Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper is on view at the National Gallery of Art East Building in Washington DC until March 31st, 2024. It moves to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Norway this May.

Mark RothkoPaintings on Paper
by Adam Greenhalgh
200 Pages, 8.75 x 11.00 in, 124 color illus.
ISBN 9780300266474
Yale Press, 2023

Mark Rothko, born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in Latvia, (1903-1970 by suicide) is one of the most revered but misunderstood artists of his generation. He went through several phases from landscape and figure painting, cityscapes of subways, then automatic surrealism. He is best known for mesmeric color abstractions of suspended, feather edged, cloudbursts of color.

When he died works disappeared from the studio. Christopher Rothko and his older sister, Kate Rothko Prizel, who was 19 when her father died, prevailed in a ten year suit in the 1970s against Rothko’s executors and the Marlborough Gallery, which they accused of defrauding the estate. Their mother died six months after her husband’s suicide. Eventually, hundreds of paintings were returned to the estate, with $9 million in fines, and damages levied against the executors and the gallery. The Rothko Foundation has distributed more than 1,000 works to museums in the United States and abroad.

The largest holding of Rothko’s work is the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. There is the beloved Rothko Chapel in Houston commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil. Harvard University has the scorched remnants of its light damaged Holyoke Center murals. Rothko withdrew, as a matter of conscience, from a commission for the upscale Four Seasons Restaurant in New York’s Seagram building. He stated that he did not want his paintings contemplated by “bastards.” They went to Tate Modern.

Currently, there are two, once-in-a lifetime exhibitions of his work. Through April 2, 2024, more than a hundred paintings are on display at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris.  Through the end of March the National Galley has Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper with a hundred works drawn from all phases of his career.

His work proves to be the most enduring and timeless of the New York School artists who rose to dominance in the Post War era. The epicenter of the global art world shifted from Paris to Manhattan.

As a group, Rothko and his peers were defined as Abstract Expressionists or Action Painters. Typically, the artists swung from their shoulders in broad, gestural applications of paint. There were the dripped, layered skeins of Jackson Pollock, the slashing surfaces of Willem deKooning,  to the  black and white, hyper- calligraphy of Franz Kline.

The meditative, shimmering color saturated surfaces of Rothko were, by contrast, slow and absorbing. They were the opposite of the punch or “push pull” as defined by influential artist and teacher Hans Hofmann.

Standing before a signature work by Rothko it takes time to unfold its essence. Accordingly, it has come to be regarded as spiritual and ephemeral. At the Rothko Chapel in Houston we found religious texts placed for the reference of visitors. The intent was to enrich a non-denominational experience.

That moment of quiet intimacy was impossible during a crowded, Sunday afternoon while viewing Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper at the National Gallery. We navigated a warren of galleries displaying a hundred works in subdued lighting arranged chronologically.

Underscoring the development of the artists in varying themes and phases the exhibition was subdivided into Aspiration, Breakthrough, Transition, Arrival, Revitalization, Afterglow, Eclipse, and Coda.

The earliest works, Oregon landscapes and Gloucester bathers, are intriguing but inauspicious. Aqueous and runny he displayed scant glimmers of skilled draughtmanship and technique. The landscapes evoke the influence of then prominent John Marin. The figuration and bathers link him to a friend and mentor, Milton Avery.

These early works were of particular interest as they preview an exhibition planned for the Cape Ann Museum. It will bring together Rothko, Avery and Adolph Gottlieb who summered and worked there in 1934. Visitors will be surprised by the early work that, other than color and medium, bear no resemblance to the perception of Rothko.

This once-in-a-lifetime exhibition provides a stunning and invaluable, step-by -step, insight into the development of one of America’s most renowned artists. Works on paper are fragile and may only be displayed for a limited amount of time no more than once in a generation. That makes this major project all the more rare and remarkable. It was one of the most riveting and insightful museum exhibitions of my lifetime. It left me convinced that Rothko was the foremost American painter of his generation.

This exhibition is drawn from the 1,000 or so works on paper that the artist created. He is known for large, abstract paintings on canvas but, in no way, are these watercolors inferior to another medium. Rothko considered them to be complete in their own terms and not sketches or studies for paintings. Most of them remained in his possession and were part of the estate.

By the later 1930s he became more bold and experimental with figurative works. With “Untitled (seated figure in interior),” 1936, the composition is less than naturalistic. In the manner of Picasso a figure confronts an abstracted representation of herself. The range of color includes hot pink as well as earth tones.

During the war years Andre Breton and the surrealists formed a coven in New York hosted by gallerist and collector, Peggy Guggenheim. Breton, a martinet who refused to learn English, kept tight control of his acolytes but the influence of surrealism leached into the New York art world. 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto.”

There are two branches of surrealism- dream or representational (Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte) or automatic gestural and abstracted (Max Ernst, Joan Miro, Andre Masson). Arshile Gorky was the American artist most influenced by automatic surrealism and joined the group but was (typically) rejected by Breton. 

