Saturday, February 2, 2013

"Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade" at the Columbus Museum of Art

Untitled (man and two women in a pastoral setting), c. 1940
oil and graphite on canvas, 28.5 x 36."
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.53
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Arts Rights Society (ARS), New York

A fine museum exhibition tells a coherent story, and Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade, 1940-1950, currently at the Columbus Museum of Art, does just that. In four luminous galleries, the show moves the viewer through the stunning transformations of Rothko's work from recognizable figuration in traditional settings through surrealism, figurative abstraction, and into the large, juxtaposed bands and boxes of color by which he is today almost exclusively known. All of this in only ten years. 

Mark Rothko, Sacrificial Moment, 1945. Oil on canvas, 38.5 x 28.".
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.74
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Arts Rights Society (ARS), New York

It will come as a big surprise to many to find that Mark Rothko did not emerge full-blown as we know him. It's like finding for the first time a photograph of one's father as a teenager: We can hardly believe he preexisted his bearded, pipe-smoking adulthood. 

But in Rothko's case, had he settled at any one of the brief stages he explored during this decade through which he hurtled, he would nonetheless be considered a master of modern painting. Moving through the show, there was not a single work before which I was not transfixed. So while the narrative of the relationship of all these experiments to his conclusive manner of painting is entirely convincing, still, I felt no sense of inevitability. His mastery and his originality would have been sufficient to enshrine him as a genius at any point from 1943 on. Yes, the show successfully tells the story of development. But he could have stopped at any point along the way and satisfied the world.

The painting shown above, Sacrificial Moment, illustrates a stage in the dissolution of Rothko's figuration. Vertically, there are three sections: a knife on the left, the sacrificial victim in the middle, and a figure (the performer of the sacrifice, presumably) on the right. He featured three figures in most of his early figurative compositions—see the 1940 painting at the top of this article—in various whole and disassembled forms. Nearly all of the paintings in this exhibition show that Rothko placed his figures or shapes against three horizontal bands of color, "prefiguring" if you will—"investigating" if you won't—the significance of color blocks built up through layers  of glazing (addition in multiple, thin, translucent layers that add richness and luminescence). In the 1947 Untitled painting, the figures have become spots of black lined up against now-broken patches of color (still horizontally disposed), newly highlighted in themselves, no longer serving as "background."

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1947, Oil on canvas, 38.5 x 36."
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 
1986.43.14. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / 
Arts Rights Society (ARS), New York
Christopher Rothko, the artist's son, who has been deeply involved with this show, remarks in an opening statement that in terms of the 1940's, his father "enters figurative, ends abstract." Another way to put this, I think, is to see Rothko's tendency over the decade to refine his vision by unifying two sorts of reality that are usually designated by terms that appear to exclude one another, like "figurative" or "realistic" as opposed to "abstract" or "abstract expressive." In paintings from the early years of the 1940's, like Sacrificial Moment or Untitled from 1945 (below), abstracted figures appear spatially in front of three bands of color. 

To my eye, those bands provide in such paintings the "realistic" element against which abstracted figures are contrasted. By realistic, I mean that our visual tradition reads horizontal lines as "landscape." Three horizontal sections naturally read as foreground, middle distance, and background or deep space; or they can represent land and sky as observed from the water; or similarly, sea and sky as seen from land: The point is the landscape alignment is a grounding in psychological reality before which the reality of dreamy, re-imagined, or felt experience appears. The one is grounded and unthinkingly accepted because it's both perceived and acculturated. The other one is formed by emotion and fantasy—the creating and interpreting vision of one's inner eye.

Mark Rothko  Untitled, 1945/46. Oil and tempera on canvas.
34.5 x 43.5." National Gallery of Art, Washington, 
Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.,
 1986.43.75 © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko /
 Arts Rights Society (ARS), New York
I think it's his placement of two notions of reality next to one another on equal footing that allows the merging of the two into work like the untitled 1947 painting and the blossom- or cloud-like 1948 painting (also untitled), with its bright primary colors between an umbrage of deep reddish brown, over a  brilliant shingle of whites and pinks. It could be said that here, figuration disappears into pure abstraction. Rather, I see it as consolidation. Rothko is not contrasting perceived reality with imaginative or emotional reality. Now the shapes and colors join to express experienced emotion. This is both emotion we call "feeling," grounded in perception and  sensation; and also the idealized emotion found in aspiration, fervor, or desire.

In addition to shape and color, Rothko is now very conscious of edge. Lacking in geometrical definition as the shapes are, each one inhabits its own space. Though edges are rarely crisp, each shape's definition is clear—as clear as its color, no matter how simple or subtle. What overlapping there is tends to be transparent. 

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1948. Oil on canvas, 53 x 47."
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.4
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Arts Rights Society (ARS), New York

The quality of the shapes; their visual emergence or retreat; their relationships to their immediate environments and to the whole—all become more important in separation.  Rothko's glazed, almost holy colors, carry deep emotion, but so do their positional relationships.
In the gallery materials, Rothko is quoted as having written in a letter, late in the decade, "I'm interested only in expressing human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point."

Rothko and spiritual kinsman Adolph Gottlieb—perhaps  Jules Olitsky as well—are counted among the Abstract Expressionists, but it's worth reviewing the terms of that title. 

If we pause to imagine the ambition of one who undertakes the agenda that Rothko mentions to his correspondent—the expression of emotions so primary and massive as tragedy, ecstasy, and doom—we must imagine too that he is planning to do more than try to interest us only in his personal happiness or woe. What is Hecuba to us? His work could attain no consequence beyond just that interest in color or other formal concerns were we to think its content were his own emotion. He could try to convince us, but the look, not the truth would likely compel us.

This is to say that emotion and its expression are two different things. Emotion is experienced, and simply exists or does not. Expression, in attempting to convey, or even to replicate similar experience in the audience, can succeed or fail.

To express emotion in the sense that Rothko means, and to express oneself in the sense that many expect abstract expressionism to do, is quite another. Rothko is a philosopher, looking into the soul of mankind, into all hearts, not just his own. The emotion he is interested in is what turns all figures into humanity

Over the decade of the 1940's Rothko neither lost interest in the figure nor abandoned it. He found, rather, that since essential emotions make us human, the figure and spirit may be expressed and represented both at once. The maturity and profundity of his color are the depth of the human lot; the separated shape relationships are the burden and nobility of individuality. (Painting above: Untitled,1949. Watercolor on paper, 41 x 27.25." National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.257. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Arts Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade will remain at the Columbus Museum of Art until May 26, 2013. It was organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, the Arkansas Arts Center, the Columbia (South Carolina) Museum of Art, and the Denver Art Museum, in cooperation with the National Gallery of Art. The catalogue, named for the show, has magnificent reproductions, including full-scale details of many works. I haven't found the book online, but it is available through the Columbus Museum of Art.

Mark Rothko, No. 8, 1949. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 90 x 66."
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.147
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Arts Rights Society (ARS), New York

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