Mike Maguire CC
Rothko & Chips
Red on Maroon
It is close to closing. Near winter. Late October. Clocks changed. The world has retreated into darkness and hibernation. A room already dimly lit, now sunken into coffin-lid gloom. A stage set for black comedy. Though no one is laughing here. Tate Modern. Boiler House. Second Floor. The Rothko Murals.
Lewis sits, contemplating the paintings. The murk gathers around him. People come and go. They stop and stare. They move on. Some clutch gallery guides. Some have audio guides. He’s never understood why you would want that level of interference, chatter, interrupting your experience. But these visitors he tolerates, they make an effort at least, even if it’s misdirected. It’s those playing with their mobile phones he can’t bear. Scrolling, forever swiping, prodding and pawing at an inanimate object, desperate for some interaction with the world. They need to look up, put the phone down, the world is all around them. People don’t see anymore; they don’t look properly. That’s the problem with young people today, they don’t know how to look. Earlier he’d told one couple who were taking a selfie in front of his favourite: Red on Maroon, the one that looks like a doorway to another world, to put their phones away. They apologised and did so immediately. They may have felt compelled by his tone of barely disguised contempt, or because he’d been sitting there so long, they assumed he was one of the gallery attendants.
But it’s those that come to an art gallery wearing tiny headphones playing tinny music that he finds most repulsive. How can anyone appreciate one artform whilst being distracted by another? It’s not an activity that enables multitasking. Although much of the music produced today is barely art, Lewis considers. And it is produced, no longer created or composed or even played live, but contrived, packaged and consumed. He despairs of it all. Blames Andy Warhol. Rothko would blame him too; he despised the throwaway everyday commerciality of art. It must be felt deeply, birthed by the artist and viscerally experienced by the observer. Both activities may be painful, but there is value in pain. There is beauty in it too. Worth. And something that Lewis can only describe as divine.
Four Darks in Red
Closing time. The polite but firm tones over the PA system. The gallery attendants get their metaphorical brooms out and begin sweeping people towards the door. Lewis is recognised by the attendants as a regular visitor. They don't hassle or chivvy him; they know he will leave on time. Occasionally he comes across a new attendant who doesn't realise his status. They raise their voice sometimes when he doesn't move immediately. He raises his eyebrows in response. ‘Oh I'm sorry sir' comes the swift embarrassed reply when they assume he is a visiting lecturer, member of senior management or Director from another gallery. But most of the gallery assistants that sweep through are known to him. The new ones are always temporary, and often only work at the weekend. He doesn't visit on weekends anymore. Too many tourists. Too many phones and photos. Too much noise and chatter. Too many children and rucksacks. Not enough attention. You need silence and attention to appreciate good art, and especially Rothko.
Lewis has been sitting in silence and with attention in the room where nine of the thirty paintings Rothko produced for the Four Seasons Restaurant, but later withdrew and donated to three art galleries around the world, hang heavy and brooding. Monolithic. They remind him of the monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey and in many respects, he muses, these paintings represent a similar mysterious unknowing: something unique, present yet unobtainable.
The Seagram Murals. So-called from the name of the building they were intended to sanctify with their presence. But their presentation is far from the community street art - all gaudy colours and cartoon faces - that one associates with modern murals. Lewis wonders, as he has done many times before, what Rothko had in mind when creating these paintings, deliberately as murals, and specifically for such a space. A place full of people and noise and irreverence for the art itself. Much like how modern art galleries have become, he notes, looking around at his fellow visitors heading towards the exit. On route to the gift shop to buy an image of these same murals as an insignificant postcard, cutting the artwork down to size, reducing its stature, its meaning, its impact, to something as throwaway as a postage stamp. This is precisely the opposite of Rothko’s intention, Lewis is convinced. Rather than paint the mural directly onto brick or concrete, as is common, imprinting it onto the bones of a building, he created a facsimile of their intended resting place in his studio, but constructed them as one creates a monolith: tall, wide and imposing. Overwhelming. Designed to consume the observer, rather than vice versa. Designed to induce indigestion in the restaurant clientele.
