BWW Reviews: MARK ROTHKO: THE WATERCOLORS Reveals the Delicate Side of a High-Drama Artist

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.

Rothko figured out how to beat some of these artists at their own games, too. Several watercolors from 1943-1944 could be mistaken for small Gorkys, though Rothko used earth tones, wheel shapes, and tense vein-like formations to establish the kind of structure and coordination that Gorky only achieved at his absolute best. And the carnage reds of one 1944-1945 watercolor would do Soutine proud. Elsewhere, less vivid colors are drawn together for some sophisticated effects; another 1944-1945 work on paper employs shades of rust, goldenrod, army green, and bluish white. A few of these may be related on a traditional color wheel (check if you want), but Rothko creates such a convincing harmony that the traditional rules cease to matter.

Indeed, the works in the Pace exhibition are meant to be contemplated up-close; only a few images, all of them with dark contours and light-blue backgrounds, register as more than clots of pigment or unsatisfying blobs from a distance. With its staid rows of pieces and its clinical blue walls, Mark Rothko: The Watercolors encourages not just cool appreciation, but something like inspection. What you'll notice if you get close with some of the 1946-1947 entries is that Rothko had begun shifting to more discernible rectangular shapes: even when the biomorphic figures are still in the picture, they seem to be pressured or pushed forward by pillars of tan, white, and pink.

These works on paper are signs of things to come, but also absorbing independent creations. Just look at what Rothko does in one 1946 watercolor, which imposes black brushstrokes that recall Chinese script on regular swaths of sand-colored pigment. Or take another, this time from 1946-1947: rust-tone background, white-tone rectangles, and phantom lines and swirls and circles that could be the work of some unearthly, all-powerful machine, or the writing of the gods.

While I'm not arguing that all early-period Abstract Expressionism qualifies as great art--come to think of it, Jackson Pollock painted a lot of junk before 1950--I would argue that the New York art world should arrange at least one exhibition like this every season. Last autumn we had Robert Motherwell: Early Collages at the Guggenheim; this past winter, we had David Smith: Forgings at Gagosian New York. The Abstract Expressionists could do awe-inspiring things with arena-like canavases and towers of sheet metal, but to watch them astonish with reduced means and without quite as many philosophical trappings is its own kind of thrill. Less isn't always more, but less somehow makes us value these men a little more. Even Rothko, who wanted to make his art and his thought larger than any one life, grander than any one philosophy, yet somehow just the right size for every human soul--even him, we learn to respect anew.

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Patrick Kennedy Patrick Kennedy serves as Lead Critic in the Visual Arts for BroadwayWorld. He regularly contributes reviews of museum and gallery exhibitions, performing arts events, and new art books. Active in the world of education and humanities scholarship, Patrick is also an Executive Editor at ILEX Publications and a professor at Kean University, where he teaches courses in international literature and research writing.