When Tracey Emin was going to the Royal College of Art in London in the late 1980s, she broke down while viewing a radiant pink-and-yellow Mark Rothko painting at Tate Gallery. “I sat there and cried. I didn’t know why. I knew nothing of Rothko and at the time had no understanding of anything abstracted. I was in love with Edvard Munch,” Emin recounted in an e-mail to Bonnie Clearwater, organizer of the 50-year-old British artist’s first museum solo show in the United States, “Angel without You,” opening December 4 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.
Clearwater had queried Emin about Rothko after seeing an unfamiliar work from 1993. Titled Rothko Comfort Blanket and made in collaboration with Sarah Lucas, the piece features a swatch of Emin’s pink baby blanket with coarse yellow stitching and a label reading: FOR PRIVATE VIEWS AND OTHER STATE OCCASIONS.
“Tracey had this epiphany in front of the Rothko and understood what an artwork can do to you emotionally,” says Clearwater, who recently became director of the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale after leading MOCA for the last 18 years. “She knew what she wanted to achieve in her work, but at the same time she felt ‘trapped in a process of mannerisms and gestures’—in her words. Seven years later, she makes the Comfort Blanket and uses her own baby blanket that really is the bearer of her tears, her soul.”
Later, Emin began constructing confessional and allusive messages of love in neon lights, which are the focus of the Miami show. Clearwater sees a relationship with Rothko in those sculptures, too. “What makes the Rothkos work is their glowing color and the vibration between the horizontal forms,” she says. “That’s what gives the paintings this power and tactile quality that really reaches right into your gut. The neons create that literally.”
Clearwater’s interest in the Rothko connection is personal as well as scholarly. As head of the Mark Rothko Foundation in the ’80s, she was responsible for recommending which museums should receive paintings from the foundation. She had specifically designated the untitled pink-and-yellow canvas (ca. 1951–52) for the Tate, where Emin had her encounter.
“As an art historian and curator, you do these things, they go out into the world, and if you’re lucky you find yourself as a footnote in someone else’s scholarship,” Clearwater says. “But to have that kind of transformative impact on an artist who I end up working with and was an early supporter of, I was amazed that it came full circle.”