Light Red Over Black
Art must be experienced, not merely consumed. Lewis feels the same way about music. It should be listened to live, either to re-experience the joy of creation, whether explosive punk or meditative electronica, or listened to intently with good headphones, to pick out the intricacies and depth in a recording. Layering sound like layering paint, for colour and mood. Music is the most immediate of artforms, easily packaged and commodified. All that creative energy reduced to tiny sound files, mere megabytes on a phone or laptop. It makes him sad. Angry too. Literature is going the same way, he thinks, mere content to be scanned on a phone whilst standing on commuter trains or listened to as a sleeping aid. No one actually reads a book anymore. At least visual art by its nature cannot be so reduced, so dismissed and thrown away. Other than what Warhol did so deliberately. Him and all the nonsense conceptual artists since, regurgitating Duchamp and the Dadaists.
The only music Lewis allows himself to listen to whilst looking at art, although never in a gallery, only at home, is Morton Feldman. Feldman’s score for the Rothko Chapel in Texas. An experience as immersive, intense, brooding yet uplifting as the paintings and space they inhabit and to which it is dedicated. Lewis has often dreamt of visiting the Rothko Chapel. He once planned a road trip across the States where he would call on this artistic shrine and other monuments of interest. But this was back when he was still working and looking forward to his retirement. He had so many ideas and plans back then, everything that was still ahead of him. That was what retirement was for, a chance to reset the balance and satisfy a longing for a life not yet lived. But it won’t happen now, not now he is finally retired. Not since his health has worsened.
The doctors encourage his walking, as long as he is careful and doesn’t overdo it. So Lewis walks, every day. He explores every part of London, every highway and back street, every Cross, Circus and communal park. He sets off in a different direction every day without consulting the map. On occasions he does get a little lost, or ‘misplaced’, as he likes to think of it, but he always finds his way again. And ultimately he always finds his way back here, to the South Bank. The Tate Modern. The Rothko Room.
Black in Deep Red
Lewis makes his way down to steps to the ground floor. He prefers using the stairs to the elevator or the escalator. The escalator takes you down to the gift shop and the hordes of tourists or teenagers taking selfies and buying postcards to stick on their university bedroom walls. The elevator is full of prams and backpacks and he doesn’t like having to stand so close to people he doesn’t know. The stairs are usually much quieter, even at closing time, and he can make his way down slowly, carefully, still immersed inside the paintings he’s been sitting with for the last few hours. It occurs to him that his daily visit has become a pilgrimage of sorts, an obligation perhaps. He feels compelled to visit the paintings, not only because they draw him in with a mysterious silent siren call, like Kubrick and Clarke’s Monolith, but because it is his duty to protect them. To stand guard almost. To sit in silence and observe, as one visits an ill relative in hospital, sitting tentatively on the edge of their bed holding their hand tenderly whilst they sleep.
He is outside the Tate now, the crowds have dispersed, and one of the security guards locking the doors behind him says goodnight and ‘See you tomorrow, then, Lewis.’ He smiles and nods in reply. He must have told someone his name once, soon after he first began to visit regularly. He doesn’t remember when or who, but clearly word had got round. He imagines he must seem like an oddball to them, a crazy old man. Although not so old in reality, and much fitter than he probably appears, but he knows that the stiffness in his legs, brought about by his Type 2 diabetes, make him seem older than he is. His legs always seize up around this time of day, so he shakes off the stiffness with a final walk across the river. Sometimes he takes the bus the rest of the way, but on occasions he has been known to walk all the way home.
