I was really upset when I heard that one of the Mark Rothko paintings at the Tate Modern gallery had been destroyed by some idiot with a felt tip pen, it really doesn’t matter if he had a “reason” or not. It's not something that can be retouched.
I was, I suppose being selfish; I won’t see it again. But that painting belonged to all of us – to the whole world.
The twelve paintings are sombre, kept together in a small room with dimmed lights according to his instructions.
People find them moving, well I certainly did. Others laugh at them as “modern” art. I guess people really see what they are looking for, like a mirror to themselves. So the religious see a spiritual theme, while an atheist like me sees something else, like looking into outer space or deep inside.
How we came to have them is important – Rothko was commissioned by the owners of the newly completed “Seagram Building”, in New York. Seagram was a major drinks maker and their building was to be a landmark expression of their power and influence. Naturally, they wanted the most famous painter of the time, after Picasso, to associate himself with the project.
So after long negotiations, they persuaded a reluctant Rothko to paint a series of large canvasses for “The Four Seasons”, the restaurant on the top floor. The fee was enormous, money he’d never seen before. Seagram intended that the unveiling would be a truly prestigious event.
Then, while the paintings were drying, they made a fatal mistake – they invited him over for a meal. Rothko made the trip and found himself in a luxury restaurant over-looking the island of Manhattan. Around him were the success stories of the day; the rich and powerful eating lobsters and steaks, dressed to impress. A James Bond villain would have felt at home.
Rothko was horrified, he had somehow thought his paintings were destined for the walls of a workers canteen. He tore up the agreement and returned the money. It was at that moment that the director of the Tate got lucky; there was never any money for acquisitions but he had spent plenty of time begging artists for favours. Ten years later he got us the paintings, on a promise that they stayed together for all time, for all of us, in the one room under dimmed lights.
What I’m getting at is that while it takes a long time to get something good together it takes just a moment to destroy it and the easiest things to destroy are the things that belong to us all.