Oct 04, 2012 – Nov 17, 2012
Review by James Cahill
‘Rothko/Sugimoto’, the first exhibition at Pace gallery’s new London outpost, strives after an epic register. In physical scope, admittedly, it is not extravagant: the display comprises eight late Mark Rothko paintings of smallish proportions, balanced by eight silver gelatin photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto from his long-term series of seascapes. But an epic mood of brooding gravitas and infinite time lurks within the sombre hues and radically reduced schemes – something of the “anger of Achilles” as he contemplated mortality before the “wine dark sea”.
Richard Shiff’s suitably sententious essay in the accompanying catalogue begins by referring to a theory of primordial chaos by nineteenth-century philosopher CS Peirce (a passage that is, in essence, the same as the prologue to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and countless other creation myths) – and speaks of the “cosmological reach” of each artist. Homer, Ovid, CS Peirce: the impulse to conjure analogies between far-flung and lofty subjects is irresistible and inevitable in the face of this strange diachronic pairing.
The works have been interleaved through Pace’s sepulchrally-lit wing of 6 Burlington Gardens (reportedly installed under the personal direction of gallery president Marc Glimcher); and the premise is uncommonly straightforward – one of basic formal resemblance. Rothko’s canvases, all dating from 1969, arrange blocks of translucent grey beneath scratchy expanses of black or off-black. Sugimoto’s long-exposure images present silvery bodies of water beneath vacant skies, or uniform fields of blackout and whiteout. Many compositions are severed across by horizon lines (actual or metaphorical), which have been exactingly lined up in adjacent hangings.
The effect of this formal rhyming is to magnify the underlying differences between the two artists. The obvious division – between painting and photography – is less significant than it might seem, for Sugimoto is continually imitating painting in both its processes and products (his photographic apparatus is arguably little more than a conceit).
The real disjunction lies in the mode of painting each aspires to. Sugimoto is at heart an abstract painter of the minimalist ilk. His depersonalised, (literally) vacuous aesthetic is a far cry from Rothko’s now rather unfashionable brand of existential expressionism. Standing before three near-monochrome photographs – oblongs of light grey, mid grey and black – it is tempting to fixate on the surfaces of the prints (smooth, shiny, minutely variegated) rather than what they purport to show (mist or night). There is a feeling of being bounced back and held at bay by a springy, impervious membrane.
By contrast, Rothko's canvases coax us in, hinting at something beyond or within their shadowy, gauze-like layers of coarse brushwork. There is a melancholy undertone to these paintings, several of which are almost certainly unfinished. As with Rothko’s late work in general, is hard to avoid reading them as grim premonitions.
Another antithesis resides in the way that Rothko's abstract schemes coax figurative readings – horizons, portals and so on – while Sugimoto begins with a figurative subject and pushes it to the brink of abstraction. Sugimoto obscures the specific features of the scenes he photographs, allowing the vagaries of weather or photographic exposure to distort or extinguish them. His images in this way try to hide their representational nature, to become something metaphysical. Yet this tilt towards the non-representational is thwarted by the titles, which remind us of the times and places the photographs were made. A hazy white pool of light bulging against a black sea and grey sky is revealed to be the ‘Bay of Sagami, Atami 1997’. And so while Rothko’s images are ultimately inscrutable, Sugimoto’s always blow their own ‘abstract disguise’.
The wall text proposes that Rothko and Sugimoto expound “two different artistic approaches that arrive at similar conclusions”. Certainly, it seems in this exhibition as if two epic poets are wandering together like Dante and Virgil in the gloom of the underworld, but their perspectives or “conclusions” are not straightforwardly reconcilable.
Throughout, the poetic punctum is delivered by Rothko. Even when his paint is predominantly grey or black, it bristles with after-traces of his former lurid colours, twilight shades of pink, russet, blue or yellow – turbulent and tranquil by turns. Sugimoto’s saturnine and largely depthless silver gelatin prints sound a cooler note of artful formalism. Indeed in their atmospheric register, Sugimoto’s works are vitally elevated by their proximity to Rothko’s lowering paintings.
Nestling at the base of a small painting in the corner of the gallery is a band of faint pink, a welcome glimmer of light and warmth amid the exhibition’s otherwise deathly pallor, evoking Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn”. The epic note creeps back in – the grasping after eternity, the simmering mood of pathos, the suggestion of primordial cycles of day and night, life and death.
Liminal and elemental, Rothko and Sugimoto’s works inexorably demand these imaginative projections. More compelling, ultimately, is the nature of the dialogue that has been constructed between two canonical figures from separate eras and milieux. This has been a feature of several of Pace’s US exhibitions (which have paired Willem de Kooning and Jean Dubuffet; Piet Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt; and Josef Albers and Donald Judd). The anachronistic coupling moreover finds a parallel in Ordovas gallery at the other end of Savile Row, where ‘character studies’ of an old man and woman by Annibale Carracci have been spliced into an exhibition of (presumably loaned) works by Lucien Freud.
In one sense, Ordovas’ display is as different from Pace’s study in implacable abstraction (or quasi-abstraction) as could be imagined. But both these shows signal an increasing and long overdue attempt by galleries to set contemporary work in a dialogue with the past, both the recent past and the long-ago.