Missing the Rothko boat

Consistently honored with comprehensive exhibitions and a broad range of publications, what more can be said about Mark Rothko (1903-1970), a colossus of 20th-century cerebral painting.

rothko 298 88 (photo credit: courtesy)
rothko 298 88
(photo credit: courtesy)
Consistently honored with comprehensive exhibitions and a broad range of publications, what more can be said about Mark Rothko (1903-1970), a colossus of 20th-century cerebral painting. Nevertheless, in order not to be left out in the cold, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (TAMA) has found it necessary to make its own statement with a vest-pocket display of Rothko's paintings. Billed presumptuously as a retrospective selection, the artist's extensive oeuvre, without representation from the cadre of exceptionally large, sumptuously colored canvases painted in the early 1950s, has been improbably coalesced into a comparatively small number of works. One begins to wonder what the reasons could be for such a minuscule, and rather unconvincing, presentation. One can only surmise that there is a continued reluctance by institutions and private collectors to send canvases to the hazardous Middle East, exorbitant insurance premiums or just a matter of time that was provided for the groundwork and research to put the exhibition together. The curatorial team of Christopher Rothko, the painter's son, and Prof. Mordechai Omer, director of TAMA, assembled the works, edited an extensive catalog and designed the exhibition within less than a year. Having managed to carry out this Herculean task, their choice of canvases and works on paper seeks to demonstrate the artist's major contributions albeit with a minor display of his product, 38 in all. Several pieces, pre-1940 figurative curiosities, echo the urban landscape of the Ashcan school. They are mediocre paintings defined by simplistic compositions, an unimaginative local palette and a pedestrian perception of figure drawing. The earliest work in the show is a rather ordinary Self-Portrait (1936) that indicates very little, if anything, of what was to happen 15 years down the line. In 1912, at the age of nine, Marcus Rothkowitz emigrated with his family from Russia to the US and settled in Portland, Oregon. An outstanding high school student, Rothko (he shortened his name only in 1940) was awarded a scholarship to Yale but, disappointed with the privileged attitudes prevalent at the university, left after two years, moving to New York in 1923 where he spent the rest of his life, until he ended it on February 25, 1970. During a stint at the Art Students League in 1924 and 1925, studying color and drawing with the American modernist Max Weber, Rothko was introduced to European modernism and avant-garde innovations. Three years later he would meet Milton Avery and Adolph Gottlieb, both of whom would become lifelong friends and colleagues, especially the former, whose treatment of color as translucent transient surfaces influenced him greatly. Throughout the Depression years, Rothko painted unsympathetic urban scapes, figurative compositions, worked for the WPA and joined several artists' cooperatives including The Ten, a non-ideological group that worked in an expressionist vein bordering on the abstract. The group of New York painters and sculptors that would be labeled Abstract Expressionists were inspired by Surrealist artists who immigrated to the US as the fascist tide swept the Continent prior to World War II. Rothko's involvement was as strong as his compatriots' and is covered here by a handful of watercolors and a single canvas, Rites of Lilith (1945), whose elegant linear undulations and biomorphic passages are obvious references to female body forms and genitalia resonating with formalistic qualities advanced by Arshile Gorky, William Baziotes and Andr Masson. With an understated palette of gunmetal green, yellow ochre and warm grays, Rothko removes options of a chromatic punch for the sake of heightened symbolic representation. By the time the late '40s rolled around, Rothko was moving away from a Surrealist mode and only in 1951, after creating a series of Multiform paintings of unsettling compositions crammed with colorful blends of geometric and organic shapes, did he show his first reductive compositions of stacked and chromatically diverse rectangles at New York's Betty Parsons Gallery. The leap from murky Surreal imagery into a gallery housing five radically different Multiform abstractions is difficult to grasp. Easier to understand, however, is the transition from the Multiform series to Rothko's signature abstractions that appear in the last two galleries. It was only a matter of time before he reduced the asymmetrical multiple configurations of lopsided geometric quadrangles and fuzzy islands of scumbled color to explicitly colored, symmetrical rectangles. The vertical rectangular canvas in which he generally stacked two or three rectangular forms of varying sizes free of the picture's edges became Rothko's preferred format around 1950. Of the 22 canvases in the exhibition's final sweep, only a few project remarkable combinations of the soft-edged color fields that resonate with an inner light of their own. White over Orange, 1959, an oil painting on paper mounted on canvas, and Untitled, a mixed-media work from 1955, are particularly striking. The former's pale tangerine background is a color derived from the mixing of the two blurred rectangles and provides a perfect balance between the three forms, while the latter is composed of a salmon-colored field onto which he has brushed a dominant, paled ultramarine that hovers over a near invisible yellow rectangle. Rarely in this exhibition is the viewer exposed to the luminosity attached to unusual ranges of color, both cool and warm, veiled in several tonal layers. The abundance of Dionysian reds and tragic blacks take the place of the more spectral sensations we have grown accustomed to expect in Rothko's art. A few tempera studies for the Harvard murals are displayed adjacent to large gray and black canvases in which horizontal rectangles no longer vacillate within the format but push outward past the four edges of the canvas in a finite manner. Painted in 1969, these colorless canvases project a reclusive, introspective emotional state and a foreboding of tragic events, obviously related to his mental health at the time. The exhibition comes to a close with a pair of cheerful, pastel-toned rectangles in chalky pink and a powdery blue that fill almost the entire field, probably a cathartic statement brushed into life a few months before he ended his own. An important complement to this rather pasty exhibition is the publication of a comprehensive catalog whose five intelligent appraisals - from Christopher Rothko's assertion that form divorced from human experience and not color was the driving force in his father's art and Omer's surgical analysis of the delicate balance forged between Kierkegaard, Rothko and the biblical epic of the Sacrifice of Isaac to John Gage's incisive essay "Color as Subject," written for Rothko's spectacular National Gallery retrospective in 1998 - surpass in interest the general blandness of the paintings themselves. Unconcealed expectations often lead to gross disappointments. What should have been a significant confrontation with Rothko's battery of shimmering chartreuses, lavenders and succulent lemon yellows pulsating above passionate fields of burgundy and deep purple, as remembered from the Whitney Museum retrospective in 1998 or viewed at the Philips Collection in Washington, DC, has been replaced by a pedestrian appraisal that does not provide the quality or quantity of art that one can absorb and resolve with ease Rothko's contribution to American art or the goods to place him in the glowing light he deserves. Whatever the reasons, Israelis have been shortchanged. And the chances that the TAMA can deliver a proper Rothko retrospective sometime soon are definitely not in the cards. (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Sam and Ayala Zacks Pavilion, King Saul Blvd.). Till June 30.