San Francisco

Mark Rothko

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

The local talk about this traveling retrospective of Mark Rothko’s works on paper centered on the unfortunate restrictions placed on the works’ visibility by the show’s organizers, the Mark Rothko Foundation and the American Federation of Arts. Presumably, the disadvantages to public viewing were residual of the great care lavished on conservation. But the experience was, as one viewer put it, "like seeing a drive-in movie in the afternoon.” Stuck behind formidable shields of glass or Plexiglas, many of the pictures simply failed to appear, and others made what were at best tenuous showings within a gridlock of reflections. Such effects proved especially impassable for the late dark acrylic-and-ink washes. Surely there were other, better ways to protect and at the same time allow access to these great pictures.

As Elaine de Kooning said, “Rothko’s art supervises the clutter of daily life; it straightens things out.” What no installation could obscure, and what stood most revealed among the 80-odd works, sketches, and studies, was the range Rothko commanded once he arrived at his proper means. ”I allow myself all possible latitude,” he said, and his works on paper show that this was true, and also some kind of miracle. They show it without exactly paralleling his works on canvas, in fact without occurring much at all between 1950 and 1958, the period of Rothko’s consolidation.

The miracle of Rothko’s progress can be read as twofold: first, his arrival out of early flailings, variously dour and frenetic, at the point of a bold, singular, luminous statement; and second, his capacity for keeping that statement open, for keeping to its original nature as an improvisation. Improvising over the void is the ultimate Symbolist pursuit. A more familiar strategy, that of merely recognizing the void and redesigning its coordinates (its ruts, even), deflates the symbol in favor of optical and cultural recognition. At any rate, that’s the strategy we find familiar in painting now What Rothko found as he pursued subjective content was an active void, a generative blank that doubled as a matrix. In this he connected with Philip Guston, who was spiritually his nearest neighbor. From the same zero ground, Guston retrieved forms that moved toward solidity, while Rothko decanted an evanescence, what the poet Larry Fagin has called "the most powerful evanescence on the block?”

Where Rothko’s immense canvases draw the viewer out of himself and into areas of mutual reverie, his paintings on paper, even the largest of them, are more conversational, more exquisite in terms of touch. A kind of harrying touch (including frottage, rakings, burnishings, and masked-out shapes) constitutes virtually the only compelling quality in the transitional mid-’40s watercolors. By the early ’50s, in the two-to-four-tone formats with the middle distance dissolved, touch is congruent with placement and the instantaneous jolt between tones. Both touch and tone in the final “mauve” pictures of 1969–70 are surprising. The fluid strokes have a semipermeable silkiness like that of the mist in a Chinese mountain view. Each image manages to hang by a thread to the material plane. Rothko seems to have wanted a breathing space, in the form of a single, central, paler strip, between the major color shades. The strips didn’t ring true, and in the best two or three of the series you can see that he blotted them out. The white, ruled margins on these sheets are thin, inert, and a bit factitious, but they do reinforce the required buoyancy throughout. As in earlier works, there is also some iridescence from layering at the inside edge.

Rothko was really out there. The “expanding and quickening” he valued had actually clotted and palled, and he used the looser, spacious, sweeping strokes in these works to see it through at the end, grandly.

Bill Berkson