PRINT December 2010

Thomas Crow

A COLOR PHOTOGRAPH by Hans Namuth from around 1964 shows Mark Rothko alone in his Amagansett summer studio seated in an Adirondack chair, facing away from the camera. His regard is fixed on a painting in smoldering russet hues that leans against another smaller canvas turned toward the wall; to his right, suspended by two cords from a roof beam, hangs a canvas of similar size but painted in dark pigments approaching black. No other work is visible.

That image will be newly familiar to some thousands of theatergoers who attended performances of Red, the two-character play by John Logan that began its life at London’s Donmar Warehouse at the end of 2009 and arrived on Broadway with the same cast and production in April. As ticket holders filed in for the show, a seated Alfred Molina as Rothko already occupied the stage, his back to the audience, as if in brooding contemplation of a canvas propped against the rear wall. Over a silent half hour (apart from the murmurs and rustlings out in the house), only Molina’s hulking shoulders and shaved pate were visible above the back of his chair.

Logan’s chosen moment for dramatizing Rothko’s creative anxiety lay some years before the date of the Namuth photograph, during the fraught gestation of the suite of paintings originally commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building—the core of which Rothko later donated to the Tate Gallery in London. Reported grumbles by Rothko concerning the restaurant’s smugly wealthy clientele provided Logan with exchanges intended to highlight both the artist’s social disaffection and his studio assistant’s youthful idealism, while scattered remarks gleaned from Rothko’s writings served to dramatize his accompanying creative uncertainties.

But the play’s most quoted line seems to be one of the playwright’s invention: “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend,” says Rothko, as he and his assistant examine one of the Seagram compositions (uncannily mimicked by designer Christopher Oram). “One day the black will swallow the red.” A heavy-handed intimation of Rothko’s 1970 suicide, that pronouncement typifies the script’s adherence to an obvious, life-versus-death symbolism. But the Namuth image carries a lesson quite different from the chromatic psychomachia that won Logan the Tony Award for best play (along with a “best featured actor” nod for Eddie Redmayne in the role of the earnest apprentice). A change in Rothko’s idiom away from the freely brushed windows and gates of the 1958–59 Seagram murals is equally visible in both the reddish and the blackish canvases captured in Namuth’s picture: The painter would now pursue the containment of a single rectangle within sharply defined borders, suspended against a field in the same family of tone or hue. Red might be the object of his immediate scrutiny, but the dark variant is the one that would dominate his efforts in 1964. Long after memories of the theatrical Red had begun to fade, the results of Rothko’s turn to “black” could be freely experienced in Washington, DC, at the National Gallery of Art’s “In the Tower: Mark Rothko,” my candidate for exhibition of the year.

The show’s curator, Harry Cooper, who is head of the museum’s department of modern art, is at pains to set aside the conventional equation of darkness with morbidity and with it any conjectural anticipation of the death that would not take place for six more years. What might have been preoccupying Rothko at the moment of the Namuth photograph (which figures at the head of the exhibition’s takeaway brochure) is his emerging judgment that the new format comes closest to meeting his expectations when the play of reflected versus absorbed light is able to operate independently of competing kinds of optical stimulation. Using the gallery’s own holdings along with loans from the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff collection, Cooper mounted a representative set of canvases from a phase in Rothko’s production that had hardly been known before the 2008 Tate Modern exhibition devoted to the artist’s later series. While the Tate gave pride of place to its own Seagram set, Cooper was able to confer a kind of splendid isolation on his fuller exploration of this decisive turn in Rothko’s later career by using an exhibition space that communicates directly with no other in the National Gallery’s east wing.

Rothko always feared, according to his friend Stanley Kunitz, “a different set of vibrations challenging his own. . . . He wanted that room, that atmosphere, that environment, all to be his own.” Even when his work was the sole object of a museum retrospective, Rothko fretted and chafed about its being anatomized along art-historical and critical lines. Though he doubtless would have preferred a hang closer to the floor, “In the Tower” provides a rare chance to think about a nearly synchronous moment in an artist’s practice without the distractions of developmental comparisons that constitute the lingua franca of normative exhibition design.

The consummate location for this kind of apprehension can be found, of course, in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and it makes sense, as the exhibition ephemera suggest, to see the works on view in Washington as a form of rehearsal for the artist’s multiyear campaign, beginning in 1964, from which that monumental ensemble emerged. The canvases were now so big that they became quasi-architectural elements in themselves, layered with the artist’s secret concoctions of oil and pigments in rabbit-skin glue, able assistants executing much of the actual paint coverage under Rothko’s direction. And what imagery these works possess consists of little more than irregular accumulations of suspended matter in undulating or cloudlike patterns, reacting with the incidence of light on the surface or from deeper within their translucent depths. All of this occurs in the paintings assembled for the Washington show, but here the artist’s touch and the effects are lighter, conveying a fresher sense of invention and momentum from one experimental canvas to the next. Under the full illumination that Rothko generally abhorred, the Washington installation demonstrates that respecting the work need not entail overscrupulously following the wishes of the maker.

None of these canvases are, of course, black; complex chromatic scumbling abounds, and thus no stygian dread overcomes the lost life force of crimson. Plain enough to any unbiased eye, that perception is somewhat obscured by an otherwise laudable component of the show. A group of nearly unknown small paintings from the 1930s and ’40s, drawn from the abundant gift to the National Gallery by the Rothko Foundation, line a corridor leading into the main space. Each of them displays a passage in a black (or very dark) pigment that the painter rarely used after the 1940s. These works are fascinating, each in its own way, not least for the contribution that their new visibility makes to the still schematic understanding of Rothko’s development through the 1940s.

As an opportunity to begin bringing this record to light, proximity to the charismatic 1964 canvases was as good a place to start as any—and the splendor of the main display required some such prelude. It was indeed possible to see some sublimation of the banded compositions of 1945–46, with their filigreed suspended entities, still present in the paintings of the 1960s. But the “black” of the 1964 series and the chapel murals does not belong to the family of off-the-shelf pigments evident in these formative efforts. They are not black at all, but rather the products of a new tuning of tone and texture necessitated by the artist’s more fundamental decision to reduce his shape count to one and his edges and corners to sharp visual incisions. By all accounts, that move, and the generous terms of the Houston commission that followed, elevated rather than depressed Rothko’s spirits. Perhaps Logan’s Red had it right: If the paintings had been truly black, the despair of 1970 might have arrived much earlier.

“In the Tower: Mark Rothko” remains on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, through January 10, 2011.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.