Don't be fooled by the opening sequence: "Rothko's Rooms" is a fascinating documentary with much more ambition and scope than its avowed goal of telling us how a set of nine Rothko murals found their way to the Tate Gallery. Those murals do provide a unifying theme for the movie, beyond the obvious idea of making a documentary about Rothko, and help keep it focused on the concept of “Rothko place” or “Rothko environment” that was so dear to Rothko in his lifetime.
Rothko had very specific ideas about how his works should be exhibited, and the idea of showing them as a group was extremely dear to him. The paintings shown first at the Tate Gallery and later at Tate Modern were part of a set of thirty Rothko had originally painted for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York City, before he backed out of the commission and returned the money. (We are told that Rothko, who leaned toward Socialism, thought the restaurant’s workers would be able to see his murals from their canteen or on their way to it, and he was incensed when he learned they would hang in the upper level of the restaurant itself, above the heads of wealthy patrons.)
The movie shows us many stills of Rothko’s paintings throughout his career, allowing us to take stock of the evolution he underwent from his figurative painting phase to his surrealist one to more abstract works that meld into those of the multi-form period, to the focus on color of the mid-1940s to the late-1940s, until the rectangular forms Rothko is best known for, which he painted from about 1949 onwards.
The movie also benefits from many testimonials of key members of the art world such as Sean Scully, Phyllis Lambert and Philip Johnson who had commissioned the murals for the Seagram building, and the director of the Tate Gallery when Rothko gave his paintings, Sir Norman Reid (he has a wonderful anecdote regarding why Rothko, who was famously indecisive, finally agreed in November 1969 to donate his paintings to the Tate after six years of negotiation – I’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with a tax change), Rothko’s friends and collaborators, and finally Rothko’s two children, who speak thoughtfully and convincingly about their father and his art.
The first half of this 60-minute documentary are spent on general yet highly informative considerations about Rothko’s life, his working habits as an artist and his paintings, such as the contrast of the New York urban landscape and the immensity of Rothko’s best-known paintings, as well as the influence of the Southwest on the colors he used. The movie changes focus at the halfway mark when it starts delving in more detail into the Seagram murals, Rothko’s continued efforts to create a “Rothko environment”, how nine of the thirty Seagram murals found their way to the Tate Gallery, and Rothko’s suicide.
The thread of “the sense of a Rothko place” is convincingly weaved through the narrative, not only for the Seagram building but also for the Rothko Room in the Phillips Collection in DC, which came about shortly after the Seagram commission fell through, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and the New York City studio where Rothko painted those murals, which has become a Japanese teahouse. I found it particularly poignant that the people at the Tate Gallery heard of Rothko’s passing the day the paintings finally arrived.
This is a must-own for anyone interested in Rothko.