Emotion lurks beneath the surface in Mark Rothko exhibit
By Beth Stallings
Images Courtesy Columbus Museum of Art
“He’s painting to communicate something,” he says. Through layers of hues on canvas, Rothko’s intent is to rile the viewer’s emotions, to elicit a primal response.
Just how Rothko arrived at his signature style can be seen in CMA’s “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950,” running Feb. 1 through May 26 and featuring 27 works by Rothko alongside 10 pieces by his contemporaries. The works from this influential decade show the artist’s journey from painting recognizable subject matter to abstract uses of color. Here, Vasseur shares insight into Rothko’s emotional intent.
1945 "Sacrificial Moment”“Rothko believed everything we know about the human condition was stated in Greek mythology,” Vasseur explains. Tiring of relying on human forms to tell stories of tragedy, love and doom, Rothko begins to blur the line. By the mid-’40s, he disembodies subjects until only outlines remain (like a knife seemingly shown here). And pay attention to the background, Vasseur adds, pointing to the three bands of color behind the subjects. It’s an allusion to what viewers already know: that Rothko will realize he doesn’t need objects to express action.
1948 “No. 10”As the decade winds down, Rothko’s multi-forms begin to morph toward his signature style. “He keeps pushing it and pushing it. He gets at this idea of blocks of color that carry weight and meaning,” Vasseur explains. “You see a lot of over-painting. A lot of thought and afterthought.”
1949 “Untitled” (at the top)“Finally he arrives at the idea of order,” he says. Veils of color are painted over other hues—a ghostly touch that carries great meaning. “There is an action, a drama occurring in the background. It requires you to look at the painting seriously.”
Getting EmotionalRothko didn’t want to tell viewers how to feel; he was never candid about which emotions his paintings were meant to convey. So go to the exhibit with an open mind, says Vasseur, who suggests a few more ways to get the most out of the show.
Keep an eye out for themes of threes. Many of Rothko’s earlier images riff on creatures three in number.
Take a closer look. “Look overall and then at the parts,” he says. More than mere blocks of color, Vasseur explains, Rothko used layers of paint to distill a sense of meaning and create a dialogue.
The Artist on StageIt was an offer artist Mark Rothko couldn’t refuse—a career-changing commission to create artwork for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the late 1950s. He accepted the job, despite fears that his works would be nothing more than decorative pieces.
The ensuing question—can commercial art be truly considered art?—is weighed in “Red,” a 2010 Tony Award-winning play that debuts in Columbus this month in conjunction with the Columbus Museum of Art’s Rothko exhibition.
“What I love about ‘Red’ was it really helps us look at this massive color canvas and understand what he’s trying to do,” says Steven Anderson, producing director of CATCO, which is putting on the play.
The two-person performance focuses on a conversation between Rothko and his assistant, a fictional character based on a number of influential people in his life. At first the assistant is intimidated by Rothko, but eventually he begins to question his commissioned venture.
“It certainly does ask the question,
‘What is the purpose of art in our lives?’ ” Anderson says.