The exhibition Rothko in Britain recently opened at the Whitechapel Gallery, and focuses on his first solo exhibition in Britain in 1961, held in the same space.

The original exhibition, 50 years ago, happened when Rothko was the greatest living American artist of the time. Such success, and money, came late for Rothko; fame arrived when he was in his 50s, and not before a life of hardship. Disturbed by capitalism, Rothko was more interested in the humane power of art, believing that it could truly change the world through a companionship between the artist and the viewer, rather than through any fiscal power it may possess or generate.

Against this backdrop of personal conflicts, the artist arrived in Britain for the first time in 1959. His arrival coincided with an ideological struggle brought about by the almost completed commission for the financial giant Seagram, his most public of works and most potentially lucrative. This visit, with the forthcoming Whitechapel exhibition in the planning stages, brought Rothko together with the Cornwall enclave of artists of the time. He had earlier met William Scott in the United States, a British artist who was much influenced by the American Abstract Expressionists. During the summer of 1959, Rothko, along with his wife and daughter, spent time in Cornwall with Scott as well as other British artists including Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost and Paul Feiler.

The current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery displays photographs and letters from this visit in 1959, as well as archival material from the exhibition itself, in 1961. As such, the exhibition aims not only to reveal the impact of Rothko’s 1961 solo artistic debut in London, but also to deliver some insight into his interaction with British art and artists in the lead up to this.

Housed in Gallery 4, the exhibition is relatively small and compact. The lighting is low, perhaps reflecting this predilection of Rothko’s. Indeed, Rothko had very clear views on how his exhibitions should be arranged and one of the first exhibits in the current exhibition is a typed manuscript outlining his detailed recommendations for that of 1961, specifying the lighting, how the paintings should be hung, and what the display height should be.

Further exhibits on display include a selection of photographs that were taken of viewers at the 1961 exhibition. It feels strangely odd, as a viewer of this new exhibition, to be watching the viewers of the original of 1961 as they gazed at his work. I was struck by the variety of attitudes and poses, many disaffected.

There are copies of the reviews of the exhibition on display, all of which seemed favourable. David Sylvester at the time stated that ‘faced with Rothko’s paintings at Whitechapel, one feels unbearably hemmed-in by forces buffeting one’s every nerve.’ Rothko believed that ‘a picture lives by companionship’, that the experience for the viewer when faced with his art should be an immersive one, even a surrender of sorts. He openly wanted people to weep in front of his work, and seemingly many of those who attended the 1961 exhibition in Whitechapel did just that – something that is not apparent from the selection of photographs on display here. If anything, the subjects appear unengaged and detached. Thus, from the photographs on display in the current exhibition, it is difficult to get a sense of the impact of Rothko’s art on those present in 1961. To some extent the purpose of the photographs could have been a generic photographic study of gallery visitors, the art itself (apart from one colour image) is very much in the background, with side-on views rather than full-frontal perspectives.

For me, it is Rothko’s art that takes centre-stage, although the exhibition hosts just one of his paintings, Light Red Over Black [1957], the first of his works to be bought by a British public collection [1959]. There is something mystical about it being solo here, and as such it demands our full attention, a fact enhanced by the positioning of the audio recordings. Sitting and listening to Paul Feiler, Peter Lanyon’s widow, Tom Rosenthal and others, the stacked panels of varying and subtle colours and hues is seductive, and the image becomes indelibly imprinted on one’s mind.

Much of the exhibition focuses on the Cornwall angle, seeking to establish a connection between Rothko and Britain, particularly with the British art scene. The photographs and interviews with artists of the time are compelling, but I felt that they told me more about St Ives and the art scene there of the late 1950s than about Rothko or an American-British art connection. Rothko himself rejected the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, to which many of the British artists were drawn, professing to care only about man’s basic emotions, ‘tragedy, ecstasy, destiny’.

This exhibition is based on archive and on material remnants of both Rothko’s visit to Britain in 1959 and his solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961. Perhaps naively, I had hoped to get more of a sense of what it was like to be there in 1961. I was also hoping to find out more about Rothko himself, and his art. Similarly to the poet Sylvia Plath, there remains the danger of explaining and reducing his creative output through the manner of his tragic suicidal death.

Following my visit to the current exhibition, Rothko remains elusive and enigmatic, but perhaps that very fact is an authentic reflection of the power of his art. In terms of the artist and his archive, Rothko’s works of art, both materially and immaterially, probably tell us everything that we need to know.

The Rothko in Britain exhibition runs until February 26th 2012 at the Whitechapel Gallery