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Paintings on paper reveal another side of Rothko

Mark Rothko,<em> Untitled (seated figure in interior)</em>, c. 1938, watercolor on construction paper sheet.
ShootArt Mobile 1
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Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
Mark Rothko, Untitled (seated figure in interior), c. 1938, watercolor on construction paper sheet.

Updated January 12, 2024 at 11:05 AM ET

It's easy to interpret the large, dark paintings of Mark Rothko's final months as bleak, the work of an artist whose long struggle with ill health and depression ended when he took his own life in 1970. Too easy, as it turns out. A series of lesser known pieces on paper in dreamy pastel hues from that same period counter an enduring narrative of gloom.

The intimate paintings are the pièce de résistance in a show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington running through March 31 that features more than 100 works on paper of an artist best known for towering color fields painted on canvas in the last two decades of his life. It will travel in May to theNational Museum in Oslo for the artist's retrospective in Scandinavia.

Mark Rothko,<em> Untitled</em>, 1969, acrylic on wove paper mounted on linen overall.
ShootArt Mobile 1 / Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
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Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969, acrylic on wove paper mounted on linen overall.

"I find them incredibly optimistic," said Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher, a friend of Rothko's who was his neighbor in New York. "There's this immediate freshness and minimalist touch to those pictures where he lays the brush down in each color only one time or a couple times, and they're not worked over like the oil paintings are."

'The interpretation is yours'

To conclude that the dark paintings are depressing and the light ones are happy is simply "mindless," according to Glimcher.

Once, he recalls Rothko telling him, a woman came to the studio for a purchase. Rothko liked to pick himself the work he would sell to individual buyers, in an effort to match the painting to the person who would live with it. This time, he chose a piece redolent with burgundy, dark blue and rust. The woman was not pleased, asking instead for a bright red, yellow and orange painting, which she thought would be more cheerful.

"And he said to the woman, 'Red, yellow and orange, isn't that the color of an inferno?'" Glimcher said. "So you see, the interpretation is yours, but it's not necessarily his and it's not necessarily what the work is about."

Mark Rothko,<em> Untitled</em>, 1969, acrylic on wove paper.
ShootArt Mobile 1 / Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
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Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969, acrylic on wove paper.

In his black and gray paintings on paper, as well as a similar series in blacks and browns, Rothko was also investigating the use of a white edge — using masking tape, he created a sort of frame that's absent in other paintings.

"Other paintings are like weather coming across the plains, coming into the face," Glimcher said. "And as soon as you put the white edge around them, you're looking at something that could be interpreted as a landscape."

The 'essence' of a life's work

Glimcher sees in the darker works an artist distilling his oeuvre to "a kind of essence."

"It's a natural effect in an artist's career that they become more and more subtle," he said, citing Picasso and Matisse as other examples.

Mark Rothko, <em>Baptismal Scene</em>, 1945, watercolor and graphite pencil on paper.
Digital Image © Whitney Museum / Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
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Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
Mark Rothko, Baptismal Scene, 1945, watercolor and graphite pencil on paper.

The National Gallery's show also provides a chronological sample of Rothko's evolution as an artist. Portraits and landscapes in the 1930s that reference European impressionists like Paul Cézanne give way to surrealist compositions of the 1940s that recall Yves Tanguy or Joan Miró.

Origin story

By 1949, Rothko was experimenting with what became his recognizable format. In one painting, soft-edged horizontal rectangles glow atop a sunny background.

Mark Rothko, <em>Untitled</em>, c. 1949, oil and watercolor on watercolor paper.
ShootArt Mobile 1 / Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
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Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko
Mark Rothko, Untitled, c. 1949, oil and watercolor on watercolor paper.

"Over the course of the late '40s, Rothko decided that recognizable imagery should be pulverized, that the best way to communicate directly with a viewer was to reduce his compositions to pure color and form," explained Adam Greenhalgh, curator of the show, which travels in May to theNational Museum in Oslo for the artist's retrospective in Scandinavia.

Mark Rothko, known for his abstract paintings, is shown in 1965.
/ AP
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AP
Mark Rothko, known for his abstract paintings, is shown in 1965.

Paintings on canvases dominated Rotkho's work during the next decade. In 1958, he accepted a commission to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York's Seagram building, hoping the pieces would always be shown as a group. What became known as the Seagram Murals were also his first series to focus on a dark palette of browns, blacks and reds.

Vibrant palette

Ultimately, Rothko grew disillusioned with the project and abandoned it. He then turned back to paper, where the full range of his palette comes through in vibrant yellows, oranges, reds and blues.

"These paintings pulse. They shimmer. They swell. They recede. They're magnetic and compelling," said Greenhalgh, the curator.

After suffering an aortic aneurysm in early 1968, Rothko worked mainly on paper, creating mostly smaller works.

He used dynamic brushstrokes, using quick-drying acrylic and ink.

Peering into Rothko's hazy rectangles of color can be such a visceral experience that some liken it to a spiritual one. Art collector Duncan Phillips, who helped introduce modern art to the United States, used the word "chapel" to describe the room of three Rothko paintings in America's first modern art museum, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. And Houston is home to an actual Rothko Chapel. These are non-denominational sanctuaries of sorts, where the visitor is called upon to meditate and turn inwards.

As Rothko once put it, "The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them."

The radio and digital versions of this story were edited by Jennifer Vanasco. The radio version was produced by Mansee Khurana.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton
[Copyright 2024 NPR]