An enormously satisfying exhibition of early Mark Rothko works now at the Columbus Museum of Art gives viewers an opportunity to hone their powers of observation. Following the artist through a decade of activity, we get to see that his apparently radical shift from suggestively figurative to purely abstract art may not be so extreme after all.
The Decisive Decade
1940 – 1950
Columbus Museum of Art
Through May 26
In one of several perceptive catalog essays, Ruth Fine, consulting curator for Rothko works on paper at the National Gallery of Art, writes that the “general lack of awareness of the works on paper . . . was instigated in part by the artist himself.” No pre-1945 works were included in the 1961 Museum of Modern Art retrospective exhibition, curated jointly by Peter Selz and Rothko, thus making “the public statement that his mature work originated in 1945.” Though subsequent Rothko retrospectives included pre-1945 work, this phase of the artist’s career remains so underknown as to make this show a kind of rediscovery of the early Rothko.
“Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade, 1940-1950″ includes 27 of his paintings, many of them on paper, that are usually exhibited as mere prefaces to his signature glowing and complexly layered canvases. In addition to these Rothkosâselected from the 295 works donated in 1985-86 to the National Gallery of Art by the Mark Rothko Foundation (formed by his children)âthe exhibition also includes 10 early works by other artists (among them Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock) that set up a rich context for the early Rothko paintings. These works share many visual characteristics, exploring the fertile territory of the unconscious that Freud and others had opened for 20th-century artists: a rich array of surreal forms that move between the representational and the symbolic. It’s also a terse lesson in the concept of “signature” styles, toward which these artists were obviously striving and by which we know them best.
Rothko (1903-70) was an artist with broad intellectual scope that included his immersion in the mythologies and traditions of the classical, Judaic and Christian worlds. Eventually his philosophical and literary interests were distilled into the richly colored strata of his familiar later works. This exhibition explores the process by which he arrived at those answers, while re-experiencing his questions as well. Here Rothko’s soft, muted palette and his determination to define spatial relationshipsâinitially with figurative formsâare reminders that trying to identify radical breakthroughs is far less interesting than observing creative development. That’s what Karen Brosius, executive director of the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina, where the exhibition originated, and Todd Herman, executive director of the Arkansas Art Center, who conceived of this exhibition with Ms. Brosius, want us to feelâand we do.
There’s nothing tentative about this early work. A couple of 1941 paintings allude to the Antigone myth, with disconnected, sexually evocative body parts that assert, but do not describe, tragedy. Elsewhere, as in an untitled canvas of 1941-42, the deconstructed and reorganized Crucifixion imagery suggests the terrifying power of familiar iconographic bits and pieces. Other works have marine references that shimmer with lightly layered, translucent streaks of paint.
While thematically diverse, most of the works in this exhibition share certain organizing principles. Shapesâidentifiable or notâare never arbitrarily arranged. They float in carefully defined spaces and are often firmly anchored with some sort of horizontal ground that can be as insistent as the horizon in a 17th-century Dutch seascape. Paring things down to essentials seems to have been the task the artist set for himself. In “No. 9″ (1948) we watch Rothko grappling with the near-obliteration of traditional notions of pictorial space. He seems to be experimenting with the novel “push/pull” theory articulated by the influential expatriate German modernist Hans Hofmann, which held that spatial relations could be created by juxtapositions of color and form rather than by the use of perspective.
It’s astonishing that despite the clear figural references in Rothko’s “No. 10″ of the same year, there’s a sense that the painter is moving toward the glowing rectangular shapes with which heâand ultimately weâhave become so comfortable. But to view this as a natural progression would be to miss the sense of struggle evident in individual works that continues to make Rothko such a challenging painter.
We’re accustomed to understanding Rothko as part of the evolving style that came to be called Abstract Expressionism. But Rothko’s aquatic colors are reflected in the painterly washes of a lovely 1917 John Marin seascape, unrelated to the Rothko exhibition, just outside the entrance to the show. This signals us to be wary of easy pigeonholes in our categorization of artists. While they are hung separately in the exhibition, the catalog wonderfully juxtaposes Rothko’s figurative “Untitled (Man and Two Women in a Pastoral Setting)” (c. 1940) and Milton Avery’s “Girl With Cello” (1958) to reveal yet other affinities that Rothko shared with his fellow artists.
It is especially gratifying to note that the National Gallery of Art is sharing its vast Rothko holdings with a range of American museums (the exhibition continues on to Little Rock, Ark., and Denver), while also promoting new scholarship. After all, art historians and museums have a continuing responsibility to rethink and rewrite art historyâespecially the potentially misleading history that artists sometimes create for themselves. This exhibition addresses that task superbly.
Mr. Freudenheim, a former art-museum director, served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian.
A version of this article appeared April 18, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Becoming Mark Rothko.