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Mark Rothko´s "Seagram Murals"

The seven paintings of Mark Rothko’s "Seagram Murals" series in the collection of the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art are works that were originally intended to hang in the same room. Rothko (1903-1970) created the Seagram series as a result of a commission that came to the artist in the spring of 1958. Having become a painter of renown around the middle of the 1950s, he was asked to create paintings to decorate one room of what was to be an exclusive restaurant named The Four Seasons in Manhattan’s Seagram Building. The restaurant was to offer the very finest cuisine and outstanding art, and Rothko was chosen as one of the artists to provide that art to decorate it. At the time, Rothko had come to dislike having other artists’ works hung in the same room with his in group exhibitions, preferring to create an artistic space by filling one room with his own works exclusively. That would be the case with The Four Seasons commission, and Rothko spent about a year and a half creating 30 paintings for the project.

These "Seagram Murals" are different in a number of ways from other representative paintings of Rothko that release a light quietly from within a cloud-like expanse of color. First of all, the majority of them are horizontal works and larger that earlier Rothko paintings, with many reaching 4.5m in width. The reason they are so much larger than his earlier works is that Rothko thought of them as murals, not paintings, and from sketches he left on paper it is clear that he intended to hang several of them in sequence with no space in between, thus literally covering an entire wall in mural fashion. Also, they no longer have the cloud-like color field of his previous paintings. Instead, each painting has a deep reddish brown base color over which is painted a window frame-like form in red or black or a light orange. That said, it is not a literal window frame but the concept of a "window" that is representedā€”a window to a red expanse of the world beyond, perhaps a door. And whichever, it is closed, it only represents a boundary between this world and the world beyond and it defies any desire we might have to cross over into that world. Some people might feel averse to the color, finding it suggestive of dried blood, or the unique texture of his finely layered paint. But if you sit for a while surrounded by these murals, you may find yourself feeling as if your consciousness itself has been dyed the same red and your thoughts turned toward deep introspection.

In an ironic twist, these Seagram Murals that opened up a new realm of Rothko’s art would never be hung in The Four Seasons restaurant after their completion. Rothko was disappointed with the atmosphere of the restaurant when he visited it for the first time after its opening and ended up breaking his commission contract. Although the murals were thus denied their intended home, nine would be donated to The Tate Gallery (now the Tate Modern in London) in 1970 and seven would eventually come to the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art in 1990. These museums have since constructed rooms specifically for the permanent display of their Seagram Murals. Besides these, collections of Rothko can be seen as originally intended in rooms of their own in the U.S. in The Rothko Room of The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. and The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Mark Rothko, Sketch for "Mural No.4", 1958, 265.8 x 379.4cm
© 2008 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/ARS, New York/SPDA, Tokyo

The Rothko Room of the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art

Related works in the collection

  • Mark Rothko, Sketch for "Mural No.1", 1958
  • Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1958
  • Mark Rothko, Mural Sketch, 1958
  • Mark Rothko, Mural Sketch, 1959
  • Mark Rothko, Mural, Section 1, 1959
  • Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1959
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