Dark Over Light Earth
It’s nearly twenty past six and now dark outside. London still looks brilliant. It shines more at night than in the daytime, he thinks. A million points of light. Like a painting. One that he will never get tired of. Lewis has lived in London all his life. Born in the East End, the proper East End, in Shadwell, and working next door in the City. He now lives “up the road” as he likes to think of it, in what has become fashionable De Beauvoir Town near Haggerston. It wasn’t fashionable when he bought it, but it has become so in the last decade. Gentrification they call it. Although those few streets around St Peter’s Church were always relatively genteel. An oasis of calm a few steps away from the chaos of Dalston’s Ridley Road market, where he goes every week to buy his groceries. He bought the house in the early ‘70s when it was still affordable, and he could walk to work if he wanted, or endure only a short bus ride. He has never liked the Underground and still avoids it as often as he can. He finds it easier and safer to get around by remaining above ground. He’s been happy in this house. He still is happy, in his own way, but it’s different now. After the divorce, once the kids had left home, he thought he’d appreciate the silence and the solitude. And he did, after a while, but it took him longer to adjust to than he expected. He’s used to it now, he has his routine, and although there were a few perfunctory love affairs after Carol left, mostly with women from work, he never contemplated them moving in. Or him moving out.
Lewis walks. He walks without thinking, without feeling. On autopilot. He walks towards the river, preferring to keep it close and to his left as he makes his way home. He stares into its darkened waters. It swirls with the strong winter tides. He loves to stand and watch its movement, its moods and disposition. Like the Rothko paintings, the river gives up more secrets and nuances, more light in its murky depths, the longer one stares. Lewis has often contemplated throwing himself in, but not because he wants to kill himself. That may come in time, when he gets too old and decrepit to care for himself and doesn’t wish to burden his grown-up children with selling the house and placing him in a home - for those homes never feel like home. But the longing to launch headfirst, to fall and immerse himself in the Thames, drowning in its depths and becoming one with the river, is a longing to experience physically what he senses from the Rothko murals. After spending so many hours every day sitting with them, staring at them, protecting them, longing to be engulfed by them with a desire that is almost sexual in its potency, he wants to be consumed by the feeling of being inside a painting. To sacrifice himself to those dark blacks and blood reds, the ochre, sienna, burnt umber, deep crimson, rust and puce. The colour of olives and pomegranate and the sad stain of spilt wine. Hues and textures that are so far beyond the mere meaning of their names that they are no longer a thing but a feeling. This is the reason, Lewis is convinced, that Rothko rarely titled his paintings. How could he? They do not depict a scene or an abstract design, they are life itself. Life, and death and everything in between. They are pain and sorrow, despair and desire. Grief and solitude, loneliness and frustration. They are monolithic and divine and deserving of sacrifice. Both Rothko’s and Lewis’s.
White Over Red
Still holding on to the railings, Lewis takes a step back from the river. He feels overcome, an almost spiritual ecstasy, he almost pushed himself to the edge again. Perhaps he doesn’t need to visit the Rothko Chapel after all, he’s created his own altar to the artist’s brilliance right here in London town. Right here, between the modern yet disused power station and the ancient yet living Father Thames. The lifeblood of the city. Both entities have pumped power through the city’s arteries in their time. He is drawn to them both, every day.
When he started his daily walks, Lewis made notes of the places he visited and his thoughts that day, for the first time in a long time aware of his own thoughts outside of work. But he finds this too difficult now. He planned to do so many things. More golf with his ex-colleagues, though since retiring he finds they have little to talk about, he doesn’t know the latest gossip, the current banking scandal, the mergers and acquisitions which gripped his interest in the past are meaningless to him now. He can see how insignificant their enterprise was. Big business is merely a series of small actions day after day designed to keep everyone busy. It was his life, his work, but it’s irrelevant now. Nearly forty-five years. All for nothing. As meaningless and as throwaway as a Campbell’s Soup Can. Lewis knows this was the point Warhol was trying to make and agrees that in many ways it had to be made eventually. But now that the point has been made, and we all got the joke, he feels strongly that it’s time to get back to creating proper art.
