Mark Rothko

Organized to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the nearby Rothko chapel, “Mark Rothko: The Chapel Commission” provided, more than its title might suggest, a compelling if not fully comprehensive overview of the second half of Rothko’s mature career—the last decade of his life, when he was obsessed with illuminating darkness. Thirty-two paintings, as well as seven graphite-on-paper studies for the chapel, were included; among the paintings were two large unfinished studies that had never been shown, and three pairs of alternate canvases, not previously exhibited together.

In the late ’50s, Rothko’s lushly fluorescent stacks of vaporous rectangles began to give way to the leaner, fulminating severities that would dominate his paintings in the ’60s. The more clearly defined edges and increased scale of the interior rectangles, often seen in these later works, are partially due to his growing interest in responding to the architectural environs in which his paintings would be hung. This exhibition ranged from the monumental Sketch for Mural No. 7, 1958–59, part of the Seagram series that is the first of Rothko’s three mural cycles, to the works painted for the chapel specifically designed to house them.

The four paintings from 1963, exhibited at the Menil, are configured with three to five rectangular forms primarily in closely toned shades of darkness against an almost equally dark ground. The sharper edges of the rectangles, their proximity to the physical edges of the canvas, and the precarious shifts in balance set off by the different weight, color, and form of each rectangle conspire in a densely packed, tense compression. The reciprocal pressures exerted between internal rectangle and the edges of the frame are far greater than those found in Rothko’s paintings of the previous decade. The frontal implacability of their clenched rectangularity gradually dissolves in the tenebrous glow emanating from layer upon layer of thinned paint that envelops the eye in velvet mists. Pulsing spatiality, the paintings shift slowly and seamlessly from flat to shallow, from near violence to an elegiac solace. Formally and emotionally, Rothko’s paintings grew more intense and monumental, achieved greater clarity and resonance, over the four years that followed.

Composition is pared down to a single form in fraught symbiosis with the edges of the canvas in four untitled works and in seven of a group of eight numbered paintings created in 1964. With their single black rectangle against a plum ground, the latter prefigure some of the ones completed, between 1965 and the end of 1967, for the chapel—including the pairs of alternate paintings exhibited here. Those three pairs of canvases (done in 1966, ranging in size from about 15 by 8 feet to about 15 by 10 feet) brought the exhibition to a sustained crescendo. Each is configured with one black rectangle on a plum ground; variations in size, the placement of the black form, carefully calculated nuances of color, alternating matte and reflective surfaces keep them in constant motion—now moving toward suffocating darkness, now toward emerging light, now hard, now soft. The dark internal rectangle and the rectangular support, immateriality and materiality, wage a struggle for dominance. With their geometric seductiveness, severe frontality, and in their suppression of the autographic touch that had been typical of Rothko’s painting since his early maturity, these works bear a superficial resemblance to Minimalism. However, the purposeful vacillations and ambiguities of color, form, and surface embody a subjective indeterminacy at a far remove from the cool, analytical clarities ruling the works of the artists most closely associated with that movement, with the exception of Brice Marden’s emotionally nuanced monochromes and Agnes Martin’s gridded ethers.

Just how subjective Rothko’s choices were and how critical to the works’ effect can be measured by two unfinished chapel studies from 1965. Their overlapping charcoal outlines of rectangles and the visible creases at the edges of the canvas record the quest for just the right relationship—in size, shape, and scale—between the painted edges of the interior shape and the physical, exterior edges of the support. Rothko’s adjustments of form were as painstakingly nuanced as his layered mists of paint; his canvases are perceived almost subliminally. Though the claims to transcendence of most Abstract Expressionists are now regarded with suspicion, Rothko’s paintings, when given the time and attention, have an undeniable power. The mysteriousness engendered by their lack of specificity and the engulfing, constantly shifting struggle between light and dark can readily be seen to figure the battle between these opposites that shapes our mortality.

The exhibition concluded with Rothko’s return to those easel paintings created between 1966 and 1969 that are most beholden to the chapel experience. It was accompanied by an insufficiently illustrated catalogue that, however, included a fine essay by Rothko scholar David Anfam as well as an informative disquisition by the Menil’s conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro on the technique (the various mediums of Rothko’s urging of paint into vapor) behind the chapel paintings. Given that Rothko himself preferred his paintings to envelop the viewer, this exhibition was installed with a degree of spaciousness he perhaps would not have liked, but it eloquently and thoughtfully charted the development of his late work.

Klaus Kertess recently published a monograph on Joan Mitchell (Abrams, 1997) and a book of short stories, South Brooklyn Casket Company (Serpent’s Tail, 1997). His latest curatorial project, “Alfonso Ossorio: Congregations,” was on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton this summer.