Although Mark Rothko’s saturated, transcendental abstractions are in everyone’s collective consciousness, we were surprised to learn on a recent visit to the Portland Art Museum that his work had a shockingly different start. Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia and immigrated to Portland in 1913 when he was 10; he lived there before pursuing studies at Yale and moving to New York City. While he had his first museum exhibition in Portland in 1933-34, this is his first retrospective in his native American city. Comprised of 45 paintings, many on loan from the Rothko family and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the exhibition provides the full trajectory of his mature work, tracing his practice from the late 1920s to shortly before his tragic death by suicide in 1970.
Organized chronologically, the show begins with a modest still life comprised of a pitcher, fruit and blue cloth on a table that is visibly indebted to Cézanne, both in its composition and colouring. In New York, Rothko studied briefly with Max Weber who encouraged him to work in this figurative manner; he also befriended and came under the influence of Milton Avery whose focus on the relationship between colours had a critical impact on Rothko’s work. In the 1930s, he painted the world around him – urban cityscapes with elongated figures, including scenes in the subway, using an expressive palette and the architecture of the space to explore blocks of colour. With the increasingly tense political climate of the late 1930s and the years of WWII, Rothko began to feel the traditional figure no longer was able to express the human condition. By the 1940s, he had abandoned representation and moved on to Surrealist works including paintings inspired by Greek mythology such as two paintings on view that treat figures as part of a frieze-like formation. The raucously coloured Birth of the Cephalopods, 1944 is an exuberant and expressive celebration of life while his Untitled canvas dated just one year later is a spare, otherworldly composition recalling Miró’s delicately balanced constructions.
Moving into his works from the late 1940s is a revelation. By 1947, he had abandoned all Surrealist imagery and his forms dissolve into patches of colour which vie and vibrate next to one another, anticipating the style for which he is best known. Transitioning from his earlier work and seeing this transformation to the work for which he is best-known is extraordinary. In No 3., for example, we struggled to make sense of the indeterminate shapes wondering if some reference to the representational world remained buried, waiting to be puzzled together. By the late 1940s, Rothko had given up conventional naming – resisting this last tie to the world beyond his canvases – which he now differentiated through numbers and colours. Not wanting to restrict or direct the viewer’s experience, he refused to explain the meaning of his works stating, “Silence is so accurate”. We are reminded of the words of another sometimes abstract painter, Gerhard Richter, who stated in 1966: “To talk about painting is not only difficult but perhaps pointless, too. You can only express in words what we are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that.”
Rounding the corridor past these transitional works, Rothko’s vibrant, large-scale abstractions come into full view. The space is cleverly orchestrated so these glorious works are withheld until this point in the visitor’s journey, creating a true moment of revelation. Powerful testaments to Rothko’s rigorous attention to the formal elements of painting – balancing shape, colour, composition and scale – they are incredible to experience in person, alive with colours that pulse and resonate. Although these works are surely abstractions, Rothko began resisting even this term, stating that labelling him as an abstract painter or great colourist misunderstood what he intended to accomplish. He said he was interested “only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on….The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”
We would have preferred more space for these late abstractions so their colours could radiate fully rather than being dampened by the architecture and neighbouring works, but understandably every show has its physical constraints. One further quibble – since colour is such a driving component of these canvases, clean white, rather than the light putty chosen, would have offered the best choice of wall colour. Still, this was a fascinating show to stumble upon. The pacing was perfect, keeping us riveted by the development of this well-known artist, ending in a crescendo with several compelling examples of his moving mature work.