Lewis gave up on the golf after a while. He was never very good at it, it was just something that one was expected to do. Instead, he dug his old model train set out of the attic and laid it out on the dining room table. Something he never would have been allowed to do whilst living with his wife. He doesn’t need to worry about that sort of thing now, he can even have supper on his lap on the sofa in front of the TV. His old Hornby set is still in the front room, but gathering dust, since he rarely plays with it now. What he enjoyed most was setting it up, finding the right pieces and hand-painting them. He finds this detailed work too difficult now, along with his own attempts at painting, an activity he carried out under cover of darkness in the privacy of his own home. Embarrassed even to go to an art store to buy the materials, lest someone should ask if he was an artist, he ordered the paints and brushes online. Though it was a short-lived effort, Lewis is glad he tried his hand at painting again; a long-buried desire, deserted through necessity after leaving school, when his parents had scoffed at the idea of him going to art school and sent him to get a real job at the age of seventeen. He applied to work in the post room at a bank, as it offered regular hours and pay, albeit more of the former and less of the latter. He never imagined he’d find himself still there decades later having worked his way slowly up the pneumatic tube from the post-room basement to the deputy C-suite.
But there is always walking. Walking and watching. Observing the world around him. He is good at this, always has been, and still enjoys it. His ability to observe closely allowed him to capture his world as a young boy in his simple figurative art. It enabled him to survive the long hours standing in the post-room, since there were always people coming and going, decisions of significance occurring in the upstairs halls, and important events to imagine from the letters and telegrams he sorted and delivered to his be-suited colleagues above him. ‘All that daydreaming. It will be the death of you if you’re not careful’, his mother had said. Lewis recoils a little at the memory, shivers and buttons up the collar of his coat. He should have brought a hat. It’s getting bitterly cold at night now, and the wind is keenly felt along the riverbank. He’ll remember a hat and a scarf for tomorrow.
Lewis walks towards the bridge and climbs the low steps that lead onto its entrance like a gangplank. He can manage this incline, it’s gentle and there are few tourists left for him to worry about bumping into. He’s happy with the walk, to move his muscles again. He once had plans to hike the Three Peaks, to gradually work his way around the country’s coastal paths, maybe even trek the great Camino de Santiago. But unless his health condition rapidly improves, he doubts he will make any of those adventures now. Still, he has found a contentment in his situation. He has his own pilgrimage, his own spiritual devotion and diversion. He walks the streets of London every day, exploring what he can, revisiting Sever’s House and John Soames, avoiding the busier tourist attractions wherever possible. And as the day draws towards dusk he finds himself at the Tate, to pay his respects in the Rothko room. He does not feel so alone in there. He has company with these Murals. He understands them, and in return, they accept him as he is.
Black on Dark Sienna on Purple
Lewis steps onto the Wobbly Bridge. Wobbly no more, but forever burdened with the moniker. Londoners love nicknames for modern architecture. He can see several more of them from here. The Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie, the Shard just behind him and the Cheese Grater ahead. He’s not impressed by their glass and steel. He notices them only for the light they give off, their illumination of the river and the rest of the city beyond. Directly in front of him is St. Paul’s. Now there is a real piece of architecture. Something proud and resilient, something that will last for all time, surviving even the worst bombing of the Blitz. It is monolithic, powerful, and as evocative and meaningful to the faithful as Rothko’s paintings are to him. Though Lewis doubts whether there are any genuine faithful left. It’s hard to imagine how one could cling on to the concept of God in today’s modern world. Yet, he feels there is something spiritual and divine in Rothko’s art, but nothing he associates with a new or old testament God. It is something much more ancient and deep-rooted in humanity. This is where true divinity lies, he thinks.
He loves this walk across the bridge. Across the river. With the ancient in front of him and the modern behind. The paint still mixing around his head and the water stirring beneath his feet. Lewis stops halfway, as is his habit, and moves again to the railings. He presses his body hard against them, he likes the feel of the metal bar across his chest, both a barrier and a doorway to the murky depths below. The river swirls inside his head as a continuation of the communion he enjoyed earlier in the Rothko Room. Lines of paint, creating individual textures and messages, discernible only to those that bother to look, continue their arc in the rivulets of water, the ebb and flow beneath his feet. Lewis turns back to look at the Tate, standing tall, dark and brooding against the night sky. It is entirely the right place to house these paintings, he thinks, albeit temporarily. He hopes Rothko wouldn’t be too upset to find they were no longer hanging alongside his beloved Turner.
