Mark Rothko: The vanishing figure

Denver Art Museum charts Rothko’s decade-long move from surrealist to modernist master

Untitled from 1941-42 by Rothko
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

If it is true, as Mark Rothko has said, that art lives in the eye of its viewers, then what comes to life in the Denver Art Museum exhibition of his work is the most formative decade of his life. A decade in which the nearly mature artist uses the anguish and angst of the 1940s as a tool to transform his work from that of part of a chorus of surrealist painters to one that carves a place for itself in modern art. It is not the story of a man questioning whether he could still call himself a true artist while painting murals on commission. It’s the story of someone who, knowing that he was already at the top level, already producing great and brilliant work, pushed a little further, into the unknown.

The touring exhibition, put together in partnership with the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., which is home to the Rothkos, provides an opportunity to see the paintings, and the evolution of the painter, like never before.

“Even the National Gallery can’t show all of these works together at one time. Many remain in storage,” says Gwen Chanzit, curator of the exhibition. “It’s the first time this development has been traced in an exhibition.”

Rothko weathered emotional tumult through the 1940s, living through a second World War in a single lifetime — and this one finely pointed for a Russian Jewish immigrant whose family moved to America when he was about 10 — while also surviving a divorce from a woman who discouraged him from painting, riding the ecstatic creative energy of meeting his second wife, and dipping into depression after his mother’s death in 1949. How he and his work changed through it all is palpable in exhibition. It would be physically tangible, were we able to touch the canvas and paper his works are on, and feel his relationship with materials evolve from the thick oil paints of customary use to the lighter, thinner, more luminescent watercolors, and finally to his discovery that if he dilutes his pigments, they gain some of the luminescence of watercolors. He adopts that, a signature material, for the rest of his career.

“This is not an exhibition that needs to justify its existence,” the painter’s son, Christopher, writes in the catalog. “On the contrary, the only thing that needs to be explained is its tardiness, because within the realm of Rothko’s oeuvre, the works in this exhibition are the keys to everything.”

His father was searching for something, he writes, and viewers of Figure to Field: Mark Rothko in the 1940s get to accompany him on that chase.

The exhibition opens with the mythic paintings of Rothko’s surrealist days — triple-headed renditions of Antigone and a surreal eagle that stands in for the U.S. and Germany at the same time (both countries carried the eagle on their crest into WWII). A treatment of Jesus that sees the body parts of Christ and the two thieves crucified next to him disjointed and displayed out of order and adjacent — three pairs of legs together on the left of the canvas, a single elongated torso on the other.

Rothko, a scholar of Friedrich Nietzsche, turned to myths as representative of the universal components of life people encountered in any era.

Here, he is a stranger to the casual observer, unschooled in his history and familiar only with the Rothko paintings as they were commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building in New York City — vast color field paintings where color becomes both subject and commentary on the subject.

He’s a surrealist focused on representing those myths — and then, he’s not. His attention turns toward a more experiential approach to paintings. First, his own, using surrealist automatism style, a very fast, free-form approach that was meant to let art tap into the subconsciousness by untethering the artist’s hand from planned structure. He drew impulsively, and chaotic jumbles of balloon-like, musical instrument-inspired figures emerge, similar to the paintings of Joan Miró and André Masson, practitioners of the same artistic method.

Then, the journey visits the work of Rothko’s con temporaries who were laboring through the same struggles: Max Weber, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb.

“The middle gallery is where I’ve chosen to put work by Rothko’s contemporaries, because at this point, these artists are all traveling the same path. By the end of the decade, they go in separate, individual directions,” Chanzit says. “It seemed to me that instead of placing these works early, or as a tagon at the end of the exhibition, it made some sense to show their interrelationships right there.”

A quote on the wall explains where Rothko heads to on his own and why, shedding ever more structure from his paintings, so that figures dissolve and the horizon lines themselves become the features of the paintings.

“He says there was a time when none of us could do it without destroying the image,” Chanzit paraphrases. It reached a point where the figure could no longer represent the feelings of the age.

‘Untitled’ from 1949 | Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

By the end of the exhibition, viewers half stumble into a room of his mature, color field works, which look like his work as we know it, only more colorful. As he progresses through the ’50s, he will carry a leaner palette, paintings focused on single, generally darker, colors. The word that appears in conjunction with his later canvases, like “Untitled,” from 1949, with bands of purple, red, near-black and green framed in yellow, is meditative. They induce a trance.

As the Figure to Field exhibit approaches its closing weekend, the museum assembled a full sensory banquet celebration of the artist and his work. Friday, Sept. 20, begins with a talk from Harry Cooper, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., before showcasing the piano piece, “The Rothko Room,” written and performed by pianist Haskell Small.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to experience all the different senses,” Chanzit says. “A lot of people are really moved emotionally by the paintings, particularly by these late paintings, so to have a musician who composes based on these experiences gives you just another dimension of how people can respond, how they do respond, to Rothko’s work.”

Saturday, Sept. 21, and Sunday, Sept. 22, will see reprised performances of Curious Theater’s 2012 production of the Tony award-winning Red, John Logan’s play converting Rothko’s struggle to reconcile himself to painting commissioned artwork for the Four Seasons restaurant — a commission, incidentally, the artist later canceled.

“Red gives you a sense of what may go through the mind of a brilliant artist,” Chanzit says. “The audience sees him constantly pushing and asking the tough questions. We see him thinking about his paintings almost like his children, going out of the studio, into the world.”

The exhibit Figure to Field: Mark Rothko in the 1940s is on view until Sept. 29. The Friday evening lecture, reception and piano performance begins at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 20. Shows of Red are at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, and 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22. All events are at the Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway in Denver. Tickets can be purchased at