The Seagram Building and Murals

The Seagram Building was one of the most important influences on modern urban architecture. No wonder then that when the choice for artists to create murals for the very swanky Four Seasons Restaurant inside, Rothko would be considered for the job.

Here is a period piece which give a sense of how swanky the building was to New Yorkers.

The idea for the Seagram Building began in July of 1954. The announcement came from the president of the company, Frank R. Schwengel. The building would be located at 375 Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd.  “Major depressions are a thing of the past,” he said.  “Despite great maladjustments due to war and continuing political uncertainties, business activity in the United States has remained near its highest levels, except for minor and temporary declines.” Heady times. First to be designed by a California firm, the design was discredited by the daughter of the company’s owner operator, Samuel Bronfman.  Phyllis Bronfman Lambert joined with Philip Johnson who employed Mies van der Rohe, former director of the Bauhaus in Germany.  van der Rohe was given and ample $43 million budget, which included monies for Phyllis who bought and commissioned prints, posters, tapestries, paintings and sculpture for the offices, the public spaces and the Four Season’s Restaurant. The building would be the first of the “international style” of modern architecture in New York. Phyllis Johnson had already known Rothko and had purchased several of his works for the Seagram’s private collection. Johnson had been told that Rothko was “the greatest living painter for this kind of project,” approached Rothko to produce a series of paintings for the smaller of the two dining rooms in the restaurant.

Sidney Janis, Rothko’s art broker, wrote to Phyllis Lambert confirming a conversation between Johnson and Rothko in which they agreed Rothko would provide “500 to 600 square feet of paintings” for $35,000. Rothko was given carte blanche to design the wall decorations any way he chose.

This following clip is a conversation about the building from an architectural historian and critic, accompanied with still photos. Speakers: Drs. Matthew Postal and Steven Zucker. A Smarthistory.org video. Please visit Smarthistory.org for more videos and museum audioguides.

RED, the John Logan play, takes place during the two year period that Rothko was painting a series of murals known as The Seagram Murals. They were commissioned to be used in the building, as you have just seen, one of the most important new constructions in New York. Breslin dedicated and entire chapter to the period of The Murals, undoubtedly, one of the most relevant chapters in his biography for Logan’s text. What struck me in reading is is that much of the play is clearly a result of Breslin’s research; lines, ideas, historical fact and psychological analysis.  Among one of the most interesting facts I discovered was that Rothko actually had an assistant during the project, named Dan Rice. I thought the character of Ken in the play was a purely fictitious invention of Logan functioning as a sounding board for Rothko. But Ken has historical roots. Rothko had rented a large room in a former YMCA building on 222 Bowery.  Rice helped Rothko stretch and prepare the canvasses, but did not actually paint any of them. The heralded section of the play when Rothko and his assistant Ken prime a canvas is largely informed by this passage in the Breslin, and is a treasure trove of character information about the man himself:

When Rothko reached his studio, usually by cab between 8:30 and 9:00 A.M. every morning, he didn’t look much like a banker, or like one of the “bums” on the Bowery.  He dressed in the drab, cheap, conservative clothes that a lower-middle-class accountant, not a master colorist, might wear, though Rothko added a few bohemian flourishes – a large-brimmed, floppy red hat and, during cold weather, a long, moth-eaten overcoat that came down to his ankles. Once at the studio, Dan Rice said, “Mark would change into his painting clothes which pretty well stood up by themselves they were so encrusted with glue and paint.”

Hired during the summer of 1958, Dan Rice had helped Rothko to renovate the studio.  Then he built wooden stretchers and stretched canvas which Rothko had bought from a tent and awning shop. Rice also assisted Rothko in applying ground color, a mixture of rabbit-skin glue and colored pigment. “glue would just cool too fast on a big painting.” said Rice, “so often he would work on a ladder and I would work underneath until I was dripping with this stuff,” then they would trade places and Rothko would be covered with the glue. After the ground, all layers were applied by Rothko himself, working rapidly, using big five inch housepainter’s brushes.  Then the often restless Rothko “would sit and consider the painting for long periods of time, sometimes hours, sometimes days.” Messy in appearance, clumsy in his movements, Rothko was “extraordinarily meticulous over his work,” said Rice.  “I’ve never seen anyone agonize quite as much over the placement of a painting.” Once a paintined was finished, Rothko struggled to determine its place in the ensemble, its place on the wall. In particular, he constantly adjusted the height, considering, reconsidering, asking Rice for his opinion. He was “very unsure” of the height, Rice recalled.

