Rare and Major Mark Rothko Retrospective at Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Only U.S. Venue For This Exhibition
Rare and Major Mark Rothko Retrospective at Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Mark Rothko, recognized as one of the foremost figures of the Abstract Expressionist vanguard, has an unparalleled exhibit “Mark Rothko: A Retrospective” at the acclaimed Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from September 20, 2015 to January 24, 2016. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is the only venue in the United States for this exhibition, and this is the first comprehensive overview of the work of artist Mark Rothko seen in the United States since 1998. This definitive retrospective draws upon the unrivaled holdings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with the addition of works lent by The Menil Collection, Houston. This display is an absolute must for any art lover to see, and the presentation and setting at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is absolutely impeccable. In fact, the display is not only a must see for art lovers, but also for anyone who thinks deeply about humanity, about emotion, about unbridled passion, and desires to seek peace and truth in an impassioned, intellectual and spiritual manner. For creating such an astounding and impactful exhibit which is impeccably designed and organized, Alison de Lima Greene, Curator of Contemporary Art and Special Projects, Whitney Radley, Publicist, and Gary Tinterow, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, are to be greatly appreciated and thanked for their monumental and herculean efforts to procure, arrange and organize this exceptional and important display to be viewed in the United States. Artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) embraced the possibility of beauty in pure abstraction with a painterly eloquence that gave a new voice to American art. He explored the tragic and the sublime, and the complex, deeply thoughtful, passionately colored, and emotionally charged canvases remain a testament to the divine expression and feeling he brought to modern painting. At the epochal exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, more than 60 of artist Mark Rothko’s magnificent paintings trace the artist’s full career and highlight milestones in the evolution and development of his unique, visionary and distinctive style.
Once we entered the Rothko Retrospective, we were immediately shown the early works of Rothko, works of art with figures in them. The first painting we encountered was “Street Scene,” an oil on canvas painted in 1936. As we walked through the first room, into the sequence of rooms to follow, we advanced in a chronological manner through the lift of artist Mark Rothko. When we arrived at “No. 18,” an oil on canvas painted in 1946, we were entering the multiform series of paintings, as there were numerous shapes partially resembling rectangles, with several colors, replacing the earlier paintings with figures. The main colors of this and the next year were red, blue, brown and black. By 1949, the rectangles became larger, oriented vertically or horizontally, and the colors changed to a predominance of bright yellow and red. From 1950 to 1958, the artworks displayed showed a trend to fewer but larger rectangles of color. Many of the paintings were extremely large, much taller than us. Around 1959, many of the paintings contained similar rectangular shapes, but many were painted with a predominance of black. After 1961, the amount of black which existed in the paintings generally increased, and several paintings were mostly black, with a few hints of other colors. To enter a room with extremely large paintings of this magnitude is very impressive, and it forces one to stand far and stand close to the paintings, listen to the painting, and with enough time, the painting forces us to express our own emotions. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is a very majestic and beautiful museum, flowing with dignity and style in a manner fit to house such an important exhibit.
“Mark Rothko: A Retrospective” is collaboratively organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. After the death of artist Mark Rothko in 1970, there were many paintings which the artist held within his own collection. In 1986, the National Gallery of Art became the primary recipient of what are essentially “Rothko’s Rothkos,” those paintings which were in the collection of artist Rothko himself. Prior to this exhibit being on display at the sole U.S. venue in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it was presented at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, the Netherlands, and the Hangaram Art Museum in Seoul, South Korea. “Although exhibitions in recent years have profiled important aspects of Rothko’s oeuvre, there has not been a full overview of the artist’s work in the United States since the 1998 retrospective mounted by the National Gallery of Art,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “Presenting these works in Houston, home of the Rothko Chapel, will allow our visitors to see the full range of Rothko’s achievement in the same city as his most acclaimed and enduring public commission.”
