Review | The dramatic change between Mark Rothko’s early and late works

Visitors who stroll through the National Gallery of Art’s “Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper” in the proper chronological order will eventually arrive at a chapel-like gallery. It’s lined with oil paintings on paper in which complexly layered brown rectangles sit atop equally mottled gray ones. These pictures were made in 1969, around the same time as a series of black-and-gray acrylic paintings on canvas.

The colors of the two series have been widely perceived as morbid. When Rothko showed them to a group of friends and critics, they reportedly were alarmed.

The artist was in ill health at the time, and he had recently separated from his wife of 25 years. A few months after completing the two sets of paintings, he died by suicide.

That Rothko foretold his death in gray, brown and black is a tidy conclusion to his life story, but it’s one this revelatory exhibition doesn’t support. Beyond the brown-and-gray room is one more gallery, which contains radiant pictures whose hues are lighter and brighter. Most surprising are one that’s mostly an expanse of pastel blue, with a darker blue bar below, and another that’s principally a delicate pink, sandwiched by strips of watery light blue at top and bottom. These are colors of sun, sky and water, not night and shadow.

No one knows for certain which paintings were made last, but both the dark and light ones were produced in the same few weeks, according to the show’s curator, Adam Greenhalgh.

“A definitive chronology is hard to determine, but the two series are closely related, the development of their compositions and the exploration of their distinct palettes simultaneous,” wrote Greenhalgh, an associate curator at the museum, in response to my question about the decision to conclude the show with the more colorful works.

Rothko was born in 1903 in what is now Latvia, and came to the United States a decade later. He’s known primarily for paintings that float pulpy rectangles on a contrasting color field. He rejected suggestions that these luminous pictures might be seen as abstracted landscapes — which is indeed tempting — or that they were simply color studies. The artist held that his paintings expressed intense human emotions and that both making them and viewing them could be a “religious experience.”

Some 115 Rothko works, most of them in that signature format, are on display in a major retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. More than a few of the pictures in that show are on loan from Washington. The National Gallery owns the largest number of Rothko artworks of any public institution, and the Phillips Collection’s Rothko Room, opened in 1960, was the first suite of the artist’s pictures to be permanently installed anywhere.

“Paintings on Paper” might seem a fill-in for the paintings that are temporarily in France, but it’s far more than that. The result of years of scholarship, the beautifully mounted show includes pictures that have never been publicly displayed before. It establishes connections between Rothko’s best-known paintings and the very different work he did before he devised his mature style.

Rothko worked on paper periodically but especially favored it in his final years. Between 1967 and 1970, he executed about 275 paintings on paper and only 30 on canvas. Of the 93 pictures in the catalogue, 30 are from that final period.

The show opens with soft-shaped impressionist watercolors, including portraits, nudes and landscapes, made in the 1930s. Next are more angular 1940s pictures, most of which combine ink and watercolor and are heavily influenced by such European surrealists as Joan Miró, André Masson and Yves Tanguy, as Greenhalgh notes in his catalogue essay.

These early works probably wouldn’t be in the possession of a major museum if they weren’t by a man who became one of the most revered mid-century American painters. But Rothko’s sensitivity to color is lustrously evident in his 1930s and ’40s output. One reason the show closes with the pastel paintings, Greenhalgh wrote, was that he thought they “resonated with the colorful figurative works from the 1930s in the first room of the show, directly below.”

The palette is also brightened at the Phillips, which lent three of its four Rothko Room pictures to the Paris exhibition. They’ve been replaced temporarily by works owned by the artist’s children, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.

Most striking is a predominantly yellow 1955 painting that’s bisected by a pinkish bar outlined with stripes in a slightly whiter version of the same color. The deviation from the artist’s customary layout is intriguing, but what’s most vivid is that field of golden yellow. Whether it evokes gentle light or scorching heat is for each observer to decide. Rothko’s religious experiences are offered without a particular creed, just elegant form and enveloping color.

Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper

National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW.

Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW.

Prices: $12-$20. Pay-what-you-wish daily from 4 p.m. to closing.


A previous version of this article included an image caption that misidentified an artwork. The caption has been corrected.

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