The Dark Clouds Closing In on Mark Rothko

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Mark Rothko, “Yellow Band” (1956), oil on canvas, 86 1/10 × 79 1/2 inches, Sheldon Museum of Art (all photos Anthony Majanlahti/Hyperallergic)

PARIS — Mark Rothko’s work has come to epitomize mid-20th-century art in the United States. The immediately identifiable design of his most fruitful period in the 1950s, the rectangles of dazzling, unearthly color floating one above the other, lend themselves to stereotypes on the one hand, and an intense, even religious devotion on the other. This devotion is not unmerited, but should not be uncritical. The massive Rothko retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, comprising more than 100 paintings lent mostly from American sources, is curated by Suzanne Pagé and the artist’s son, Christopher. It is hard to imagine a similar show, with so broad a selection of Rothko’s works, occurring in our lifetime, so this is a must-see exhibition. There is so much beauty here that most visitors will barely notice how the artist, exhausted, had painted himself into a corner. 

Markus Rothkowitz was born in 1903, in what was then the Russian Empire and what is today Latvia, but 10 years later he emigrated along with his family to the US. They were from the educated middle class, and Markus was a brilliant youth, leaving Yale in 1923 and joining the Art Students’ League in New York. He was naturalized as an American citizen in 1938 and soon changed his name. For the rest of his life he was Mark Rothko. The exhibition traces his life’s course, from Gallery 1 in the basement, when he was experimenting with figurative art and produced the least revealing self-portrait imaginable — his eyes black spots behind dark glasses, hands held together in front of his chest — all the way up to Gallery 11 on the top floor, containing works in the period before his death in 1970.

By 1948 he was already moving toward the purely abstract, even rejecting descriptive titles in favor of numerical ones. As he found his style he became more messianic, and the exhibition occasionally cites phrases of his, stenciled onto the hallway walls, that set one’s teeth on edge: “I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.” (Take that, Rembrandt!) “I’m interested in expressing only basic human emotions.” 

The basement galleries do away with the preliminaries and the rest of the exhibition is an astounding assembly of the artist’s mature works, the “classic Rothko,” displayed in dark rooms with rectangular spotlights illuminating the pieces. We have entered the Church of Rothko, where the atmosphere becomes subdued, reverential, contemplative, even as the congregation silently battles to find a spot on one of the comfortable pews facing the paintings. Here we come up against the curious contradiction of Rothko’s work: that they are simultaneously all the same and all very different. Gallery 4, on the ground floor, is a stunning, almost overwhelming, display of huge paintings — Rothko never worked on a small scale. Yet a glance around the room shows barely a quiver of deviation from the format to which he returned obsessively: two rectangles, sometimes three, horizontally arranged one above the other against a background or set vertically like windowpanes into a dimension of color.

In Gallery 4, chronologically in the 1950s, the rectangles are usually bright, the backgrounds dark. Rothko himself said that he had “imprisoned the most utter violence in every square inch” of his paintings’ surfaces. The curious viewer, seeking this violence, will be entranced by Rothko’s surfaces, though they do not express violence as much as intense close work, the paint laid on the surface again and again, with a ghost-like pattern sometimes emerging, sometimes evading the eye, hovering on the verge of illusion. The edges of the rectangles are particularly fascinating: The colors are not at all blurred, as they seem to be from a distance, but rather meticulously shredded like the edge of a fabric. The viewer gradually becomes a believer.

And yet, a step away from close examination and the rest of the paintings glimmer on the edge of one’s consciousness. The dim, worshipful atmosphere begins to feel manipulative. A few more steps away and the pictures assume a certain sameness. Variations of glorious color, of surface, yes, but is that all there is? Upstairs in Gallery 5, lent by the Tate, are nine of the Seagram Murals (1958–59), painted by Rothko for a restaurant in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. These works were, as he eventually realized, totally inappropriate for a restaurant, in shades of maroon, red, and black, intentionally creating an atmosphere of oppression. He withdrew from the commission — the clouds were closing in. His “Blackforms” (1964) required a dark space in which the viewer’s eye had to adjust to see the warm hues blending.

Up one final level and we enter the 1960s, the decade in which he had two major commissions — the more important being the Rothko Chapel paintings in Houston (1964–68), sponsored by the de Menil family, continuing with his focus on dark colors. Only a model of the chapel appears in the exhibition. None of its 18 paintings are present, even though four are alternates and surely could have been lent. The other commission was for UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 1969, but this too he eventually declined, though his Black on Gray paintings are arranged here in Gallery 10, along with two sculptures of human figures by Alberto Giacometti, to evoke the UNESCO project.

The Black on Gray paintings are crushing: no floating rectangles here, just two colors placed horizontally, the upper one usually black and heavy, a dark sky with a long, low horizon. Here, audiences can finally perceive Rothko’s violence, and it is directed against himself. He committed suicide in February 1970 in his studio, leaving behind a huge corpus of work and a place in the firmament of American modernism. This extraordinary exhibition allows us to see Rothko in all his paradoxical complex simplicity. Don’t miss it.

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Installation view of Mark Rothko at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. Pictured: the Seagram murals

Mark Rothko continues at the Fondation Louis Vuitton (8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, Paris, France) through April 2. The exhibition was curated by Suzanne Pagé and Christopher Rothko with François Michaud and Ludovic Delalande, Claudia Buizza, Magdalena Gemra, and Cordélia de Brosses.

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