Major Rothko Retrospective opens at the MFAH September 20
The MFAH is the only U.S. venue for this exhibition, the first comprehensive overview of the work of Mark Rothko (1903–1970) seen in the United States since 1998
HOUSTON—July 2015—In September, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is the sole U.S. venue to present Mark Rothko: A Retrospective, a definitive retrospective that draws on the unrivaled holdings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Long recognized as among the foremost figures of the Abstract Expressionist vanguard, Mark Rothko (1903–1970) embraced the possibility of beauty in pure abstraction with a painterly eloquence that gave a new voice to American art. Across a career spanning the most troubled years of the 20th century, Rothko explored the tragic and the sublime, and his canvases remain a testament to the deep humanism he brought to modern painting. More than 60 paintings trace the artist’s full career arc and highlight milestones in the development of his signature style.
The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; in 1986, the National Gallery of Art was the primary recipient of what are essentially “Rothko’s Rothkos,” the paintings that the artist held within his own collection at the time of his death in 1970. Mark Rothko: A Retrospective will be on view in Houston from September 20, 2015, to January 24, 2016, following presentations at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, the Netherlands; and the Hangaram Art Museum in Seoul, South Korea.
“Although exhibitions in recent years have profiled important aspects of Rothko’s oeuvre, there has not been a full overview of the artist’s work in the United States since the 1998 retrospective mounted by the National Gallery of Art,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “Presenting these works in Houston, home of the Rothko Chapel, will allow our visitors to see the full range of Rothko’s achievement in the same city as his most acclaimed and enduring public commission.”
“The National Gallery’s collection shows Rothko at his most daring and experimental, as well as his most assured and declarative,” said Alison de Lima Greene, curator of contemporary art and special projects, who coordinated the Houston presentation. “The works gathered for this special exhibition reveal not only the great depth of his remarkable legacy preserved by the National Gallery, but also Rothko’s unmatched passion as he addressed the most urgent questions facing painters in the 20th century.”
Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia (today Daugavpils, Latvia) in 1903, Rothko immigrated with his family to the United States in 1913 and settled in Portland, Oregon. In the fall of 1921, Rothko moved east to attend Yale University, but he quickly became disillusioned with the school’s conservatism. Two years later, he abandoned his studies and moved to New York. He briefly attended classes at the Art Students League in 1924 and 1925, and he later found a sympathetic mentor in painter Milton Avery, with whom he studied as well.
Rothko’s early work demonstrates a rapid assimilation of Modernist currents, evolving throughout the 1930s from expressive figure studies and still-life compositions to scenes of urban life. With the rise of Fascism and the outbreak of World War II, Rothko abandoned figurative painting in order to find a new visual language to express the timeless and tragic. Inspired by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, and then by the techniques of Surrealists like André Masson and Roberto Matta, Rothko’s work during this period transitions from a preoccupation with literary sources to the abandonment of narrative content for automatic drawing and biomorphic forms.
The Classic Paintings
The years immediately following World War II were critical in Rothko’s artistic development. In 1946, his first museum exhibition was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The following summer, Rothko taught at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where his canvases assumed a fresher palette and a more painterly quality. By 1947, Rothko had eliminated virtually all elements of mythical imagery and Surrealist technique from his work, abandoning conventional titles and embracing a greater breadth of composition and scale while introducing heightened color and more expressive brushwork.
Rothko arrived in 1949 at what was to become his signature style: loosely painted, tiered rectangles of luminous color that dominated large vertical canvases. The Color Field paintings that followed are some of the most radiant of his career, and during his “Classic” phase he gained both national and international acclaim. Within this compositional format, Rothko experimented with endless variations of color and proportion to express a range of human emotions. The exhibition examines this important era in 15 canvases that represent the brilliant hues, nuanced shifts, and consistent achievement Rothko brought to his studio practice.
From the late 1950s well into the 1960s, Rothko’s work assumed a more somber note, as he favored a darker palette and austere, subdued handling of paint. Examples on view from this period include full-scale studies for an unrealized mural commission for the Four Seasons restaurant, located in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York City; a study for the 1962 Harvard murals; and a series of almost monochrome canvases that relate to the cycle of paintings commissioned in 1964 by Houston art collectors and philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil for what was to become the Rothko Chapel in 1971.
In 1969 and 1970, Rothko introduced a new painterliness in a series of black-and-gray compositions. The exhibition concludes with a brilliant red canvas from 1970, one of the final works of his career.
During the last year of his life, Rothko established a foundation to preserve his artistic legacy. In 1985 and 1986, The Mark Rothko Foundation made a landmark gift of 296 paintings and more than 600 sketches, drawings, and other study materials to the National Gallery of Art.
This exhibition debuted at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, the Netherlands, where it was on view from September 20, 2014, to January 18, 2015; and opened on March 13, 2015, at the Hangaram Art Museum in Seoul, South Korea, where it was on view through June 28, 2015.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is publishing Mark Rothko: An Essential Reader. Illustrating in full color all of the paintings featured in the exhibition, this book will also include recent essays by Harry Cooper, curator of Modern art at the National Gallery of Art and consulting curator of the exhibition; and by Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son. Complementing these texts will be an anthology of foundational writings on Rothko originally published between 1949 and 1970, the year of Rothko’s death, along with Dominique de Menil’s remarks at the dedication of the Rothko Chapel in 1971. Mark Rothko: An Essential Reader will also include a foreword by Gary Tinterow, an introduction by Alison de Lima Greene, and an illustrated chronology prepared by Althea Ruoppo and Jessica Stewart.
Organization and Funding
The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
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