Rothko in Britain, Whitechapel, London

In 1961, the first English exhibition of Rothko's work mesmerised London; 50 years on, that event is itself on show – don't miss it

On an October day in 1961, Betty Blandino, future director of the Whitechapel's Upper Gallery, was giving a talk called The Artist in the Theatre.

A man in a macintosh joined the group; he was particularly interested when Blandino showed how to make a green gel from yellow and blue. "He did seem to know what I was talking about," Blandino recalls, thoughtfully, half a century later. Eventually, she asked the man his name. In a gravelly American voice, he replied: "Mark Rothko".

Blandino can be forgiven for not recognising the great abstractionist. Rothko was about to have his first English show, downstairs in the Whitechapel proper; it was organised by the revolutionary curator, Bryan Robertson. Rothko's work would hit London like a shell. The late painter John Hoyland recalled the show. "We didn't understand it ... how to analyse it," he said, in an interview days before his death in July. To the English, "abstraction" had meant the not-quite chalk downs of Paul Nash, the stylised boats of Ben Nicholson. Here, though, was something different. Rothko's show was "engulfing, an awesome vision": Hoyland "staggered around it", drunk on the American's sensuousness.

All this is the subject, 50 years on, of a small but fascinating exhibition at the Whitechapel. There is only one Rothko in the show – the Tate's Light Red Over Black – and that was not in the 1961 exhibition. This in itself is poignant. It took the Tate until 1959 to acquire its first Rothko: the gallery's director, Sir John Rothenstein, hated abstract art. The other great art knight, Sir Kenneth Clark, backed Rothenstein's views. Under their reign, British art remained a backwater, abstraction confined to a small group of oddballs working in a far-off place called St Ives. And then there was Rothko at the Whitechapel.

The photographer Sandra Lousada was just out of her teens in 1961. Her father, a patron of the Tate, told her to go and shoot the show. The results, hung next to Light Red Over Black, evoke a time in English art now scarcely imaginable. Like John Hoyland, visitors to the Whitechapel seem stunned by the images in front of them – uncanny, soft-edged beauties like nothing they have seen before. Other photographs show Rothko on his quasi-mythical visit to Cornwall in the summer of 1959: one has him sitting in a garden, drinking tea. All the other men – Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost – are wearing trawlerman's jumpers; Rothko is in a suit and tie. He looks like a fish out of water, which is how some critics saw him.

Under the headline, "Clarity begins at home", the reviewer of Time and Tide found Rothko's pictures "spiritually enervating". "Like the beauty of some women," he said, "their beauty is quite meaningless."

Happily, most local writers got Rothko as quickly as local painters did. Alan Bowness, future director of the Tate, found the American "immediately sympathetic to the English taste", and the feeling was mutual. Also on show are letters from Rothko to various English correspondents. In one, he professes himself so moved by Shakespeare and Dickens that he felt "they must really have been Russian Jews who emigrated to New York". Who'd have thought? Don't miss this exhibition.

To 26 February 2012 (020-7522 7888)

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