New York

Mark Rothko, Black in Deep Red, 1957, oil on canvas, 69 3/8 × 53 3/4". © Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: The Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, Black in Deep Red, 1957, oil on canvas, 69 3/8 × 53 3/4". © Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: The Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Mark Rothko, Black in Deep Red, 1957, oil on canvas, 69 3/8 × 53 3/4". © Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: The Mark Rothko

The story is almost too neat: Mark Rothko states that his paintings are about death, above all, and as he nears the end of his life, cut short in 1970 by his own hand, his palette grows darker and darker. Though part of his powerful narrative, this was not the only factor affecting his choice of color. For one thing, as demonstrated by the recent impressive show up at Pace—expertly lit and designed, with a border on the floor unobtrusively guarding our distance—darkness infused Rothko’s mature canvases from the 1950s on, even if just as ground to push forward his brightest compositions. For artists from Bruegel to Rembrandt to Goya to Matisse, black has been a potent pigment for experimenting with space and visibility. In the postwar US, this interest seemed to accelerate, with a group of artists employing pitchy strokes, among them Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline, Norman Lewis, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Louise Nevelson, and—most crucially—Ad Reinhardt. If we look at Rothko’s paintings as evidence of his preoccupation with what he described as “intimations of mortality,” they also suggest other fixations: with progression, or the thwarting of it, in an artistic oeuvre (an obsession he shared with Reinhardt); relatedly, with making formal deviations (often stubborn market rebuffs) within an era of American abstraction that received more attention than any before or since; and with perceptual acuity and the role of the viewer in seeing—and thus bringing into being—a work.

With so much in play, the Pace show eased us into things. One of the first canvases to greet the viewer was the majestic Black in Deep Red, 1957, its ground the color of dried blood, with Rothko’s classic three “rectangles” performing that magical contradiction of suspension and mass, the squattest and darkest a central fulcrum, boundaries softly blurred in the effect the artist made famous. These elements were also found in the show’s earliest work, Untitled, 1955, which offered up the palette of a stormy ocean: blues and greens and overcast grays.

But things got weird quickly. What to make of No. 37/No. 19 (Slate Blue and Brown on Plum), 1958, with its indented rectangles appearing more like geometric weights than atmospheric bands, the colors more solid and their edges sharper? Hanging nearby, the stunning Untitled (Plum and Brown), 1964, part of a group of paintings Rothko made using the same composition, seemed to foreclose suspended depth altogether: A huge, aphotic rectangle framed by a darker border almost lapsed into monochromatic flatness while also serving up the subtle tonal shifts we might associate with Reinhardt. “‘I should have painted them,’ Rothko once said to Rita Reinhardt, referring to the black paintings of her late husband, Ad,” James Breslin recounts in his iconic biography of Rothko.

Like Reinhardt, Rothko was interested in difficulty, though he never went as far as his colleague in exploring the endgame of an “ultimate” painting. Beginning in the 1940s, Rothko’s windowed suspension of color form on top of a base coat had created a depth that slowed down the viewer, who couldn’t take in the full picture all at once. If Rothko felt Reinhardt was a “mystic” to his Romantic, both artists created a way of painting that forced a temporal reckoning by pacing one’s apperception of formal components—a meditation, even, on the limits and thresholds of visibility. Sometimes, Rothko achieved this through scale, as with the more-than-eleven-foot-tall sublime Untitled (Dark Gray on Maroon), 1963, or the fifteen-foot-wide Mural, Section 6 (Untitled) [Seagram Mural], 1959, that begins to act like architecture surrounding the body, a room with dimmed lights.

The smallest works in the show, all late acrylic drawings, felt most contemporary. In Untitled, 1968, the black overcomes a colored ground (an alarming bright red), crumbling out to the edges like some kind of volcanic ash hardening the paint into distinct substrates and haptic, pure color: The effect contrasts with the rusty pools of pigment found in the effervescent intersections of his larger paintings. Regardless of scale and surface, Rothko’s dark paintings possess some deep pull—a slivered horizon line or a bright flash of blue, a sludgy light sunk so deep it cannot surface in our lifetime—that makes us stop and think of many things, not least of all our presence before them.

Prudence Peiffer