Michael Bergeron
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Mark Rothko: A Retrospective

Mark Rothko: A Retrospective
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The 60 paintings on display as part of the Mark Rothko: A Retrospective exhibit are unlike any assemblage of art works you have ever seen. This exhibit reveals the entire career of Rothko, but also puts into perspective his view of the world.

The works include Rothko’s conceit in abstractionism, expressionism, multiform and modernity. And that fills up at least five galleries.Rothko - Untitled, 1953

Mark Rothko: A Retrospective is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, until January 24, 2024. This is the only domestic display of this particular tour, after appearing earlier in the year in The Hague, The Netherlands and Seoul, South Korea.

The average bear would probably be aware of The Rothko Chapel, located between The Menil Museum and the campus of the University of St. Thomas. The Rothko paintings on display in the chapel are commonly recognized of as his style: rectangular fields of color stacked horizontally. A Retrospective shows how Rothko honed his style over decades. As MFAH curator of contemporary arts Alison Greene notes about Rothko’s 1940 “Underground Fantasy,” a kind of slender look at a subway and its denizens: “If you took out the people and turned the painting sideways you see the origins of his tiered composition style.”

The Rothko Chapel can be found referenced in modern fiction. The book Cosmopolis (by Don DeLillo) and subsequent movie of the same name by David Cronenberg, features a main character, a rather ruthless billionaire that makes an offer, unsuccessful, to buy the chapel.Regina Bogat - Mark Rothko with No 7

After heart problems in 1968 Rothko was advised by doctors to use acrylics over lead based oils, which resulted in a prodigious output of small and large paintings. Rothko took his own life in his New York studio in February of 1970. The Rothko Chapel officially opened a year later.

The Rothko multiforms got progressively darker as they evolved. But if you look at the darker of his paintings in this exhibit – just sit and observe for a few minutes – you begin to see that what at first glance appears just black is really dark purple, dark blue and yes black. The nuances are subtle, like chakra colors, and the brushstrokes are self-evident.

While the five dozen works on display are only a small fraction of Rothko’s 800-plus paintings they combine to give a whole portrait of the artist. How exceptional that after you walk out of the Rothko galleries, and exit the gift shop you walk into a room that contains works by such Rothko contemporaries as de Kooning, Newman, Pollock, and Kline.

So many of Rothko’s works are titled simply “Untitled.” It’s as if The Beatles White Album contained four sides of music with each cut titled “Untitled.” We would still find words to describe each song. Likewise there are words to describe the profound sense one gets from looking at the different Rothko paintings.

— Michael Bergeron