A new exhibit on Mark Rothko opening Friday at the Columbia Museum of Art can be traced to the partnership of two museums harmoniously linked since their inceptions.
“Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950,” the first significant exhibition of Rothko’s work in the state, was proposed by the Columbia Museum of Art. The 37 works, including paintings, watercolors, drawings and prints, was chiefly culled from the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
“I think this is the largest loan of Rothkos we have made,” said Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III, the National Gallery’s executive director. “This is a larger scale project that makes perfect sense and we’re more than happy to be collaborators and facilitators.”
Collaborations between the museums began more than a half century ago. In the 1950s, the Kress Foundation — created by Samuel Kress, founder of the S. H. Kress & Co. dime-store chain, and a founding benefactor of the National Gallery — donated artworks to regional museums, including the CMA. David Finley, a York native and USC graduate, was the first director of the National Gallery of Art.
Powell, who was born in Spartanburg but didn’t spend significant time in the state, suggested Finley vectored the Kress collection to the CMA.
“None of us can know for sure, but I certainly have to believe that he looked very, very fondly on South Carolina,” said Powell, who toured the Rothko exhibition Wednesday morning. “He also had a good relationship with the first director (Jack Craft) here.”
After the National Gallery, the CMA has the largest holding of Kress pieces, at more than 70.
“That really established our mission of being this broader, international art museum where we show art from around the world from antiquity to the present day,” Karen Brosius, the CMA’s executive director, said. “Without that Kress gift, we may not have gone in that direction because that anchored us.”
In 2008, through a joint initiative with the National Gallery, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the museum received 50 pieces of art as part of “The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States” gift. In April, the museum announced a gift of almost 600 works of art from the Vogels, who built a collection of more than 4,500 pieces. The CMA is now the second-largest repository of the Vogel collection, trailing the 1,100 pieces held by the National Gallery.
“It’s interesting how that South Carolina connection has strengthened the cultural life of Columbia in ways that I don’t think people really know,” Brosius said.
Brosius and Powell’s working relationship dates back to her stint as director of media relations for Altria Group, formerly The Philip Morris Co., the position she held before being named museum director in December 2003. Brosius and Powell have known each other for 25 years.
“These partnerships are a lot easier when you know your partners,” Powell, who has led the National Gallery for 20 years, said.
Rothko paintings and works on paper are the second largest grouping of works by an artist that the National Gallery has, trailing only photographs by Alfred Stieglitz. Powell said the National Gallery fields several hundred loan requests per year, and each request has to be approved by the board of trustees, creating a relatively long process.
“We turn down most requests,” Powell said. “We’ll look at the purpose of the loan. We’re very mindful of what our own public comes to the nation’s capital and expects to see, but we generally try to be responsive to solid requests.”
About the pieces in “The Decisive Decade,” Powell said, “This is for us, by any standards, a huge loan.”
Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning and Mark Rothko were the major painters in Abstract Expressionism, the mid-century movement when American art established a point of leadership.
“Of those three, Rothko is probably the most popular,” Bradford R. Collins, chairman of USC’s art department said.
“Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950,” an exhibition of Rothko’s evolution from a figurative painter to his signature rectangular blocks of color will introduce artgoers to a largely unknown Rothko.
“Everybody was under the impression that we knew everything we needed to know about Rothko,” said Collins, who edited the 170 page, full-color catalogue that augments the show. “People were quite happy with the story as it was being told.”
The partnership between the museums will continue in three years, as the National Gallery has approved two pieces for a 2015 exhibition. Brosius wouldn’t reveal the artist or focus of the exhibition, but she said the pieces are “the cornerstone of the story we’re trying to tell.”