Mark Rothko celebrated in Rothko in Britain 50 years after debut show at Whitechapel Gallery

By Jennie Gillions | 24 November 2011
A black and white photo of two men in a 1960s art gallery
© Sandra Lousada
Exhibition: Rothko in Britain, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until February 26 2012

Outside Gallery 4 is a video of art students viewing Mark Rothko's first solo show in Britain, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in late 1961.

This captivating piece of modern history is the perfect way to begin this show – an intimate look back at Rothko's relationship with Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s.

A photo of a tall red paint canvas with two square brown paint marks on it
Mark Rothko, Light Red Over Black (1957). Oil on Canvas© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London
The majority of the exhibition, comprising letters, photographs and other bits of correspondence, hangs together beautifully. The setting, next to the Foyle Reading Room, is perfect.

One wall is dedicated to photographer Sandra Lousada’s images of visitors to the 1961 exhibition. They are simply framed, allowing us an uncluttered peek at people’s expressions and reactions.

The rest of the space belongs to Rothko. The correspondence prior to the exhibition’s October 1961 opening is enthralling, showing us how Rothko's relationship with the Whitechapel developed.

One typed three-page missive details Rothko’s precise instructions for how his work should be displayed: "The larger pictures should all be hung as close to the floor as possible, ideally not more than six inches above it…this is the way [they] were painted. If this is not observed, the proportions of the rectangles become distorted and the picture changes."

There are three glass cases containing papers. Visitors are privy to the details of his hotel arrangements, a worried note from the gallery's Director concerning structural work that would delay the exhibition’s opening and advice from the Assistant Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Rothko had shown previously.

Further paperwork details Rothko and his daughter’s visit to Somerset in 1959, where they stayed with oil painter William Scott.

In the same year, the Tate arranged to buy Light Red Over Black (1957), the one original Rothko in this exhibition and chosen because it was the first of his works bought by a British public collection; the correspondence regarding the purchase is less charming than the holiday snaps and letters between Rothko and Scott, but no less interesting.

Letters of condolence sent to Mell Rothko after her husband’s death in 1970 add poignancy to this otherwise business-like section.

In the centre of the room visitors can listen to reactions to the 1961 exhibition and hear people’s memories of Rothko.

As for the centrepiece, Light Red Over Black hangs alone on one wall. Stunning as it is – like other Rothkos, it is a deep, sensual work that draws you in further the longer you look at it – it feels, dare I say it, almost out-of-place in the library-like atmosphere.

Rothko was firm on lighting for the 1961 show, adamant that harsh lighting should not detract from the canvases' own "inner light".

Light Red Over Black is a sweeping painting that deserves space to be appreciated fully; the gallery chosen for Rothko in Britain feels a little small for it, perhaps a little dark. Perfect for the history, not so perfect for the huge canvas.

However, this is an exhibition about Rothko, and it would not be complete without an original. Stand close to it, block out the absorbing story behind you and just breathe it in.

  • Open 11am-6pm Tuesday-Sunday (9pm Thursday). Admission free.
More pictures:

A photo of a group of people looking at colourful abstract paintings inside an art gallery
Mark Rothko, Whitechapel Gallery (1961)
© Sandra Lousada
A black and white photo of an art gallery full of large abstract paintings
Installation view (1961). Whitechapel Gallery Archive© Edgar Hyman
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