When the Rothko Room—which houses four of the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko’s works in a snug, serene space—opened in 1960 at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, the artist’s wishes were considered when it came to hanging his pieces and planning the lighting. But upon his first visit an adjustment was required. “There were originally chairs in the room when it opened, and in 1961 Rothko came to visit the museum unannounced,” says chief curator Elsa Smithgall. “He immediately told the guards that they needed to remove those chairs and that there needed to be a solitary bench. That change was made and has stayed true to this day.”
This fall, however, something bigger is afoot for the Rothko Room. On October 18 the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris will open the first French retrospective of the artist since 1999, exhibiting 115 of his works—including three of the four from the Phillips. (Green and Tangerine on Red, 1956, Orange and Red on Red, 1957, and Ochre and Red on Red, 1954, will travel; Green and Maroon, 1953, is too fragile to make the trip.)
Instead of leaving the walls in DC bare, however, the museum will borrow three paintings made in the same era from the private collection of Rothko’s children, Christopher and Kate. “We didn’t want our visitors to be without the experience of the Rothko Room,” Smithgall says. “So it became an opportunity to reinvigorate it.”
This is not the first time the Rothko Room has changed. Works were lent in 2001 for major shows in Spain and Switzerland, and a renovation in 2007 moved the space without altering any of its dimensions or details. And on that visit in 1961, when the artist asked for paintings to change walls, the guards consented, but the following day collection founder Duncan Phillips came into work and switched them back straight away. Still, this fall’s substitutions from the artist’s family in such a high-profile space does constitute a kind of art world Halley’s Comet. The irony is that while the event is sure to draw the attention of Rothko Room regulars and newcomers alike, the space Smithgall refers to as “the chapel” is at its best when the crowds are elsewhere. “There’s something serene and poignant about the way you can lose yourself,” she says. “That’s why Kate has said, ‘The fewer people in the room the better.’ ”
Reproduction, including downloading of Rothko Artworks is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express permission of the copyright holder. Requests for reproduction should be directed to Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
This story appears in the September 2023 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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