Mark Rothko

Horizontal or vertical? The Revolving Rothkos debate

Tate Debate: The verdict.

Following our report on whether two of Tate’s Rothko paintings should hang vertically or horizontally (November 2008, p24), we have been given access to the relevant gallery records. A memo of 30 September 1987 by Richard Morphet, keeper of the modern collection, explains that the decision to hang the “Black on Maroon” paintings horizontally in the Rothko retrospective (which had closed earlier that month) should be regarded as a “temporary aberration”.

Michael Compton, selector of the 1987 exhibition, decided that his horizontal hang was a mistake. He had earlier opted for the horizontal because this was the way the Rothkos had originally been presented by Tate director Sir Norman Reid, who had negotiated the 1970 gift with the artist. The two paintings had been hung horizontally from 1970-77, vertically from 1979-87 (as suggested by Rothko’s deed of gift), horizontally in the 1987 retrospective, and vertically ever since then (including in the current retrospective, which runs to 1 February 2009).

Tate also made available photographs of the back of the two canvases. These images are important since the reverse of the paintings are now covered by a lining, obscuring the original markings. The photographs confirm that they were signed by Rothko as a horizontal picture, although it remains open to debate whether this indicates the artist’s preferred direction.

Achim Borchardt-Hume, curator of the current retrospective, points out that Rothko would sometimes “rotate” paintings while working on them. There is not necessarily a correct way to hang the two “Black on Maroon” pictures and he opted for a presentation in the main room of the current retrospective “in which each painting directly relates to its counterparts”. For Mr Borchardt-Hume, vertical is correct for this show.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 197 December 2008