with basic emotions, the good ones and the ones that make you shudder.

In 1970, the works destined for the Four Seasons of Park Avenue were finally packed up and sent to the Tate Modern in London, where they remain and where they have not lost any of their force. Later that same year, Rothko committed suicide in the restroom of his studio, in Midtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the Seagram building.

With the years, the baga from Bairrada, the sagrantino from Montefalco, and the tannat from Las Violetas no longer display the extraordinary strength of their youth, that craving, that drive. However, the force is still there, the cement walls remain intact. In an easy, ready-wear world, Rothko could be the answer to many of our essential questions.

PS: here is the link  of the Power of Art chapter dedicated to Mark Rothko. Take a look.