Hitherto less known, we viewed a number of Rothko’s surrealist works from the war years. This aspect of the exhibition is most enticing for further study and critical reevaluation. Had the artist done nothing else he deserves to be considered a major exponent and innovator of American surrealism.

The surrealist works are notable for esoteric symbolism in the manner of Miro. Most prominently these include- ‘Untitled,” 1944, “Baptismal Scene” 1945, “Prehistoric Memory,” 1945/46, and “Incantation,” 1945/46.

By 1947, in several “Untitled” works, the artist began to simplify compositions into disparate masses of color. We were astonished and thrilled to see the clear evolution, in evocative increments, leading to the breakthrough of a mature style.

Rothko catalogue

Untitled (seated woman in striped blouse) 1933/34, courtesy of National Gallery

Mark Rothko, "Untitled (two women on the beach)," 1934. Watercolor on construction paper sheet: 32.5 x 37.8 cm (12 13/16 x 14 7/8 in.). Private collection.Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko. (National Gallery of Art)

Mark Rothko, "Untitled," circa 1944. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation Inc.© 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko. (National Gallery of Art)

Mark Rothko, "Untitled," 1959. Collection of Christopher Rothko.© 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

Installation view of "Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper." © 2023 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art. (National Gallery of Art)

Mark Rothko, "Untitled," 1969. Collection Jon and Kim Shirley.© 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko. (National Gallery of Art)

In “Untitled,” 1949 we see the emerging signifiers of epic Rothko abstraction. By later standards, it is busy and cluttered. There is a yellow/orange background over which are superimposed three broad lozenge/ bands of color. The top is dark and scumbled, the middle greenish, and the bottom mottled orange. Separating these three dominant elements are narrow bands of red. The areas hover and interact with each other. Compared to what follows it’s overworked. But, in embryo, we have the essence of what makes a signature Rothko.

In a blaze of works from 1956 to 1959 we see the artist still in transition but on a clear trajectory to his mature technique. In “Untitled,” 1956, he has reduced elements to a yellow background with a white cloud/ mass above and feather-edged, similarly scaled, area below. Here the composition has been simplified but has an enhanced impact. One might think that less is more. Works of this period entail high-chroma color impact.

Simultaneously, dark, brooding colors are developed around 1959. They evoke the more difficult and extreme direction of Ad Reinhardt. Turning away from the gut punch of overwrought abstract expressionism these more daring artists explored the limits of the dark side. In so doing, they resonated with the introspective and pessimistic side of the psyche. That’s a direct trajectory to the Rothko chapel and trope of spirituality in Rothko.

There is a populist inclination of art that links interpretation to the biographical aspects of the lives of artists. In the final years of a life that ended in suicide Rothko was afflicted with physical and mental issues. They are glued onto an “understanding” of the dark and brooding late works.

The lives of many of his peers were turbulent with alcoholism and depression. Several, Gorky, Pollock and Rothko, ended in suicide. Achieving fame and fortune was too little and late to reverse years of privation and suffering. 

This show throws a monkey wrench into pseudo psychology. Indeed there are works that may rightly be viewed as depressive. In one phase the large scale works, in thin earth tones, seem desanguinated. It’s as though the life were drained from the artist leaving a haunting spectral presence. But in that same period are bursts of color, lavender expressing a contradictory joie de vivre.

The display of “Untitled” works from 1969 were game changing. They entail reduction to dark masses evolving into bifurcated canvases with a hard edge between a dense umber above and whitened beige below. The elimination of feathered edges, which return sporadically, nudges him into minimalism. One can see a direct link to the later work of Brice Marden. These works reveal astonishing risk taking and experimentation. He has pushed past the zone of the kind of work most admired by collectors and critics. Peers that saw this work in the studio regarded it as a step back influenced by his depression and health related issues.

Another interpretation might be that he had experienced catharsis and a breakthrough. Had his life not ended abruptly one might speculate where this direction would have taken him. Most of this work was created on paper and as such was not widely seen beyond his circle of peers. They are in that regard the “unknown” Rothkos.

In the spring of 1968, just two years before he died, Rothko suffered an aortic aneurysm. He was advised to limit physical activity. He spent the summer recovering in Provincetown, and produced more than 120 paintings that year. In the last two years of his life, he made more than 420 paintings on paper, and just 30 on canvas.

Many of these works were created on sheets of paper with the dimension of his paintings. He attached the sheets to a backing with masking tape. When removed they created a framing white edge. These he had mounted without glass to be displayed as paintings. That also made the works more vulnerable to light and physical damage.

His intent was that nothing should come between the works and their contemplation. That’s why so many are “Untitled.” He rarely discussed the work and its meaning. He wanted us to come to the work with fresh eyes and clear vision.

The National Gallery exhibition was true to his intention and the better for it. What a relief not to be disrupted by labels and their obfuscating art-speak. Here we encountered a great artist intensely and unfiltered. For once, the work, with eloquence and power, got to speak for itself.