BWW Reviews: MARK ROTHKO: THE WATERCOLORS Reveals the Delicate Side of a High-Drama Artist
Thoughtful and well-read though he was, Mark Rothko was never afraid of a little shock-and-awe. Actually, make that a lot of shock-and-awe: as Rothko once observed, "a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures." Look long enough at the towering, totemic blocks of color that made Rothko famous in the 1950s and 1960s, and you will start to feel that you are simultaneously being enveloped in heavenly mist and being slowly crushed to death. These colossal canvases were the end results of the years that Rothko spent studying (and at times, lovingly and wantonly over-interpreting) psychoanalysis, mythology, theology, and other subjects designed to take the human psyche, open it up, strip it bare, and occasionally blast it to smithereens.
All this makes Mark Rothko: The Watercolors 1941-1947 an intriguing experiment: what was Mark Rothko like without lush oil paints, without six foot-tall canvases, without the style and sensibilities that are synonymous with "Mark Rothko?" The thirty-odd works that Pace Gallery has brought to its 57th Street location reveal Rotko energetically absorbing and energetically casting off earlier influences, then evolving in ways all his own. He functioned "more as an organism than as a machine, an organism that changed rapidly in response to the fertile conditions of the art he made," as James Lawrence notes in his excellently economical catalog essay. In this period of Rothko's output, "varieties of scribbling, sgraffiti, dry brushing, scraping, soaking, rubbing, and techniques for which no name exists, emerged and thrived."
Marvelous developments all, but the real miracle of this showcase is how few of Rothko's best features are lost by shrinking his images down by several feet and turning his clock back a couple decades. The sense of being enveloped by the work, for instance: a Rothko color field overwhelms you, but a Rothko watercolor hypnotizes you with its play of line, color, and juxtaposition. And the counterintuitive sense of color contrast is astute as ever: green versus magenta, orange versus black, blue versus grayish-pink. Without trying too hard, the organizers of Mark Rothko: The Watercolors have created an immersive environment, wisely forgoing captions for the Rothkos on display (all of which were untitled anyway) and allowing visitors to lose themselves in the private universe of filigreed biomorphic shapes and looming pastel expanses that Rothko concocted.
For what it's worth, Rothko's main influences in the 1940s were Henri Matisse and Milton Avery, though quite a few of the works in The Watercolors are much more reminiscent of Surrealist canvases than of Matisse's winning nudes or Avery's simplified pastel landscapes. Many of the images from the early 1940s recall the paintings of Matta and Yves Tanguy, two biomorph-inclined Surrealists who have always struck me as resistant to full abstraction. There are also works on paper here that are easy to mention alongside the keyed-up colorscapes of Arshile Gorky, the dream vistas of Joan Miró, and even with distorted anatomies and gruesomely stark colors of Chaim Soutine.