Mark Rothko wasn’t an artist who fretted over being translated or understood, but “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950,” the exhibition that opens Friday at the Columbia Museum of Art, delves into the period before Rothko began creating his seminal works of colored rectangles.
The 37 works, including paintings, watercolors, drawings and prints, was chiefly culled from the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In a move that is as bold as the artist’s famous colorfields, the show backpedals from the classic work to what came before.
Four decades since he committed suicide, Rothko remains a prominent, almost mythical, figure in art and pop culture.
“People, when they think about Rothko, they cannot resist the beauty of those colored rectangles,” said Harry Cooper, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art. “Even this exhibition includes a little bit of that.”
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But “The Decisive Decade” is a look back — or a look into, rather — at how those colored rectangles were formed. It’s a rare sight.
“If you just want to appreciate, maybe, the classic work, we don’t necessarily need to look at everything that came before. It’s not even clear if Rothko wanted us to,” said Harry Cooper, who will lecture at the members’ opening Thursday. “But to understand, we need to look at everything. We need to look at all the false starts, as well as the embryonic work.”
Along with the museum here, the exhibition was organized by the Arkansas Art Center, the Columbus Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art. The Columbia Museum of Art is the first stop on a year and a half tour.
The CMA produced a 170 page, full-color catalogue that augments the show. Edited by Bradford R. Collins, the department chairman of USC’s college of arts and sciences, the catalogue “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950” features essays by Rothko scholars Ruth Fine, David Anfam and Cooper, as well as an elucidative piece by Christopher Rothko, Rothko’s son. The book will be available in hard cover ($50) and soft cover ($29.95) in the Museum Shop.
The first significant exhibition of Rothko’s work in the state was developed by Todd Herman, formerly the museum of art’s chief curator.
“What I proposed was an examination into the artistic maturation of one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century that had hitherto gone unheralded,” Herman, the executive director of the Arkansas Arts Center, writes in the catalogue’s foreword.
“This is the period when he becomes Rothko,” Collins told The State when the exhibition was announced in April. “The story of that evolution is really a fascinating one.”
A lot of the art in the show has been seen before, but usually only in relation to the mature work.
“It’s never been looked at closely about what it says about the evolution in his style,” Collins said.
The exhibition is rooted in Rothko’s stages of art, from the figurative dance seen in “Untitled,” 1941-42; to surrealist paintings influenced by mythology as seen in “Hierarchical Birds,” a 1944 oil on canvas spirited by colorful seams; to multiforms like “Untitled,” 1949, and “No. 8,” 1949, where shapes glide and hover; and finally to “Untitled,” 1949, where the signature composition of symmetrical blocks of contrasting or complementary colors begins to form.
“One begins the exhibition looking at paintings most of the world did not know existed, and emerges, a short decade later, grasping how they are part of the fabric of some of the most celebrated paintings of the twentieth century,” Christopher Rothko, who will talk about his father’s work in November at the museum, writes in the catalogue.
A significant flowering of Rothko’s work was influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical views, Collins said. Rothko’s work was also informed, according to the catalogue, by muses Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare and the analytical psychology of Carl Jung.
“Nietzsche thought that Greek tragedy was the most profound art form, and Rothko was trying to achieve similar results,” Collins said. “And it took him 10 years to figure it out.”
Even though Rothko left a crisply detailed trail, referring to “The Decisive Decade,” where the work is measured in terms of its distance from the high achievement, as Rothko’s transitional period has its advantages and disadvantages.
“Even with an artist as important as Rothko, people want the classic work, the work that everyone knows. The mature work, you can say,” Cooper said. “This is the first one to take in the multiforms and some of the works on either side of them. That makes it pretty special.”
Cooper said he was interested in the transitional work.
“Because you wonder what you’re seeing,” he continued. “Are you seeing something developing or struggles that didn’t result in something? Probably some of each."
Included in the show are works by Rothko contemporaries, including artists Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. The catalogue also serves as a biography on Rothko, who was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia. His family emigrated to the Portland, Ore., when he was young. Rothko attended Yale University, but moved to New York before finishing school. In New York, Rothko immersed himself into art exploration.
The 1940s, the decade examined in the exhibition, bookended two of Rothko’s documented depressions, Christopher Rothko writes. Rothko, who objected to being labeled as an abstract painter, committed suicide in 1970 at 66. His work continues to be honored, referenced and purchased.
In 2000, the Rothko Chapel, a small, windowless building Rothko designed in Houston, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. For Jay-Z, Rothko, through repeated mentions in lyrics, has become a symbol of the rapper’s taste and tastemaking status. And one won’t read a story about the early years of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton without learning the couple met at a Rothko exhibition in 1970 while Yale University law students.
In a 2008 episode of the AMC series “Mad Men,” a Rothko painting of layered rectangular colors was the source of intrigue and debate. In May of this year, Rothko’s 1961 painting “Orange, Red, Yellow” sold for $87 million, a nominal record for an auctioned post-war painting.
“The Decisive Decade,” featuring some pieces that haven’t been exhibited in two decades, illuminates Rothko’s artistic evolution from a figurative painter to a preeminent artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement.
“It requires almost an act of courage or restraint to refrain from just plunging” into the well-known work, Cooper said. “A lot of museums have shown the greatest hits. I applaud Columbia for not doing that, for doing something that will help people understand the greatest hits.”