Sunday, June 9, 2013

Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950

This is one of those good books you just stumble on by chance. More specifically, a friend alerted me a review in the WSJ of an exhibition currently at the Columbus Museum of Art, Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950. (Thanks Rick!)  After reading the WSJ's review I knew that I wanted to read the exhibit catalog. And boy was it worth it.

The Decisive Decade features essays by Todd Herman, Christopher Rothko (the artist's son), David Anfam, Ruth Fine, and Harry Cooper. The essence of the book is how and why, during the course of a single decade, did Marcus Rothkowitz, painter of the figurative work below...

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Man and Two Women in a Pastoral Setting), 1940 - source
...become Mark Rothko, painter of the sublime abstract work below.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1950 - source
This exhibition is not to be taken lightly if you believe the artist's son. Christopher Rothko writes "within the realm of Rothko's oeuvre, the works in this exhibition are the keys to everything. Everything."

Setting up the so-called decisive decade, Rothko was influenced by modernist painters Max Weber and Milton Avery who directed him down a path away from realism. Through them and his like-minded contemporaries Rothko developed the techniques to express perspective through patterns, depth via color, emotions via distortion - all within a figurative style.

At the beginning of the 1940s, Rothko took a year off from painting to study philosophy and to write his essay The Artist's Reality: Philosophy of Art. In it he makes the case that art must capture the essence of what it means to be human. Very much influenced by Nietzsche and his Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, Rothko strives to find an ability to express in painting something equivalent to Greek tragedy and to raise painting to the level of music for pathos.

Not surprisingly then, Rothko begins the decade painting in a Surreliast, myth-based style. He was strongly influenced by Jung and the ability to express emotion through common, subconscious archetypes. Omen of the Eagle, 1942 (below) draws from the tale of Agamemnon with all its elements distilled into a single image.

Mark Rothko, Omen of the Eagle, 1942 - source
What's ironic is that these early figurative works did not resonate with the audience - their message and purpose was unclear. (In other words, his more representational work left people unimpressed while his mature abstract format leaves them in tears.) Their evolution, while still Surrealist, moved toward the more abstract as exemplified by Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944 (see below). Line work is subsumed by color and there is a noticeable stratification of the background that can be interpreted as a primordial sky-sea-land (although Rothko vehemently denied painting landscapes).

Mark Rothko, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944 - source
It's at this stage that the so-called multiforms appear in which swarms of soft colorful shapes truly dominate (for example, Untitled, 1947 below). Rothko was notably influenced by Clyfford Still at this stage in his development and called these color forms "organic entities" that were simply a clearer version of the symbology he was trying to develop. Extending the sky-land-sea motif, the multiforms introduce a wateriness and a sense of primitive, organic life.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1947 - source
Finally, the wateriness evaporates into clouds that veil any figuration while also serving as a substitute for it (see Untitled, 1949 below). Vertical and human-sized, the canvases become a mirror or doorway for the viewer to enter. Layers of undulating color, meticulously applied, provide depth, motion, and warmth.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1949 - source
At least that's my reader's digest distillation of the book. Don't take too narrow a view of the sky-land-sea/water/evaporate ideas above. That was just my vast oversimplification of what's really a fascinating series of essays. I found the idea of clouds or veils in his mature work to be really interesting. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth has in its collection a Rothko titled Light Cloud, Dark Cloud, 1957 that I've always liked. (I like the implied humor in the name because there are three rectangular forms or clouds in the painting not just two. But I'm not certain anyone would call Rothko a funny man.)

Any fan of Rothko will want to read the Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950 - it's that interesting and insightful. Of course, the trick will be to get to a gallery and see the exhibit. In the meantime, I suppose I'll have to get out my copy of The Artist's Reality and read it again.


Unknown said...

Is it travelling, or do we need to go to Ohio to see it?

John said...

Exhibition itinerary:

Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina, 14 Sep 2012 - 06 Jan 2013

Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, 01 Feb - 26 May 2013

Denver Art Museum, Colorado, 16 Jun - 22 Sep 2013

Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, 25 Oct 2013 - 09 Feb 2014

To anticipate your next question, it's a 5 hour drive to Little Rock and I'd be thrilled to day trip with you.

Unknown said...

Sounds like a good idea. Of course, Denver has been on my list for some time- for the Still Museum...

John said...

Well sure but how cheap are airline tix?

Unknown said...

There you go, getting all practical again.