Black on Maroon
Chips, that’s what I need now, Lewis thinks, turning his gaze away from the Tate and walking across the rest of the bridge towards St Paul’s. He hurries to get off the bridge and away from the river, he’s not appropriately dressed for this weather. Where can one get chips from around here, he wonders. But he knows he won’t find what he’s looking for in this area. There are smart, shiny, healthy takeaway food stores near the tube, and some mini supermarkets, but he doesn’t want what they offer. He has a sudden irrefutable craving for chips, and he needs them now to fill him, to warm him and absorb the hollow space he feels having left the comfort and presence of his paintings.
Lewis often feels this strange hollowness on his return home from the Tate. Sometimes, he thinks it’s purely hunger or tiredness after a day out walking and exploring the city. But sometimes, and today in particular, it takes a different shape. It’s an emptiness that he suspects may be there all the time, but it’s only noticeable after he’s spent his daily supplication with Rothko’s Murals. He suspects that this emptiness may have been there for much of his life, growing perhaps in later years, since he left the bank and retired. Since his children left home several years before that. Since his wife left him, suddenly, as soon as the kids had gone. The emptiness may go back further than that, he considers, but he had been too busy being busy, working his way up at the bank, to notice before now. He’s never been career-minded as such, but it’s what one did. He’s been a good father though, he’s sure of that, attentive enough, of the kids if not his wife. He didn’t make the same mistakes his parents did; he encouraged his children to do whatever they were interested in, and he’s proud of the choices they made. Sally lives in the US now, teaching after completing her PhD. How she got to be so clever he doesn’t know, she didn’t get those academic brains from him. Steven went into banking. Lewis hadn’t encouraged this, but after he did his accountancy exams, he helped his son get a foot on the ladder. For a short while they worked opposite each other in the City. They didn’t often see each other, Steven was young of course and enjoying himself, and Lewis didn’t reproach him for that. But once every few weeks they would meet for lunch if Steven could make it, which meant more to Lewis than he ever articulated – to himself or to his son – since he was going through the divorce with Carol at the time. Steven lives in Singapore now, working with a merchant bank, and although they speak every few months, Lewis only gets to see him once a year. He isn’t sure that even his children fill this emptiness, he suspects it goes back a lot further than that. But for now, at least, he has found a way to fill this hole, on the second floor, East side of the Tate.
White Cloud Over Purple
Lewis walks around the outside of St Paul’s Cathedral, the churchyard closes at dusk to prevent the homeless finding somewhere to rest their weary souls. Thereby flouting one of Christ’s key messages in Matthew 11:28, Lewis notes, surprised to discover that he still recalls the biblical passages taught by rote at school. He heads along Cheapside, past the bombed-out ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars and then Postman’s Park. This is his favourite resting place in this part of London, and he often stops here on his way to or from the river and its bankside gallery. The Park is closed now in these wintering months, so Lewis turns into Little Britain, currently spoilt by the overwhelming building boarding lining its passage. He doesn’t like what they’ve done to his beloved Barts, demolishing beautiful buildings and creating faceless facades instead. He runs his hand along the newly installed stone for a few metres. It is monolithic in its own way, but without meaning or resonance. St Bartholomew’s is the longest serving hospital in the country, operating for nearly nine hundred years. Lewis hates the relentless modernization of the City which seems only to obliterate its past, its heroism and pride. But he knows where to find these glories of history, often hidden down unpromising back streets and behind now-gated gardens.
Lewis steps out from the narrowness of Little Britain into the wide-open rotunda of Smithfield. He knew he’d find himself here. He hasn’t been this way for a few weeks, and didn’t consciously set his steps in this direction, but here he is, nevertheless. If you want proper English chips in this part of the City, then you have to go to a traditional Italian caff. He walks towards Ferrari’s on the corner. In the early morning it is full of cabbies and porters for the meat market opposite. Years ago, when he was younger, he would come in here for breakfast or a coffee on the way to work. This was before every street corner of the City served bad American coffee in cardboard cups. The proprietor has changed since then, and they serve a lot of Chinese food as a result, but still do a very good English breakfast and proper chips. If he’s walking this way during the day he sometimes frequents the other Italian café, Beppe, picking up some sandwiches for his lunch. This café, another local institution, is positioned on the other corner, opposite Barts’ Ambulance station, serving drivers and porters carrying a different kind of meat to and from the hospital.
