For Pace London’s opening, Mark Rothko’s late black and grey paintings are exhibited beside Hiroshi Sugimoto’s contemporary photographs of bodies of water, also in monochrome. There is immense confidence in the curation of this deceptively simple show; there are no labels and no blurb; this is just a white room full of black and white blocks of colour. Well-established in New York for its ‘duets’, the gallery often tries to create visual conversations across different mediums, between artists who share a vocabulary. Notable examples have been Willem de Kooning and Jean Dubuffet; Piet Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt; and Josef Albers and Donald Judd.
The Rothkos on show were painted in the year leading up to his suicide in 1969. Unlike the sumptuous depths of his colour saturated paintings, they are completely flat; flat like the mind of one who no longer has the strength to care; any possibility of meaning is purposely purged. There is a relentless denial and refusal or inability to let anything happen. You look and then you have to look away. Sugimoto’s silver gelatin print photographs are similar in composition – there is a horizon line that separates the colours – but in all other respects they have the opposite effect; it is hard to take your eyes off them.
A dense black sky hangs over a surreally white sea in his Bay of Sagami, Atami and beside that there hangs a triptych entitled Tyrrenian Sea, Mount Polo. This shows the seascape at three different times; one completely white, one grey and one black. Sugimoto is taking what is there in the landscape and abstracting it, reducing it down to its essence. Lake Superior, Cascade River (1995) is all bathed in white, with only a brighter white across the horizon to distinguish land from sky. In this void of fullness you cannot help oscillating, as it draws you in, between the words nothing and everything. Another Lake Superior, Cascade River, taken in 2003, is almost identical, aside from a faint grey marking the sky-line. They are pictures of the metaphysical, records of the eternal, abstract world that surrounds us.
As you walk around the space, the artists converse; in the seascapes the shapes of waves echo the markings of brushstrokes and the discussion touches on the painterliness of the photograph and all that it can and cannot capture. Mostly, however, they talk around the possibility of finding meaning in such emptiness; while Sugimoto finds beauty in the unknowable void, Rothko seems to find only bitterness.
Then, just before this dialogue becomes repetitive, on the far wall, in what I take to be the last work on show, there is a Rothko that changes its direction. Like a flicker of life or a softening below the surface, patches of mauve, taupe and lilac can be seen layered beneath the grey. As with the seascapes, there is an impression of an unnameable and powerful movement being captured and suddenly, for a moment, the viewer is allowed to enter. What he has captured here is perhaps the true shade of hope; a grey, that in spite of the odds against it, is starting to awaken.
Read Exeunt’s review of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s 2011 exhibition is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.