Rothko struggled for two years to put the paintings together. Made two separate attempts. The second was halted by a trip to Italy and France. Rothko spent time in Naples, Pompeii and found a strong connection with the House of Mysteries found in Pompeii.

House of Mysteries

Pompeii: Murals from the House of Mysteries

He told his traveling companion he sensed “a deep affinity” between his current work and the walls in the in the House of Mysteries, “the same feeling, the same broad expanses of somber colors.”

After that visit, he traveled south to Paestum, home of some of the best preserved Greek ruins in the world.  It is a place about an hour away from my ancestral village. I have visited it twice myself and found it to be an incredibly powerful and inspiring place. Rothko, too, was very moved by the Greek buildings of Paestum. Not many visit there, except on day trips from the Naples area, the kind of trip that Rothko took. I find it deeply encouraging and reassuring to know that Rothko and I have walked the same grounds and been moved by the same sense of grandeur, history, architecture and gravity.   It is one of the many connections I am beginning to feel with the artist.

His trip among the ruins was described in the Breslin.

“We wandered through them all morning; Rothko examined every architectural detail with bemused attention, rarely saying a word.”

Paestum Temple

Temple of Hera. 2004 by Edward Gero

As they ate a picnic lunch inside the shell of the Temple of Hera, two Italian high school boys, acting as guides, asked the Americans who they were and what they did. “I have told them you were an artist, and they ask whether you came here to paint the temples,” reported his traveling companions daughter, who was interpreting.  “Tell them that I have been painting Greek temples all my life without knowing it,” Rothko replied.

Peastum Illuminated

Paestum Illuminated. 2004 by Edward Gero

At first, Rothko responded to the challenge by producing horizontal panels – which contained his characteristic horizontal bands of color. But the first set, “didn’t turn out right.” He “turned the paintings on their side,” Rice related. If a work like Red, Brown and Black (1958 see last video below) is placed on its side, the brown and black rectangles resemble vertical columns, while the red area recedes, as if it were an opening between them. While still predominantly rectangular, this new imagery, suggesting windows, doors, portals, was simple, classical, architectural. Rothko had moved his work into a whole new dimension.

Doors, Portals, Simple, Classical, Architectural. 2004 by Edward Gero

One of the Murals painted for The Four Seasons Restaurant

Two wonderful connections to the painter via Italy: Naples and Paestum. Both part of my own history.  It comforts me to know we share experiences.

A final video about how he painted. Insights into Rothko’s craft and skill.  Happy viewing.

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About EG

Edward Gero, a four-time Helen Hayes Award recipient and fourteen-time Helen Hayes Nominee just completed a run at Round House Theater as Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, where he also played Richard Nixon in Nixon's Nixon in 1999 and 2008 and received a Helen Hayes nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor both times. Last year he appeared as the title character in Signature Theater’s production of Sweeney Todd. Other regional credits include David Malter in The Chosen for Theater J at Arena Stage; Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre and Donny in American Buffalo at The Studio Theatre. Other favorites include John in Shining City, Ivan in The Seafarer and Tom Sargeant in Skylight (Helen Hayes Award), Vershinin in Uncle Vanya, and Philip Gelberg in Broken Glass. In 28 seasons with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, he has played 70 Shakespearean roles including Hotspur in Henry IV (Helen Hayes Award), Bolingbroke in Richard II (Helen Hayes Award) and Macduff in Macbeth (Helen Hayes Award). Regional credits include Gloucester in King Lear, The Goodman Theatre; Horace Vandergelder in The Matchmaker at Center Stage in Baltimore. In New York: South Street Theatre and Classic Stage Company. Film and television credits include Die Hard II, Striking Distance, and narrations for The Discovery Channel and PBS. He is an Associate Professor of Theater at George Mason University, and instructor for the Academy for Classical Acting at GWU, and The University of Maryland. Mr. Gero was featured on the cover of The Washington Post Magazine, which can be read by clicking the attached link.
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One Response to The Seagram Building and Murals

  1. kneshati says:

    Wonderful, Ed! Thanks for the visual journey.
    KJN

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