The Pace Gallery just opened a new space in London, behind the Royal Academy of Arts. Their inaugural show, entitled Rothko / Sugimoto, sounds extremely promising to me. Abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko has been one of my favourite artists since a young age, and I have also come to appreciate Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photography a lot in the past years. Among other things, I saw his ghostly white cinema screens when they were shown at the Tate, and his strange dark room sparks. Here, it is his views of the sea and the sky in different places of the world that are presented. Putting these two masters together seems evident a posteriori, given the plastic resemblance of their chosen works, and the fact that they both work in series, exploring endlessly the aesthetic possibilities of a unique form.
But it is also risky to bring together two such great artists. Won’t one overpower the other? Can a balance be reached? Will the two bodies of work fully work in tandem? The Pace Gallery has a history of doing two-artists shows, therefore they already tested the possibilities of this form of curation, which is also occasionally favoured at the Tate Modern. For instance, Simon Baker curated a room in the permanent collections showing photographer Lewis Baltz alongside with sculptures by Carl Andre, to highlight the similarities in their aesthetic propositions.
Here, however, the two artists are not from the same artistic time. The most striking visual feature in this show is the peculiar similarity of the works. Rothko’s paintings even have an unusual white edge that can be compared to that of a photographic image. But beyond that, their differences is what emerges quite clearly. The paintings are matte, with an incredible depth of layers, and such a subtlety in colour that you can take hours to look into them. The photographs, however, have that awkward shine that makes the surface difficult to take in all at once. The lights (as is the problem in most photo exhibitions) reflect on the image, and the deep blacks therefore change nature. Sugimoto’s play with natural light, however, is really beautiful, but the viewer is led to wonder to what extent he retouched the images, as they lack sharpness.
The juxtaposition of the two, in the end, results in the fact that you are led to look at one body of work as informed by the other and vice-versa: you look at Rothko’s paintings as if they were depicting the sea and sky, and that blurry line in the middle, the horizon. You mentally inscribe a perspective on what is really just planes of colour. As for Sugimoto’s landscapes, you look at them as abstractions, as if they were flat. In some way it allows the viewer to look with a different eye, but is it really useful?
I tend to question this juxtaposition in the end. I found it extremely interesting because it sparks questions, and I enjoyed seeing such beautiful works. But does it really work? I confess that Rothko’s dark paintings, in this show, have a depth that the photographs don’t have. They really stand out. But all in all, the show is successful in creating a very serene and contemplative atmosphere, and if you want to get lost in sight (and thought), see it.
Rothko / Sugimoto | Dark Paintings and Seascapes | 4 October 2012 – 17 November 2012 | Pace Gallery, Burlington Gardens, London