‘Ah Lewis, come in, how are you today?’ Although he’s not been in here for a while, the proprietor recognizes him, and he likes that. It’s nice to be recognized and feel welcomed. The man even comes out from behind the counter to greet him. ‘Need any help old man?’, he asks. Lewis laughs, he knows this is meant in a friendly way. He doesn’t really need any help, but he accepts it to be polite and in order to make contact with another human today. He doesn’t miss this, until he does. And then it hits him hard and any physical contact with another human pricks his skin like a small electric shock. The man takes his arm. His name is John, he thinks. Lewis can’t quite recall and doesn’t want to say anything in case he’s wrong. It sounds something like John, but pronounced with a Y. The man pulls out a seat for him at an empty table and Lewis sits down, resting his cane against the side of the chair. ‘I move it in case people trip’, the man says, leaning it against the wall next to Lewis. It’s not one of those walking canes shaped as a shepherd’s crook that one can conveniently hook over the back of a chair, but a thin straight one that folds in three places and is issued by the health service to those who are partially sighted. Lewis resisted it for a long time, but as his eyesight worsened from the proliferative retinopathy caused by his long undetected diabetes, he relented. He’s not at the stage yet when he will solely rely on it to get around, and he hopes his sight won’t deteriorate into full blindness, but it is necessary to alert others to keep out of his way. Most of the time he doesn’t want or need the assistance, but he likes being given a wide berth when walking around the City. He knows most of the streets so well it doesn’t matter that they have lost their detail and clarity.
He left the stick once, in the Tate of all places. He returned the next day as usual, and one of the attendants, Selma, he thinks it was, came to find him sitting in front of his Rothkos as usual. She was young, but he liked her, and they often had a brief chat if she happened to be on shift during his visits. She reminded him of his Sally. She handed him his stick and sat down next to him. He folded it up immediately and put in his pocket. It was very convenient in that respect. He said thank you and then they lapsed into silence. Lewis sensed that she wanted to say something, to ask him something, but he couldn’t think of any small talk to make that might encourage her. Finally, she asked, ‘What do you see Mr. Lewis, in these paintings?’ She had called him Mr., which struck him as unusual, it only happened these days in formal letters or when he had to phone the Council. It was as if he’d had only one name all his life, at school and the bank he’d only ever been known as Lewis. Even his wife called him that after a while.
What does he see? That’s a good question. He knows she wasn’t asking him from an art appreciation point of view. He wished she was, he would have told her so many things, but because of the stick she assumed he was blind. No, not yet. Not quite. And even if it may be the case soon, he knows he’ll always be able to see these paintings. They are forever embossed in his mind. When he stands close to them in the gallery, as close as he is allowed, he feels their texture and movement in his body. Sometimes he stretches out his hands towards them, to capture the energy they exude. To inhale their meaning and emotion and intensity inside him, so that they fill the emptiness inside. Even if his condition worsens and he should go totally blind, he knows it won’t stop him visiting his paintings, making his daily pilgrimage, to receive grace and forgiveness, his blessing from Rothko’s murals.
John, or Yong, brings over to him a steaming plate of chips. They’re fat and greasy and covered in salt and vinegar, just as he likes them. He complements them with a large mug of tea. ‘There you go Lewis, enjoy.’ ‘I will, thanks,’ Lewis says in reply and starts to eat hungrily from the plate with his fingers. Harry, he thinks, my name is Harry.
JP Seabright is a queer writer living in London. Their debut prose chapbook will be published by Lupercalia Press in early 2022 and collaborative poetry project published by Nine Pens Press also in 2022. They are Assistant Editor for Full House Lit Mag. More info at https://jpseabright.wordpress.com/ and via Twitter @errormessage.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.