As Tate Modern unveils its new Rothko Room, Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville reveals the story behind the paintings it contains, and reflects on one of the most compelling experiences to be had in any gallery in the world
In 1959, while travelling in southern Italy with his family and that of magazine editor, John Hurt Fischer, Mark Rothko discovered a surprising classical precursor to his contemporary art...
On the journey down from Naples the party had fallen in with a couple of Italian youths who offered to act as guides. At Paestum, where the odd-assorted little band picnicked at noon in the Temple of Hera, the young men expressed their curiosity as to the identity and occupations of the Americans. Fischer's daughter, who was acting as interpreter, turned to Rothko and said: "I have told them that you are an artist, and they ask whether you came here to paint the temples," to which c replied: "Tell them that I have been painting Greek temples all my life without knowing it."
The set of colossal canvases housed in Tate Modern's Rothko Room originated, as every art-aware schoolboy knows, in a commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building on New York's Park Avenue. The commission, one of the more remarkable instances of incongruity in the history of art patronage, was for 600 square feet of mural-sized paintings to decorate the walls of the restaurant - "a place," according to Rothko, "where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off " - although it is not clear if Rothko realised from the outset that his paintings were intended as a backdrop for fine dining. The architect Philip Johnson, who assisted Mies van der Rohe in the design of the building and who was chief commissioner of the Rothko murals, always insisted that the painter knew that they were to be hung in the restaurant.
Great art can be fitted into the oddest places - on a chapel ceiling, for instance, or in a millionaire's bathroom - but it does seem remarkably brave on Johnson's part to call on Rothko, one of the most uncompromising of the Abstract Expressionists (a label Rothko vigorously rejected), to soothe the savage breasts of New York's richest bastards and their mates.