Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mark Rothko

The first comprehensive American retrospective in twenty years of paintings and works on paper by Mark Rothko (1903-1970), long recognized as one of America's foremost artists, was on view at the National Gallery of Art, East Building, May 3 through August 16, 1998. This exhibition took full advantage of the National Gallery's unique Rothko holdings, a gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, which constitute the largest public repository of the artist's works. One hundred fifteen paintings and works on paper were included, dating from the 1930s to 1970, with an emphasis on his surrealist and classic periods. Arranged chronologically, the exhibition revealed the extent of Rothko's prolific and wide-ranging output throughout a career that spanned five decades.

"As the most important repository and study center of this great artist's work, the National Gallery has a special interest in bringing this retrospective to the public. A decade ago, the National Gallery received the core collection of The Mark Rothko Foundation, a gift that included 295 paintings and works on paper, and more than 650 sketches," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "We are grateful to the artist's daughter and son, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, who are lending numerous works for this important exhibition, and to New York's Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art and others for their generous loans," he added. The exhibition drew on loans from other public and private collections in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Mark Rothko

Rothko's achievement has had a decisive impact on the course of twentieth-century art and has given rise to a wealth of critical interpretation. A central figure in the development of postwar abstract painting in the United States, Rothko is best known for the unique use of color in his paintings from around 1950 onward. These are considered among the most original landmarks of the New York School.

Rothko, who committed suicide at age sixty-six, was born in Dvinsk, Russia, and immigrated to the United States at age ten. After two years of liberal arts study at Yale University, he moved to New York, where he took classes briefly at the Art Students League and began to paint. In many respects he considered himself a self-taught artist, although his early style was influenced by other painters such as Milton Avery, whom he knew well.

Works in Exhibition

The exhibition includes figurative works ranging from the expressionist manner of Rothko's early period in New York City, to his experimentation with mythological themes during the early to middle 1940s, and his completely abstract "multiforms" of the late 1940s.

No. 10, 1950 - By 1950 Rothko had reduced the number of floating rectangles to two, three, or four and aligned them vertically against a colored ground, arriving at his signature style.
Also highlighted are Rothko's classic paintings of the 1950s, which are distinguished by an emphasis on pure pictorial elements such as color, surface, and structure. His canvases from that period, characterized by expanding dimensions and an increasingly simplified use of form, brilliant luminosity, and broad, thin washes of color, are represented in the exhibition by No. 10, 1950 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Philip Johnson); Untitled [Blue, Green and Brown], 1952 (Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia); and No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) [Untitled],

While the large scale of Rothko's classic paintings suggests that they are monumental, the artist believed that the large dimensions made the pictures intimate: they allow the viewer to relate to the canvas as if it were another living presence. In this way, Rothko also felt that the works could express emotions associated with major themes such as tragedy, ecstasy, and the sublime, but without the use of symbolic imagery. The impact of these commanding works is often described in spiritual as well as emotional terms.
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Seagram Mural sketch), 1959 , National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.156 Rothko's work began to darken dramatically during the late 1950s. This development is related to his work on a mural commission for the Four Seasons restaurant, located in the Seagram Building in New York City. Here Rothko turned to a palette of red, maroon, brown, and black. The artist eventually withdrew from this project, due to misgivings about the restaurant as a proper setting for his work. He had, however, already produced a number of studies and finished canvases, two of which are included in the present installation. In the Seagram panels, Rothko changed his motif from a closed to an open form, suggesting a threshold or portal. This element may have been related to the architectural setting for which these works were intended.
In the late 1950s Rothko began to explore the effects of a darker palette, which lent a dramatic new presence to paintings such as No. 10, 1958 (Private Collection); No. 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray), 1961 (University of California, Berkeley Art Museum); and No. 3 (Bright Blue, Brown, Dark Blue on Wine), 1962 (Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, Phoenix, Maryland).

In 1964, Rothko was commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil to paint murals for a nondenominational chapel in Houston, Texas. The exhibition includes works related to this project in which darkness has become the dominant pictorial and thematic element as can be seen in Untitled [White, Blacks, Grays on Maroon], 1963 (Kunsthaus Zürich).

There are also paintings and works on paper in the exhibition from the last three years of Rothko's life, when he produced large paintings using a newly distilled compositional format and a reduced palette of black, gray, brown, muted ochres and blues. These include Untitled, 1969 (John and Mary Pappajohn, Des Moines, Iowa).

Exhibition Organization

The curator for the National Gallery exhibition is Jeffrey Weiss, associate curator, twentieth-century art, National Gallery of Art. The consultants for the exhibition are Mark Rosenthal, curator of twentieth-century art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and David Anfam, author of the forthcoming Rothko catalogue raisonné.


Accompanying the exhibition will be a fully illustrated catalogue, with color images of every work in the show. It will include contributions by John Gage, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Barbara Novak, Brian O'Doherty, Mark Rosenthal, Jessica Stewart, and Jeffrey Weiss. There will also be interviews with contemporary painters Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Gerhart Richter, Robert Ryman, and sculptor George Segal about Rothko's artistic legacy. The catalogue will be published by the National Gallery of Art and distributed in hard cover by Yale University Press.