In the Tower: Mark Rothko
February 21, 2010 – January 9, 2011
East Building Tower
In the Tower
Mark Rothko (1903–1970) was a leader of the abstract expressionists, a loose-knit group of painters who by midcentury had made New York the center of the art world. Unlike Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who wielded the brush with great energy, Rothko painted soft-edged rectangles of color, at once veiled and radiant.
Black was a frequent, sometimes imposing presence in Rothko's early work (nos. 1–9)—from his expressive figures of the 1930s to the surrealist-inspired canvases of the mid-1940s to the abstract "multiforms" of the late 1940s. Interestingly, black did not play a major role in Rothko's classic works of the 1950s. Thus his dramatic turn to black in 1964, with the black paintings featured in this exhibition (nos. 10–16), was something of a return, but one whose significance remains mysterious.
Some critics have seen these paintings as Rothko's pointed reminder that there was more to his work than lyric color—that his real subject was (as he had declared in 1943) the "tragic and timeless." Others have seen them as tokens of the illness and depression that began to plague Rothko in the 1960s, even as harbingers of his suicide at the end of the decade.
But does black = tragedy and despair? While it does absorb more light than any other color, it is not just a void. Depending upon the quality of paint and its application, as well as shifting angles of light, the blacks here can look like steel or velvet, silver screens or black holes. Other colors lie in wait under a surface or peek around an edge. But to notice all this takes time: unless we look at the paintings slowly, we will not see what Rothko called their "inner light."
That phrase is almost religious, and indeed these works led directly to eighteen monumental dark canvases that Rothko painted for a non-denominational chapel in Houston. To recall that connection, this exhibition includes music composed for it by Morton Feldman (Rothko Chapel, 1971). The result is an experiment, or at least a set of questions. Do the paintings fulfill Rothko's ideal of an abstract art that reflects the range of human passions? Does the music deepen or dilute their effect? Is their blackness brooding? Or are they euphoric in their passage from black to light?
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THIS EXHIBITION IS NO LONGER ON VIEW AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY.
Overview: The second in a series of Tower exhibitions focusing on contemporary art and its roots offers a rare look at the black-on-black paintings that Rothko made in 1964 in connection with his work on a chapel for the Menil Collection in Houston. A recording of Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel (1971), the haunting music originally composed for that space, accompanies the exhibition in the spacious East Building Tower Gallery.
A new 10-minute film examines the career of Rothko and his development of a style that fused abstract painting with emotional significance. Produced by the National Gallery of Art, the film will be shown continuously in the Tower Gallery. The film was made possible by the HRH Foundation.
Organization: Organized by the National Gallery of Art.
Sponsor: The exhibition is made possible by the generous support of the Aaron I. Fleischman Foundation.