Updated: Jun 9, 2019
Only Mark Rothko would be cheeky enough to sum up J.M.W. Turner's career in a New York Minute by saying, "This man Turner, he learnt a lot from me." Seeing the work of the two side-by-side, I admit I thought that Rothko's "student" had mastered his master. My cheekiness aside, I counted myself lucky to have been there at the Tate Britain at that moment in 2009 when, for the first time since 1988, works by the two artists were shown together. Their complimentary energies streamed along like two silk banners unfurled in a soft breeze, one touching the other from time-to-time, but neither ever losing its individuality.
I have always loved Rothko ever since discovering his work in 1971, the year after his death. I was newly-arrived in San Francisco and adored hanging out at the San Francisco Art Institute to be at least near the other young art students, though the classes I took were at the Academy of Art, downtown. Now here I was once again in the presence of his work, so I looked at the painting long and hard. It was one of six paintings originally done for the walls of the Four Seasons Restaurant inside the Seagram's building at 375 Park Avenue, New York City. Rothko's feelings about the corporate America of 1959 were made clear when he said he wished the paintings would make the diners sick. Ultimately, he had kept the paintings and given the commission money back. Though I looked long and hard at that painting, it wasn't hard enough, because I don't now remember which of the Seagram's pieces it was. They were all somber and moody like the one above and sent me into meditation, where all was lost in nothingness.
However, once I returned from wherever my mind had gone, on the wall perpendicular to the Rothko was this fabulous Turner, Three Seascapes. Well, Rothko be damned, I'd never seen anything like this. The three "scapes" were stacked one upon the other, with the sky for one being white froth from the waves of the one above it. Little white foam edges of collapsed waves ran along one part of murky gray-brown shore, with a pale hint of hidden blue moving away and under that white fog (froth?). My eyes traveled up and down the canvas finding nothing in any way imperfect about it. It reminded me of some of Rothko's later pieces done in similar colors (see below).
The thing that most attracts me to the Turner, especially when compared to a Rothko like the one here, is how Turner uses a touch of nature in the middle on the left. Those points of paint pretending to be white caps lift the eye up to the upper section of the painting, and the heavy black clouds there bring the eye back down again. Your vision roves up and down the painting, giving you the sensation of the heaving sea. Now I certainly do not disparage the beautiful Rothko here, for it very easily makes my consciousness fall into its mystery and lose my distinction of self. The Turner, however, keeps me on the shore, objectively looking into an indistinct distance. For as much as I am drawn to it, I do not lose myself in it even though it is hard to break away from it. I actually loved that painting so, I found myself there at the Tate, contemplating how many years I'd have to serve in a British prison if I walked out the door with that Turner.
And the door was nearby. Just outside was a riverside street, and stairs leading down to a dock on the Thames. I'd be out the door and down those stairs in a flash. Who'd notice? Though it might have be kind of awkward walking around the Tate Modern with this big picture under my arm. I stood there a long time, so long I think a guard got suspicious. "They are really beautiful," I said to reassure him. He nodded warily. Then I looked at the time. Yes, I would have to scurry out and down those stairs if I were to catch the last boat going up to the Tate Modern. So I said goodbye to those seascapes, leaving the guard, who was lingering, much relieved. I hurried off with Turner in my heart to go sit in a wonderful, shadowy room full of somber Rothkos, given by the artist to the Tate Modern because he, Rothko, so loved Turner.
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The Rothko painting, Black on Maroon, is in the collection at the Tate Modern in London.
The Rothko painting, Untitled Brown and Gray, is part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/484366
The Turner painting, Three Seascapes, is in the collection of the Tate Britain in London
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