East City Art Reviews—Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper at the National Gallery of Art

By Olivia Niuman on March 14, 2024

Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper presents a side of the artist that is not well known; indeed, much of the work on view has never been publicly shown. From small watercolor landscapes to looming paintings mounted on hardboard, the exhibit presents a full picture of the artist as he moved beyond the figurative to a style of pure abstraction that engages timeless themes such as tragedy, ecstasy, and doom. Viewers of the show have the privilege of watching this evolution unfold before their eyes. 

 

Installation view of the Coda room looking back at the previous gallery in Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper. Photo by Olivia Niuman for East City Art.

In many ways, 2023 was the year of Rothko, with a major retrospective in Paris prompting the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection to mount new Rothko pieces to replace the ones on loan overseas. Even though artists often consider works on paper to be preliminary studies or sketches, the show includes over one hundred paintings on paper that Rothko considered to be finished works. Spanning Rothko’s career from his earliest forays into painting to works created right before his death, the show presents the story of the artist’s development as he returned to paper while creating the works on canvas for which he is best known. 

To help us trace this development, curator Adam Greenhalgh has organized groups of paintings like the chapters of a book: Aspiration, Breakthrough, Transition, Arrival, Revitalization, Afterglow, Eclipse, and Coda. These titles provide useful guideposts to help us situate the paintings around a timeline of the artist’s career.  

Entering the show, one is immediately immersed in the muted light and subtle gray hue of the walls, which allows the paintings to pulsate softly instead of being thrown into high relief by the typical stark shade of blinding gallery white. Rothko was notoriously picky about his paintings being shown in soft light,¹ and this show honors his wishes by enveloping viewers in a cozy meditative setting.   

Mark Rothko, Ancestral Imprint, 1946. Image by Olivia Niuman for East City Art.

In the first three galleries (Aspiration, Breakthrough, and Transition), early watercolors and framed works on paper shed insight into Rothko’s early concerns: studying the figure and landscape, exploring the materiality of paint, and mining the past for inspiration. In his paintings from the 1940’s, we see the artist toeing the line of abstraction while using motifs and symbols from religion, mythology, archaeology, and biology. His concern with the tragic and timeless was shared by his contemporaries, especially his friends Adolph Gottlieb and Arshile Gorky, both of whom were also producing work with abstracted biomorphic forms with mythological sources in search of an authentic way to express a sense of horror and disarray in the aftermath World War II.  

As the work in these first three galleries shows, Rothko engaged with recognizable imagery while moving towards pure abstraction. Aside from subject matter, his work from this time also reveals experimentation with the physicality of paint, as he applies washes of watercolor, scratches the paper with a pen nib, and forays into oil paint for the first time. Looking closely, one can see the influence of the ancient. In Ancestral Imprint, for example, the tripartite composition resembles registers of an ancient frieze or urn.² As the show progresses, it is not hard to see how these compositions later morph into the hazy rectangles of pure color that become emblematic of Rothko’s mature style.  

Mark Rothko, Untitled c. 1949. Photo by Olivia Niuman for East City Art.

The next gallery, aptly referred to as Arrival, is where we experience Rothko’s classic style for the first time in full force. With these paintings, Rothko had the paper mounted onto hardboard or linen so that it could be viewed directly without the interference of glass and a frame. Here, the paintings seem to breathe. As Rothko said: “A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.”³ Apart from protection, the roped stanchions placed in front of the paintings call our attention to the fact that we are interacting with objects, not merely viewing images.  

In this room and the subsequent one called Revitalization, paintings with every hue imaginable line the walls like jewels embedded into rock. Here, we see Rothko testing the full range of possibilities with his new standard composition. His hot orange and red are so bright they are almost painful, while velvety purples and blues blur together with edges that can only be discerned through a sideways glance. 

Installation view of Arrival room in Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper. Photo by Olivia Niuman for East City Art.

After Rothko recovered from a near fatal aneurysm in the spring of 1968, he increased the scale of his paintings on paper to nearly rival that of his canvases. In the penultimate gallery, large paintings of primarily blue and green (referred to as Afterglow), and others bisected with gray and brown (Eclipse), display a moody shift which has been considered by some art historians to be an ominous representation of the artist’s psychological state prior to his suicide in 1972. These paintings are among the last works on paper we have from Rothko, but Greenhalgh’s choice not to end on that sober note defies the traditional story of Rothko’s life as told through his work.  

Installation view of Rothko’s easel flanked by two blue and green paintings from 1969 in Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper. Photo by Olivia Niuman for East City Art.

As explained in the exhibition catalogue, around this time Rothko had completed a full inventory of his work. The process of looking back over his early work, Greenhalgh suggests, may have prompted Rothko to return to his early themes of the tragic and a palette of umber and sepia.⁴ The artist’s process can be viewed up close in a gallery off the penultimate room, where Rothko’s huge easel is rebuilt and surrounded by pieces that were left in progress. Underpaintings and remnants of masking tape not yet removed fascinatingly reveal the careful thought and planning behind paintings that are famous for their visual simplicity.  

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969. Photo by Olivia Niuman for East City Art.

 

Stepping into the final gallery, titled Coda, is a breath of fresh air. Large airy paintings bathed in mauve, taupe, lavender, sky blue, and stunning white tower peacefully and enigmatically over the viewer. By now, we have become accustomed to the dim light and hazy gray walls, allowing the work to truly sing. After viewing hundreds of Rothko paintings, our eyes have been trained to notice the nuance and subtleties of each piece – a shift in color here, a sharp edge there. We get the sense that we have come full circle, understanding Rothko’s evolution. Exiting back into the atrium of the East Wing, we are blinded by sunlight and seized with the urge to dive back into the comforting embrace of the show. 

Installation view of Coda room in Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper. Photo by Olivia Niuman for East City Art.

This show is a must-see for Rothko lovers and for those not yet convinced. Paintings on Paper presents a unique chance to witness the trajectory of an artist who worked tirelessly to capture universal human feelings, first through images and eventually by provoking feeling itself. “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.” Rothko stated in 1947.⁵ Rothko was insistent that his paintings must be felt and experienced, not merely seen. From small details like the wall color and dim lighting to the broader organization of the galleries and thoroughly researched exhibition catalogue, Greenhalgh and the National Gallery of Art have provided the necessary context for Rothko’s work to realize its full potential in the eyes of any observer.  

Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper is on view at the National Gallery of Art East Building in Washington DC until March 31st, 2024. Don’t miss the opportunity to see it before it moves to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Norway this May. 


Notes

  1. Sheldon Nodelman, The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origins, Structure, Meaning, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 39.
  2. Greenhalgh references a terracotta funerary plaque to point out the ancient influences in Rothko’s Entombment. Adam Greenhalgh, Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023), 23.
  3. Dorothy Seiberling, “The Varied Art of Four Pioneers,” LIFE, November 16, 1959, 82.
  4. Greenhalgh, Paintings on Paper, 49.
  5. Mark Rothko, quoted in “The Ideas of Art: The Attitudes of Ten Artists on Their Art and Contemporaneousness,” The Tiger’s Eye 2 (December 1947): 44; reprinted in Mark Rothko, Writings on Art, ed. Miguel López-Remiro (New Haven, 2006), 57. Cited in Greenhalgh, Paintings on Paper, 9.