Monday, September 3, 2012

Mark Rothko: Works on Paper by Bonnie Clearwater

When you think of Mark Rothko's paintings you usually envision large, richly-colored works on canvas. You rarely think of his works on paper, especially watercolors. This is what made me get Bonnie Clearwater's Mark Rothko: Works on Paper after a recent visit to Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum. (Contributing to this purchase was the fact that the museum store was sold out of the catalog for their American Vanguards exhibit, my reason for visiting the museum that day in the first place.)

The book's introduction by Dore Ashton was almost worth the price of the book itself. It is educational at worst, insightful throughout, and illuminating at the very best. Rothko's influences are woven throughout this essay on the relative roles of media in his ouevre. I'll just quote one passage that I found to be very interesting about Rothko's goal of portraying tragedy in his work.
When Rothko spoke about the "tragic"... it was the tragedy of man's destiny - to be forever caught between birth and death - and aware of the strange disparity between the great space of the imagination and the material human fate.
Reluctant to bore you with the details of my Rothko fandom, suffice it to say that works on paper permeated Rothko's entire career, from his early formative days painting with Milton Avery, to his Surrealist period up to the point where he realized figuration would not yield the results he desired, to studies for his major installations (Seagram, Harvard, and Menil), to his very last days when health issues limited his ability to work on larger canvases.

Left: Untitled, 1969. Watercolor, tempera on paper. Right: Untitled, early 1950s, Watercolor, tempera on paper.
As you can imagine, the works on paper differ in many ways from those on canvas simply due to the demands of the medium. At a smaller scale the works are more architected and less haphazard, the application of pigment more refined and less worked-over, the dimensions more controlled and less immersive.

And when Rothko's canvas palette changed to darker tones, his way of distancing himself from being labelled a colorist, his works on paper continued the use of bright colors. In fact, the somber canvas works of the late 1960s were accompanied by paper works of brilliant lightness.

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