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Rothko’s Rothkos

Rothko’s Rothkos

Mark Rothko with No. 7, 1960, photograph attributed to Regina Bogat, reproduced courtesy of The Estate of Mark Rothko.

Mark Rothko, No. 9, 1948, oil and mixed media on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.
Mark Rothko, No. 9, 1948, oil and mixed media on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.

Mark Rothko at the MFAH

At the time of Mark Rothko’s death in 1970, nearly eight hundred works rested quietly in the internationally acclaimed painter’s studio.  Deemed “Rothko’s Rothkos,” a selection of these pieces comprises Mark Rothko: A Retrospective, appearing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through January 24, 2016. Distancing itself from the artist’s often-tumultuous personal story, this exhibition focuses on the “coming of age” narrative of Rothko’s luminous studio practice.

Rothko is known for his signature color field “multiforms”: rectangles of bright color and layered hues, often rendered with minimized evidence of the painter’s hand on monumental vertical canvases. Although history categorizes Rothko as an Abstract Expressionist or colorist (both labels he denied), this collection runs the gamut of Rothko’s influences and experimentation. Signs of Rothko’s dedication to the rectangular form appear early—such as in the flat, pole-like humans in Street Scene (1936/1937); meanwhile, his myth-inspired, almost Symbolist work The Omen of the Eagle (1942) reveals his defining interest in transcendent humanist themes and a Matisse-like sense of colorA comparable awareness of darker, organic colors is notable in his surrealist, anthropomorph-inhabited paintings such as Astral Image (1946).

In the late 1940s, Rothko’s style was refined into full abstraction. No. 2 (1947), for example, is populated by irregular, colorful shapes, which dance and intermingle across the canvas. In 1949, those uneven forms transitioned into rectangular mulitforms. Rothko experimented with his blocks—placing them inside and adjacent to one another in varying, jazzy compositions.

Rothko’s progressive simplification of form was remarkably steady. In the 1950s, the artist achieved his “classic” style—two or three stacked, hovering, and intensely colorful multiforms. Vast works like Untitled (1953) envelop the viewer. Here, a rectangle of bright violet floats above a black block. These pigments are applied on top of white and orange in a wash-like effect, creating surprisingly harmonious color interactions. The black multiform’s density ripples, fluttering like a veil—subtle but intrinsically mysterious.

Mark Rothko, No. 10, 1957, oil on canvas, The Menil Collection, Houston. © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.
Mark Rothko, No. 10, 1957, oil on canvas, The Menil Collection, Houston. © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.

With his increasing fame, Rothko received prestigious commissions in the 1950s and 60s: murals for the Seagram Building and Harvard University, and a series for (what became) Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Simplification as a means of viewer accessibility continued—now, through color. Rothko explored organic, rusty tones in his Seagram studies and occasionally cut vertical portals into his multiforms, creating lines reminiscent of Barnet Newman’s “zips.” Sometimes his squares of color disappeared entirely. Those who have previously visited the shadowy, contemplative space of the Rothko Chapel will recognize the familiar deep purples and blacks of the exhibition’s Chapel-related works. These paintings render their multiforms difficult to decipher—resulting in a velvety opacity that recalls an experience of complete darkness.

A decline in Rothko’s health mandated his switch to denser acrylic paint and a smaller canvas. While Rothko resurrected a brighter palate, he also retained an interest in muted hues. Experimenting with color, layering, and painterliness until the end, Rothko evokes a lunar horizon in Untitled (1969) and returns the viewer to a more physical space.

The repetitiveness of Rothko’s works is undeniable, as is its incredible variety. Rothko’s great trick is that the simplicity of his work is superficial. As many have pointed out, Rothko’s paintings require time and patience—a willingness to abandon your sense of self in order to experience a feeling of timelessness and transcendence.

As an artist, Mark Rothko sought to capture the mysteries of life; he also left many behind. With intensity and grace, Rothko’s Rothkos represent the contradictions of their creator who gave the world an artistic language that was both timeless and quintessentially modern.

—ALEXANDRA IRRERA