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The Seagram Murals: A Symbol of Wealth or an Act of Revenge

February 23, 2012 by in Red

The Seagram Murals:  A Symbol of Wealth or an Act of Revenge

The Seagram Murals:  A Symbol of Wealth or an Act of Revenge
Jonathan Jones, The Guardian,  December 6, 2002  

"I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room!"- Rothko, in Red                 


Mark Rothko was an unknown abstract expressionist when he won a plum commission - to provide paintings for New York's swankiest restaurant, The Four Seasons. So why did he pull out?

Of all the New York painters who became famous at the end of the 1940s, Rothko was the most addicted to the city. When he had the money, he lived on Sixth Avenue, near Radio City Music Hall. He had studios all over the city, changing them often - the Four Seasons murals were painted in a former gymnasium on the Bowery which he rigged up with a false wall and pulley system so he could experiment with their architectural layout.

Rothko was intense, solitary, leftwing, used to poverty and failure.  His New York was a city of deli lunch counters, subway stations, art classrooms, visits to the Metropolitan Museum. And now, after a lifetime spent mainly as an unknown, unsuccessful would-be great artist, Mark Rothko was offered $35,000 to decorate a symbol of the wealth of Manhattan's elite at the height of the cold war.

Why did he accept the commission? Accounts of what was said to Rothko and what he thought he was doing differ. The critic Dore Ashton, a regular visitor to Rothko's studio, had the impression that Rothko believed his panels would hang in a boardroom which would be visible from an employees' canteen, that they would be accessible to ordinary office workers. If Rothko believed this, it was a fantasy. Phyllis Lambert and Philip Johnson deny that he could have been under any such illusion - they say he was perfectly aware he was making paintings for an expensive restaurant. Rothko did know what he was doing, and what kind of people he was doing it for. He saw his Four Seasons murals as violent, even terrorist art, a savage aesthetic revenge, and relished the chance to bite the hands of those who had made him rich.

This is what Rothko told John Fischer, a fellow tourist he bumped into in the bar of an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic in the early summer of 1959 after he had been working for several months on the paintings. Fischer was an editor of Harper's Magazine and their conversations over drinks have therefore been recorded - Fischer published Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Man, a memoir of Rothko, in Harper's Magazine in July 1970.

Fischer quotes Rothko describing the room in that very expensive restaurant in the Seagram Building as "a place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off".

Rothko didn't seem to Fischer in the least unworldly, let alone spiritual about his intentions. "I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room," he gloated, with paintings that will make those rich bastards "feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up".

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