Shedding light on Rothko’s light: Abstract Expressionism at the National Gallery of Art

The biggest show of the artist’s work for over twenty years derails the view that his highly charged colour-field paintings were a reflection of his moods


The National Gallery of Art’s survey of 115 works by Mark Rothko presents him as an artist whose mature abstract works generate optical light.

The question the current show raises but does not attempt to answer is whether Rothko’s art can be appreciated today in more than purely aesthetic terms, without the maundering about transcendence and spirituality that mars so much commentary on his work. The temptation to project meaning or otherwise over-interpret makes itself felt in the somber rooms full of dark paintings near the show’s end, although here the paintings seem not to compete with each other as the brighter abstractions do in the somewhat overcrowded central part of the exhibition.

“The show is based on a formalist approach to an artist who thought of himself as much more than that,” said Mr Weiss. “But if we’re going to draw more from him, we have to start with colour and form.” Accordingly, the show is ordered both chronologically and formally.

The National Gallery exhibition is the largest survey of Rothko’s art in twenty years. Its opening was intended to coincide with the publication by Yale University Press of David Amfam’s catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s work. But production problems delayed the publication, which is now expected to appear before the show leaves Washington.

Meanwhile Yale has published a separate exhibition catalogue, written by the show’s curator, Jeffrey Weiss of the National Gallery, with contributions by John Gage, Brian O’Doherty and Barbara Novak, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, and Jessica Stewart.

The retrospective belatedly celebrates the Mark Rothko Foundation’s 1986 gift to the National Gallery of hundreds of paintings and works on paper, which made the institution the largest public repository of the artist’s work. It now owns 204 paintings and over 800 works on paper.

Any mention of the Rothko Foundation recalls the lawsuit brought by the artist’s heirs against the trustees of his estate less than a year after his suicide in 1970. The suit claimed that the trustees, including an accountant then on the payroll of New York’s Marlborough Gallery, had sold Marlborough works from the estate at inexplicably low prices, permitting the gallery to profit unfairly at the estate’s expense.

Four years of litigation finally brought a judgment in the heirs’ favour, assessing more than $9 million in damages and penalties against Marlborough and the executors. The court action seemed to legitimise the steep prices Rothko’s abstract work has fetched since. (Recently the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art paid almost $6 million at auction for a large Rothko painting included in the retrospective.)

One of the aims of the National Gallery show is to derail the view that the darkening of Rothko’s later paintings presaged his suicide. “It was a kind of fashion to see in his work a drive toward depression,” Mr Weiss said, “based on the idea that painting is a reflection of the artist’s mood. Whereas painting of this quality utterly transcends symptomatic expression. If there was clinical depression in Rothko it was almost certainly brought on by health problems following his heart attack in 1968.”

Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia in 1903, Rothko immigrated to Portland, Oregon, with his family at the age of ten. He studied for two years at Yale before moving to New York, where older painters Max Weber and Milton Avery became his mentors.

The current survey opens with Rothko’s work of the late 1930s: oddly static glimpses of city life, with figures isolated on structured grounds that foreshadow the mature abstractions. A second room displays exercises in surrealist figuration—fraught efforts to marshal the grand themes and tragic emotions that Rothko thought eluded an age bereft of guiding myths. The third room collects the “multi-forms,” in which Rothko abandoned drawing for soft-edged patchworks of colour that he gradually resolved into the horizontal bands that structure his mature abstract pictures. Some of the surrealist works were Rothko’s first claims to a place in the New York School, as Robert Motherwell later Christened it.

The exhibition, Mr Weiss said, intends to “demonstrate that the aspects of Rothko’s work which seem to reflect a darkening mood can be traced further back into his career and that they have to do with the contrast of dark and light. He was a brilliant and rigorous formalist. If you’re going to trace the late black pictures back to the artist’s state of mind, then you have to account for the pastel images that were being done at the same time.”

Dark pictures appear sooner in the show’s chronology than one might expect and the exhibition’s final passage sets a row of the last dark canvases opposite a half dozen contemporary paintings on paper aglow with pale pinks and blues.

Relationships among Rothko’s paintings, rather than in the artist’s life, are presented here as the source of his art. “By installing paintings together, presenting them as closely related,” Mr Weiss said, “we can show that they have something to do with taking over interior space, transforming it into a symbolic space,” which he views as Rothko’s ultimate ambition.

Visitors who know the critical literature on Rothko will sense the exhibition’s subdued challenges to it. In a persuasive 1975 book, Robert Rosenblum placed Rothko in the “Northern Romantic tradition” as a painter who recreated abstractly in the viewer the alienated awe before nature evoked by Caspar David Friedrich, Ferdinand Hodler and Edvard Munch.

Years ago Barbara Novak, linked Rothko to the line of American “luminist” landscape painting that sought transcendence in sensations of light. More recently, Anna Chave argued that the uncanny presence of Rothko’s abstractions is a cultivated residue of his early work’s figurative content.

Mr Weiss believes that rather than referring to landscape, Rothko’s abstractions “are much more about the wall and the charged interior space. I think in the reaction against the formalism of the 60s, we’ve gotten away from the basic reality of abstract painting.”

“Mark Rothko” is installed in the underground rooms of the National Gallery’s East Building, normally devoted to twentieth century painting. Natural light falls on only one painting at the show’s entrance, “No 61 (Rust and Blue)” (1953), nearby a large photograph of the artist at work on a large canvas under similarly oblique daylight. But then, as Mr Weiss pointed out, “Rothko’s light is not natural light at all.”

“Mark Rothko,” (until 16 August) will travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art (10 September-29 November) and to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (winter 1998/99).

Mark Rothko, (Yale University Press New Haven and London, 1998) 352pp., 50b/w 125 col. ills. $65.00, £40.00 (hb only) ISBN 0300075057