It must be noted that the great painters of the figure had this in common. Their portraits resemble each other far more than they recall the peculiarities of a particular model.
- Mark Rothko
During the 1920s and 1930s, Rothko produced hundreds of works on paper and on canvas, depicting nudes, portraits, interiors with figures, cityscapes, and landscapes. His deliberate distortion of form and his rigorous application of paint are characteristics shared by some non-Western visual traditions, such as African and Oceanic art, and children's art, which Rothko admired. His early experimental approach to the materials and tools of drawing and painting is demonstrated in a variety of media, including graphite, ink, transparent and opaque watercolors, and oil paint.
Rothko's first exhibitions included landscape watercolors, such as Untitled (Landscape), which he painted en plein air. Depictions of the organic meanderings of the landscape, however, were rapidly superseded by a focus on the geometric structuring of the city. Simultaneously, his figures became increasingly distorted, as is evident in two paintings shown here from the end of the decade, Street Scene and Underground Fantasy. The latter is an example of Rothko's exploration of the subterranean world of New York subways as a locus for human alienation. Flat, faceless, highly attenuated figures merge with their architectural settings in the confinement of the gridlike underground.