The intimate Rothko Room holds four paintings by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, and reflects the artist's preference for exhibiting his art "in a scale of normal living."
Duncan Phillips's empathetic response to Mark Rothko's paintings reveals the collector's understanding of the emotional impact of color. In 1957, Phillips held his first group exhibition that included the artist and purchased Green and Maroon (1953). In 1960, he acquired Green and Tangerine on Red (1956) and Orange and Red on Red (1957) from a one-person show held at the museum. In looking at Rothko's paintings, Phillips wrote, "What we recall are not memories but old emotions disturbed or resolved—some sense of well being suddenly shadowed by a cloud—yellow ochres strangely suffused with a drift of gray prevailing over an ambience of rose or the fire diminishing into a glow of embers, or the light when the night descends."
In 1960, as Phillips was designing an adjoining building to accommodate his growing collection, he designated a specific room for Rothko’s paintings, making the Phillips the first American museum to dedicate a space to the artist’s work. The resulting room was small, with one painting on each wall (Ochre and Red on Red (1954) was added upon its purchase in 1964), dim lights to enhance the resonance of the colors, and chairs for prolonged viewing. From the outset, the room was intended as a meditative space, even referred to by Phillips as a type of "chapel.”
Rothko visited the room and treasured the atmosphere. On a 1961 visit when Phillips was away, he asked the staff to make several small adjustments to the space. Phillips noticed—and reversed—the changes when he returned. He did, however, agree to limit the seating to one bench, a decision that is still honored today.
The space set a standard for future commissions for the artist in other locations, but the Phillips’s room remains the only existing installation of Rothko's paintings that was designed in collaboration with the artist himself. Though relocated in 2006, the Rothko Room has remained essentially unchanged in scale and character and continues to engage visitors.