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)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent trips along to Degas at the Ballet at the Royal Academy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
MasterChef 2014 finalists Charley Boorman, Wayne Sleep, Sophie Thompson and Jodie Kidd

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Trade unionist Ricky Tomlinson (right), later a television actor, attends a demonstration in London, 1975
theatre
News
The three-time Emmy award winner Elaine Stritch
peopleStar of stage and screen passes away aged 89
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor