Rothko Rising

Article excerpt

Jeffrey Weiss. Mark Rothko. Exh. cat. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998 Texts by John Gage, Carol MancusiUngaro, Barbara Novak, Brian O'Doherty, Mark Rosenthal, and Jessica Stewart. 374 pp., 120 color ills., 50 b/w. $65.

Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., May 3-August 16, 1998; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September 10-November 29, 1998; Musee de l'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, January 8-April 18, 1999.

David Anfam. Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 708 pp., 850 color ills., 100 b/w. $125.

The Mark Rothko retrospective, which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and was next on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, was astonishingly beautiful. And people responded accordingly. Answering to a call comparable to "Build a ball field and they will come," the crowds descended on this spectacular display. Whenever I visited the exhibition, which featured about cio paintings and works on paper the artist made between 1936 and 1969, a year before he died at the age of sixty-six, the galleries were filled. Abstract art is once again ascendant; artists, as well as others, appear to care passionately about how it is made, what it can address, and its ability to communicate the highest values of life in a nonrepresentational, visual language.

Exhibiting his work regularly from the forties onward, Rothko never lacked critical attention during his lifetime or after his death. Besides the retrospective mounted at The Museum of Modern Art in 1961 when he was fifty-seven, Rothko represented the United States in 1958 at the Venice Biennale and in 1959 at Documenta II in Kassel. Moreover, during the fifties and early sixties, when the work of Americans was rarely seen abroad, his art traveled to places as far-flung as Berlin, Paris, Caracas, Calcutta, and Madrid.

While there have been other in-depth survey exhibitions and several books and catalogues devoted to Rothko's art during the more than three decades since his suicide, the magnificence of this latest retrospective came as a surprise to many. Thanks to Jeffrey Weiss, associate curator of twen tieth-century art at the National Gallery, this body of work will never again look the same. The author of The Popular Culture of Modem Art and co-curator of the National Gallery and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts's exhibition "Picasso: The Early Years, i892-19o6," this talented art historian turns out to have quite an eye, as well as a searching intellect. Weiss's discriminating selection from Rothko's oeuvre, more than anything else, set this group of canvases and drawings apart from those seen previously.

At the Whitney, Rothko's representational pictures from the thirties and forties benefited from their proximity to the new fifth-floor galleries displaying the permanent collection. Having a context within which to view these awkward, not quite resolved canvases shed further light on the period in which they were executed. Following the artist's own example, a number of critics averred that these tentative works never should have been exhibited (years after their making, Rothko tried to distance himself from these canvases and never referred to or exhibited them). However, Weiss brought a fresh eye to bear on them, choosing paintings with strong blocks of color serving as backgrounds. They do indeed suggest possibilities the artist later went on to develop.

Another group of works, the late acrylics on paper mounted on canvas from 1969, were also broadly criticized for being unresolved and possibly unfinished. It was suggested that they, too, should never have been shown. But consider this scenario. Rothko's art of the thirties was influenced by what the then-young artist saw being done around him. Eventually, as a mature painter, he hit his stride, and one work generated another. …