“Mark Rothko: The Mural Projects” at the National Gallery of Art explores the beginnings in the late 1950s of the abstract metaphysical painter’s darker style.
Culled from the hundreds of paintings and works on paper given to the National Gallery by the Mark Rothko Foundation, the “Murals” installation, on exhibit indefinitely, consists of nine important Rothko paintings.
Most are studies for a commission he received from the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. Exhibit curator Jeffrey Weiss says that although Mr. Rothko withdrew from the Seagram project, he found that he enjoyed making images that were also walls and environments.
The artist then went on to work in his now-famous octagonal chapel at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia (now Daugavpils, Latvia), Mr. Rothko (1903-1970) arrived in the United States in 1913, according to the exhibit catalog, and was reunited with his father and two brothers, who had immigrated earlier.
After growing up mainly in Portland, Ore., he was awarded a scholarship to Yale University, where he studied psychology and the history of philosophy but took no art classes. After two years, he left, without a degree, for New York.
In 1924, he signed up for his first class at New York’s prestigious Art Students League. His works were first exhibited in 1928, when some landscapes were included in a group show organized by an instructor at the Art Students League. The young artist met the right people in New York, such as artists Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Milton Avery and Barnett Newman.
Mr. Rothko broke out of his figurative style of the late 1940s when he embarked on what critics and art historians call his “classic period.” He began by stacking shimmering rectangles of brilliant colors in either vertical or horizontal formats. The artist, rather than staining his canvases as fellow painter Helen Frankenthaler did, created sensuous chromatic vibrations by pulling colors over thin underlying layers of paint.
The colors, however, are close-hued, acrid and dissonant. Art historian Irving Sandler calls them “colored ethers.”
One intensely colored work in the exhibition is the smaller, vertical “Untitled (Harvard Mural sketch)” of 1962. With its brilliant scumbled ruby reds and deep mauves of oil and mixed media, it is the most sensual image in the show.
Visitors can’t miss the two huge Seagram murals, one described as a “sketch,” mounted on the entrance’s opposite wall. Mr. Rothko placed three narrow vertical black strips across a horizontal ground of scumbled dull reds. In contrast, the artist applied two reddish vertical strips on a horizontal mauve background with loosely brushed shapes and edges.
Mr. Rothko had found his signature style by the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he piled up luminous forms of distinct colors in rectangular formats. He refused to interpret the geometric shapes formalistically — as with color, light, form and line — but rather saw them as metaphors for life’s tragedies.
“The people who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them,” he once said.
The “Mural” images come out of this classic period, but with reduced colors and shapes. Mr. Rothko used darker colors and purposely de-emphasized the brilliant ones he had used before. He now favored blacks, dark greens, deep reds and succulent purples.
This focused “Mural” show is important and has been done extraordinarily well, as it shows the artist moving to his late style and descending into dark abysslike paintings, a journey that culminated in his suicide in his studio on Feb. 25, 1970.
The exhibit also forms a significant contrast to a much larger retrospective, called “Mark Rothko,” which the National Gallery organized in 1998. Both provide insights into the work of this extraordinary 20th-century abstract painter.
WHAT: “Mark Rothko: The Mural Projects”
WHERE: Concourse, East Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, indefinitely