I say a Mark Rothko room because I imagine there are many such rooms in galleries around the world. Curators surely create and recreate Mark Rothko rooms of their own devising on a fairly regular basis but this Rothko room, my Rothko room (yes, that’s a better way to phrase it), my Rothko room is or was in the Tate Britain in London along about the end of the 1980s, beginning of the 1990s. It’s also a place I go to in my head. A favourite room in my imaginary house somewhere lost deep in mists of the Black Mountains of Nagorny Karabach.
In order for my attachment to this room to make sense I will have to take you back to examine the remote causes, as usual. It this case we are going back to 1989. I can follow these chains of events forever backwards it seems without completely losing my balance. It’s my particular gift.
Back then I was seventeen and had left school and was starting university University College Dublin, or UCD. This was a massive culture shock for me. I had come up in the extremely repressive atmosphere of a single sex, Christian Brothers school. I had probably been to the south side of Dublin before but I couldn’t remember when. Up to then my social educational came mostly from walking up and down the quays into town and back. There was plenty to learn there but all skewed slightly to the unpleasant.
I was so jealous, deep green and ugly jealous of the students with turned up collars on rugby shirts, well fed bodies, girlfriends with tans, some of whom drove, actually drove, to college in their own cars.
I was so inner city north side that I would gladly have fought someone to defend the honour of Tayto crisps over the impossibly posh King crisps they had over the river. (I’m pretty sure now they were made by the same company).
I was completely at sea in my new environment. It was some time in the first week that I identified the primary thing that had been setting my nerves on edge all week- it was the smell of perfume! I had never been around so many women in a day-to-day way and it didn’t seem right at all.
For the first month I was too scared to go into the library. I used to study out my the lake. It was getting on for winter and very cold. I would wrap myself up in my blue greatcoat and read till my skin matched its colour.
Beckett, Beckett, Beckett- that stands for the trilogy.
Luckily, I started to make friends and built the confidence necessary to get into the library, still a little freaked by the perfume. I spent a lot of my time in there reading things outside of my subjects. I read Andy Warhol’s Diaries and John Cage’s too. In both cases I found the diaries more interesting than the primary works. I read Nietzsche (but of course) and I started to discover painting for the first time.
Francis Bacon was the one who first stopped me in my tracks. I imagine that must be the story for a lot of people and the work is not diminished in any way by that.
Where was I getting the tips to look into these people? It can only have been from the friends I was making at that time. Friendships begun in the canteen and on the number ten bus.
Somewhere in that first year I get an idea for an adventure into my head. I’ve always had these and I still do. When I was very young I would pack a bag with an apple, a change of underwear and my toy dog and head off to see the world. I never got very far of course but the urge has never left me.
I found out that the Tate museum in London had a few of these Francis Bacons on display and thought it would be exciting to go see them in the flesh I think that’s a singularly apposite word in this context.
That trip to London was characterised by three things:
1 A near constant feeling of low level fear.
2 The discovery of just how much better Francis Bacon’s actual paintings looked than the reproductions in the books in the UCD library. The weight and landscape of the paint, the presence of the material was so impressive.
3 The Mark Rothko room.
I remember it was very close to the entrance. A large room with two long benches in the centre and huge Rothko abstracts on all the walls. The predominate feeling was deep red- at risk of getting Joni Mitchell on this.
All the painting were composed of large blocks of reds and, I think, browns. I wanted to rush through it to get to the Bacons I had come to see but I found myself deciding to sit and wait just a little bit.
There was a feeling of peace. Deep peace. An instant and shocking understanding that I can’t put into words of the power of abstract art. A very seductive desire to stay there, to make a nest there. so the Rothko room, as I now called it, became my home in the museum from which I set out on adventures to see the Francis Bacon paintings, the Bridget Riley work, the Lucien Freuds. I kept going back there to fill comfortable.
I still go there now in my head.
I finished college and got my degree, which I’m proud of despite the fact that I left it in the canteen the very same day I was given it but I do think I learned more from the friends I made there and the tangents I pursued in my time there than from the formal programme but I guess they know that..
You can learn more about the Tate and Mark Rothko here:
And then I found a lovely video piece that features the thoughts, and voice, of one of those friends I made in college, and deals with a subject similar to this piece: