- The Netherlands
- Ewa Zubek
The Mark Rothko exhibition that opened in The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum on 20 September seems to be the perfect Rothko show. With over 60 works on display – from the early figurative paintings to his very last canvas – the museum has orchestrated a space that combines the epic with the intimate, seamlessly moving from the one to the other. To celebrate what is the first large-scale Rothko show in the Netherlands in 40 years, here are ten things you should know about Mark Rothko.
Individual experience is key
Rothko strongly believed in the importance of the individual, personal experience about his paintings. In his vision, the viewer would be drawn into a deep, meditative relationship when faced with the canvas, a state of emotional vulnerability and total receptiveness, analogous to Rothko’s emotional state as he painted the canvas in his studio.The Gemeentemuseum has put this conviction into practice ingeniously, hanging several paintings individually inside small, private alcoves that allow for quiet contemplation, and create microcosms of personal experience.
The master of color ‘[wasn’t] interested in color’
Since his untimely death, Rothko’s pioneering of the Color Field movement has been described by many critics as indisputable and groundbreaking. To the painter himself, the color was only a vehicle towards an emotional reaction evoked in the viewer, striped of any aesthetic or decorative undercurrent. In a famous statement that embodies his artistic practice, Rothko said: ‘If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point.’
The only response that matters is emotional
Rothko was preoccupied with raw human reaction, or what he called the ‘big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom’ – and found this to be the only ‘right’ way to react to his paintings. As she approaches the canvas, the viewer must rid herself of the desire to interpret, or understand, the painting in an intellectual sense, and allow herself to be moved by the emotion engraved in the composition. Ultimately, Rothko saw this as a state where painter and viewer share a set of emotions, almost transcendentally, while facing the same canvas. Within the context of the increasingly intellectualised art of the 1950s and 1960s, this approach was not only original but also controversial.
Refrain from calling his paintings ‘beautiful’
Having his paintings serve a decorative purpose was arguably Rothko’s greatest fear as an artist. Whenever he sold a painting privately, he first studied the buyer’s reaction to the canvas in an attempt to gauge whether the new owner would use the painting as an accessory, or a centrepiece. Although there is an indisputable beauty to Rothko’s towering, hypnotising works, his prescribed way of looking at them is to empty your mind of any aesthetic consideration, and perceive them to be moving, awe-inspiring.
Rothko’s early works are figurative.
Rothko’s early works are decidedly figurative, a far cry from the vast, abstract works he eventually became known for. Subway scenes, interpretations of ancient myth, semi-human figure studies, pastoral settings come together in an eclectic mix of seemingly unrelated subject matter, before becoming blurry abstractions in the next stage of Rothko’s development. The one link between these, and his later works is the painter’s visible penchant for the upright – vertical lines, bodies extended upwards, and omnipresent columns all anticipate Rothko’s mature works. This progression is mapped out very clearly at the Gemeentemuseum exhibition, guiding the visitor across a chronological, yet thematic sequence.
Black is never really black
More specifically, the black used by Rothko is a multi-dimensional plane of dark hue, usually placed atop, or next to, a different tone that imbues the rest of the painting with a very subtle colouration. Even in the late, typically dark works, the layer of black is punctuated by semi-apparent flashes of colour from underneath, fighting for air from beyond the initial impression.
Rothko’s paintings are among the most expensive artworks ever sold
Rothko’s ‘Orange, Red, Yellow’ (1961) is among the top five most expensive post-war paintings ever sold at auction. It fetched an extraordinary $86.9 million at a Christie’s New York auction in 2012, beating Rothko’s previous record of ‘White Centre (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)’, which was bought for $83 million at Sotheby’s in 2007. To put this into context, Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ (1889) sold for a ‘mere’ $53.9 million in 1987.
Money was never a drive for Rothko
Despite the record-breaking prices fetched by his paintings in today’s art business, prosperity and fame were never among Rothko’s priorities. The so-called Seagram commission is one spectacular example: in June 1958, Rothko accepted a commission from the owners of the new Four Seasons Restaurant in New York to produce a set of murals for the interior, and to complement the all-star cast involved in the restaurant’s design, complete with Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. After initially accepting what would have been his most lucrative assignment, Rothko broke off the contract abruptly, with little explanation. It is suspected that he thought the project would compromise his integrity as an artist, and render his paintings purely decorative within a luxury dining setting. The Gemeentemuseum has curated a selection of large sketches for the Seagram murals and displays them all them in a single exhibition room, where the atmosphere is thick with premonition as the paintings face each other in deep silence.
Rothko’s later works gravitate towards darkness
During the later stages of his career, in the 1960s, Rothko’s paintings began to veer towards darkness, a complete shift from his earlier focus on vibrant canvases where colour seemingly took centre stage. Dark grays and near-blacks began to dominate his palette in what many now see as an omen of his suicide in the winter of 1970. Astoundingly, his final work is a screaming composition of blood reds. ‘Untitled’ (1970) is on display at the deep end of the Gemeentemuseum’s exhibition space, a grand finale, and a natural source of gravitation for the visitor.
Mondrian and Rothko have more in common than you think
There is a real, tangible relationship between Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko, as the Gemeentemuseum shrewdly points out. Their works share an emotional intensity, an undercurrent of raw feeling dictated by the use of shape and colour, structure and consistency that defines them both. The museum’s juxtaposition of their final works – ‘Untitled’ (1970) by Rothko, and ‘Victory Boogie Woogie’ (1944) by Mondrian – is both unexpected and perfectly vital in the context of the exhibition.