“A painting is not a picture of an experience, it is an experience” artist Rothko stated in a 1959 article in Life Magazine. Artist Mark Rothko evolved his own style of painting through his life, and made a tremendous impact which changed the world of art. His own modality of expressing emotion, passion, happiness, sorrow, bravery and fear evolved from paintings of figures, to paintings of color, intricately and strategically patterned, with differing hues and saturations, resulting in expression of an abundance of feeling and emotion for the viewers eye and mind to absorb. Artist Mark Rothko is most often identified with the circle of painters who belonged to the New York School, commonly known as the Abstract Expressionists. Included among this distinguished group of Abstract Expressionists were artists William de Kooning, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock and others.
As artist Mark Rothko went through different stages of his life, his style of painting evolved, and ultimately, his profound and visionary style was grounded in his unmatched, intricate and thought provoking manipulation of color. Over the years, artist Rothko progressively stripped away figurative and narrative content from his work, he removed traditional and formal dynamics of painting, and achieved an uncompromising and absolute purity of vision. The color of the painting was not the point of the painting, but rather a means with which to express and convey to the viewer the passion and emotion of the painting. As is described in the wall texts at the Rothko Retrospective, “Rothko often denied that he was a colorist, disdaining the decorative implications of the term. Instead, he found in color a means of engaging the viewer on the most profound level, at times employing seductive tones of warm yellows, reds, and oranges, at other times reducing his palette to the most nuanced blacks, greys, and violets, which only offer their rewards after extended contemplation.” Christopher Rothko, son of Mark Rothko, indicates in the text “Mark Rothko: An Essential Reader,” that Mark Rothko was not a colorist, and that even his most brilliant hues were simply a means to an end. He states “and that end was not about mood, it was not about self-expression, it was about engaging fully with the essences of human existence, be they ecstasy or doom.” As recalled by Christopher Rothko, “Rothko reported that even his brightest paintings were imbued with the tragic. In the 1960’s, Rothko brought darker tones to that deep-seated sensibility, in part to make the tragic more plausible.”
As described by Christopher Rothko, the paintings of artist Mark Rothko underwent a transformation from the 1950’s to the 1960’s. As Christopher Rothko so eloquently relates “in the 1960’s, Rothko honed and refined his technique tremendously, becoming a far more subtle painter. Quietly, he transformed his interaction with his viewers, recasting the balance between what he provided to them and what he demanded from them…..It is hard to fight the allure of color, and given the vibrancy of my father’s palette in that seminal decade, I do not intend to do so. But I will suggest that the paintings of the 1960’s offer something different, something less but more. Perhaps they are truly for the connoisseur, more easily appreciated by those who already know the works of the 1950’s. They often lack the visual and emotional hook of those earlier works, and so are less likely to make converts of those new to Rothko.”
To gain tremendous insight as to how the viewer should look at and appreciate the incredible work of artist Mark Rothko, in the textbook “Mark Rothko: An Essential Reader,” Alison De Lima Greene provides us a wonderful window into the thinking and intent of Mark Rothko. He is quoted in 1954 as stating “Forgive me if I continue with my misgivings, but I feel that it is important to state them. There is danger that in the course of this correspondence an instrument will be created which will tell the public how the pictures should be looked at and what to look for. While on the surface this may seem an obliging and helpful thing to do, the real result is paralysis of the mind and imagination (and for the artist a premature entombment). Hence my abhorrence of forewords and explanatory data.” As Ms. De Lima Greene further discusses in her writing, Katherine Kuh, in 1954, invited Mark Rothko to exhibit his paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. After he was asked to provide a statement for a brochure which was to accompany the presentation, Rothko cautioned her “May I suggest, however, that…we abandon any preconceived notions of what ought to be said and printed. For unless we do, it will bind us to a course which will inevitably lead to the meaningless banality of forewords and interviews….If I must place my trust somewhere, I would invest it in the psyche of sensitive observers who are free of the conventions of understanding. I would have no apprehensions about the use they would make of these pictures for the need of their own spirits.”
Many of Rothko’s paintings at the Rothko Retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, are very large. In 1951, Rothko stated “I paint very large pictures, I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them however . . . is precisely because I want to be intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.”
Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in the city of Dvinsk, now in Latvia. In 1913, he immigrated to the United States. He attended Yale University on a scholarship in 1921, but was disillusioned by what he felt was elitism and conservatism, and after his second year, left Yale and moved to New York City. Learning from mentors figurative painters Max Weber and Milton Avery, and teaching art classes at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, his career in art began to grow. In the 1930’s, Rothko paintings depicted among other subjects, city streets and subway platforms. Looking at these, one can see the origins of the rectangular forms which would eventually become his life’s great achievements. In the 1940’s, Mark Rothko started to eliminate figures from his works. In 1946, Rothko began a new series which would later be known as Multiforms. Through this art form, he gave himself the freedom of improvisation, exploring color and tonal contrasts to give his paintings a more vivid presence. It was then that he stopped giving his works descriptive titles, and began to instead number his canvases in sequence, year by year.
In 1949, Rothko started to paint what would be called the Transitional paintings, which would be the basis for much of the rest of his career. These paintings consisted of soft-edged, horizontal rectangles within a monochromatic field. The colors were mainly warm yellows, oranges and reds, arranged as horizontal bands of color in vertical tiers. Artist Rothko often made his own paints, and used turpentine to thin the paints, resulting in layers of veil-like washes to give his canvases the effect of pure light, and color and structure are inseparable. In 1958, Rothko was approached to paint for the Seagram’s Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. In 1961, Rothko created five paintings for Harvard University. In 1960, John and Dominique de Menil visited Rothko, and this would lead to a 1964 commission for a painting cycle for a chapel on the campus of the University of St. Thomas in Houston. It was then that the Blackform series of paintings began, in which most color was removed from the paintings, which were composed of black, hard-edge rectilinear forms on a closely hued ground. Christopher Rothko described the effect in stating that these black paintings do not banish emotion, and to the contrary, they do not impose any feeling of their own, but instead the viewer must bring those feelings and emotions themselves to the interaction between viewer and painting. In 1969 Rothko donated nine paintings to the Tate Gallery in London.
In 1968, suffering from illness due to an aortic aneurysm, doctors recommended that artist Mark Rothko not paint anything larger than 40 inches high. Rothko changed to using fast drying acrylics rather than oils. Oliver Steindecker, studio assistant of Rothko, would tape sheets of paper to rigid supports, and Mark Rothko would paint. The white border which resulted, later was deliberately reproduced by Rothko. In 1969, artist Mark Rothko received an honorary doctorate from Yale University. During the ceremony, Rothko’s famous quote, as inscribed on the texts at the Rothko Retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, is “When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing: no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden time, for then we had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, and consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where they can root and grow. We must all hope we find them.” During his last years he suffered from ill health and severe depression. He established the Mark Rothko Foundation, and continued painting. On February 25, 1970, Rothko committed suicide in his studio. This was a great loss to the entire world, and we mourn the loss suffered by his family, and the world at large, but we are grateful for all of the contributions that the great artist Mark Rothko has given to the people of the world and to all of humanity.
At the Inaugural Address at the Rothko Chapel, on February 26, 1971, Dominique De Menil quoted artist Rothko as stating “a picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent.” In 1984, the Rothko Foundation announced a gift of 295 paintings and works on paper, and 662 studies, to the National Gallery of Art.
www.Artist.com would like to express great thanks and gratitude to Ms. Whitney Radley, Publicist for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, to Ms. Alison de Lima Greene, Curator of Contemporary Art and Special Projects, and to Mr. Gary Tinterow, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. They have been an invaluable source of information, and have, through their extraordinary and untiring efforts to bring this monumental collection to Houston, helped enhance and enlighten the lives of all viewers who are fortunate to visit this exhibition at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, for a once in a lifetime experience. Artist.com would also like to thank the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
www.Artist.com also thanks the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., The Mark Rothko Foundation, and Ms. Kate Rothko Prizel and Mr. Christopher Rothko, for permitting us to display images, and for their wonderful and generous contributions to the world of art.
Images belong to National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. © 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, and are shown with permission and courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Reproduction, including downloading of Rothko Artworks is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express permission of the copyright holder. Requests for reproduction should be directed to Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
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