Rothko and the Japanese Noh Theatre Tradition

July 2017

Rothko was an artist deeply concerned about the conditions under which his paintings would be seen by the public. He came, by the time he wanted to paint the Seagram Murals, to believe that his paintings should be presented in groups without the interference of works by other artists to detract from the experience he was trying to create. The Seagram Murals was the great project where he hoped to realize this kind of installation of his paintings. He discovered that it would not work for him because the venue was a noisy, utilitarian restaurant in the midtown Manhattan business district of Park Avenue, where it would be impossible to create the visual silence and focus of attention which he sought, and so he quickly withdrew, reimbursing the advance he had been given to undertake the project. The artistic project of the time which was closest to Rothko's intentions was the recent creation of Matisse's Chapelle du Rosaire of 1950, in St. Paul de Vence, above Nice, on the Côte d'Azur. Over time, this chapel received much opposition to its apparently anti-progressive religious theme, yet it has nevertheless emerged as one of the great statements of modern art in the twentieth century. 

The question as to what kind of modern venue could lend itself to Rothko's intentions forced him to fall back on the museums. He offered a group of the paintings to the Museum of Modern Art in New York but they were deemed to be too expensive and were refused. Eventually he offered to gift a group to the Tate Gallery in London and this was accepted. The paintings arrived in 1970, on the very day that Rothko committed suicide. The artist thus never saw his project installed, though the Rothko room where they have hung independently together since, has become one of the great statements of the aesthetic of modern art anywhere and makes London an indispensable stop for those searching the hermetic experience of modern art today. I will always remember the first time that I discovered this room of Rothko paintings at the Tate in the early 1970's. It constituted my initiation into the experience of modern art.

When I visited Japan for the first time in late March of this year, well over forty years later, one of my priorities was to visit the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Chiba province at an hour or so removed from Tokyo. Kawamura is the cultural center of a chemical and printing company, owned by a family of art collectors, that had assembled a significant collection of twentieth century western, modern art. The third in line to head the company, after his grandfather and father, who had died prematurely in 1999, the same year as his father, had made two signal acquisitions: the first a group of seven Seagram paintings by Rothko and the second Anna's Light, one of Barnett Newman's greatest paintings. Anna's Light has recently been resold by the current ownership, for a very large sum of money, to a mysterious entity which so far has not been identified. The Seagram paintings still hang today in their own room at Kawamura. The only other venue for the Seagram paintings across the world is in the Washington National Gallery, which has a consignment from the artist's heirs, but where there is no permanently dedicated room.

To view these seven Seagram paintings by Rothko in the Japan of today is both deeply moving and meaningful. Rothko in New York, in the 1940's, '50's and '60's, encountered stiff resistance to his art. When, over time and hard struggle, he gained acknowledgement of his achievement, it was on terms of trivialization by the ostensible advocates for modern art of the so-called 'modernist' school of criticism, with such personalities as Clement Greenberg at the forefront. Rothko had written in the New York Times in 1943: "It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless."  By way of censure, Greenberg is on record as stating that: "Mark was a great painter in '49 and I think until '55. After '55, he lost his stuff." It should be noted that the Seagrams paintings were executed in 1958!

New York-Tokyo: the history of modern art is attached to the great cosmopolitan centers of urban life. Today, Tokyo appears to a visitor from New York as a city in which he can feel at home. Yet, would it not be fatuous to pretend to ignore the history of Japanese-American relations in the twentieth century, the War and the wholesale destruction and loss of life of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bomb? The horror hangs over us now, not just past, but present and future. Rothko was acutely aware of the genocidal capacities of modern technology. It was at the root of his vehement objection to the critical reception to his work and to the tendencies of contemporary American art in the 1960's.

A visitor to Japan today is struck by the degree that it appears to have accepted a shared vision of modern life with America. It is a powerful partnership. Yet to what extent do these two cultures share aesthetic values? My visit led me to surprising discoveries. (I set aside the ubiquitous vanilla icing of popular culture which is an-aesthetic rather than an aesthetic influence). 

I did not see a wealth of modern art on display in Japan and I was not sure either of contemporary Japanese awareness of modern art or of this group of great Rothko masterpieces at the Kawamura Memorial Museum. Newman's great masterpiece, Anna's Light, is no longer there and its removal does not appear to have occasioned much comment. However, I had another, apparently unrelated, experience in Tokyo. I was invited to a private demonstration of the principles of Noh theatre. It was explained to us by the Noh actor that, although there were seats in the theatre for the human audience, the play was traditionally performed for the gods. The human audience was allowed to assist as silent spectators but the drama was enacted in a realm removed from human interaction. 

We have become accustomed in the contemporary art world to expect artists to concern themselves with the issues which we feel to be important in our lives. We think that art, like everything else, is all about us. Rothko did not think so. What the Noh actor formulated renders exactly the sense of aesthetic endeavor that Rothko imbued in his painting (see the discussion of these issues in my recent book, The Modern Aesthetic). It places his painting forever at a remove from contemporary values which assume that, for the consideration of a ten-dollar bill (or one hundred million) art should serve an audience. 

It is this engagement of art with the great issues of human life on a separate plane, as taught by the Noh theatre tradition, what Rothko called the "tragic and timeless", set apart from the commonplace and from social currency, which makes the seven Seagram paintings at the Kawamura Memorial Museum such a powerful symbol of American and Japanese resolve, both remembering the past and providing for the future, to be partners in the defense of our modern way of life. Everyone who cares about modern art and life should go to Kawamura and pay their ten dollars.

Paul Rodgers