Monday, December 14, 2015

Rothko's Journey at the MFAH

Mark Rothko's large paintings with their signature rectangular fields of color stand out in museums, galleries, art fairs, attracting eager visitors. Creativity appears to have struck the artist like lightning, leading to swift recognition and fame. The exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Mark Rothko:A Retrospective will dispel such an assumption with more than sixty works displayed in chronological order offering a glimpse into the painter's career.
Most of the works are on loan from the National Gallery of Art and the first room is filled with early pieces from the 1930's. Figurative scenes featuring familiar surroundings like crowds in the New York subway, primitive compositions à la Gauguin or inspired by Greek mythology veer to surrealist and abstract pieces influenced by European movements. Forwarding to the late 40's with the series of "Multiforms", made of biomorphic colored blurry shapes followed by a period of "Transitional Paintings" in the adjacent room, Rothko's vocabulary is maturing with vertical abstract landscapes made with oil paint bleeding into the canvas. Yellows, oranges, reds surround the visitors as the walk through the exhibition leads to the "Classic Paintings" from the 50's. Rothko gave numbers to his paintings or left them untitled. Scholars and art critics defined and named periods according to the painter's technique and biography. Bathing in colors, I felt elated and heard music (The Ode to Joy from Beethoven to be precise). Following Rothko's advice, I stood 18 inches from the canvasses, letting my eyes overflow with luminous colors and limitless horizons. Being surrounded by the paintings radiating energy and life, is a unique experience which offers an occasion to participate in the artist's search for sublime goals. A similar exhilaration overtook me a few weeks later at the Phillips Collection while contemplating the four paintings from the same period in the Rothko Room.  The transition to his next endeavor is brutal. Drama, tension and ultimately doom transpire from the four variations in red commissioned for the Seagram's Four Seasons Restaurant followed by the black and violet compositions realized for the Rothko Chapel located a few miles away at The Ménil Collection. The paintings are somber and the commissioned works lack spontaneity. Lost in the darkness of the black fields, I could not find the thread leading to meditation. The last paintings are reflecting the artist's physical limitations. He changed his technique radically, downsizing the canvasses and using acrylic for his two-toned compositions in black and grey. However his last message is a vision in red, ethereal, a scream for life and hope, radiating pure energy.
The exhibition offers not only a didactic way to look at Rothko's career, but is also a unique venue to experience the physicality of his paintings. Expressing his philosophy through his work, Rothko makes it universal and timeless. Before undertaking his career shortened by his self-inflicted demise, Rothko reflected on art and philosophy in the early 40's and his writings gathered by his son Christopher were published in "The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art".
As a whole, the exhibition allows to follow the maturation of the artist's technique and his parallel inner journey and growth.
Rothko was very protective of his works and when looking at them I keep in mind this quote from the artist himself:
"A painting lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out to the world."

photographs by the author

"Underground Fantasy", 1940
"Number 2", 1947
"Number 7", 1949
"Untitled", 1970


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