Mark Rothko at Washburn and PaceWildenstein – New York

Mark Rothko at Washburn and PaceWildenstein – New York – Brief Article

Jason Rosenfeld

Mark Rothko’s intriguing early works were featured recently in concurrent gallery shows. These exhibitions offered a fuller sense of the artist’s development than his 1998 National Gallery retrospective, which included only 15 works from before 1943. PaceWildenstein’s “The Realist Years” displayed 40 oils from private and public collections dating from 1932 to 1942 in the gallery’s large 57th Street space; the walls were painted in varying shades of cocoa–colors approximate to the grimy terra-cottas of Rothko’s early palette. At Washburn, 15 paintings and works on paper from the collection of the artist’s first wife, Edith Sachar, hung in a sundrenched room.

The PaceWildenstein show was introduced by a self-portrait (1936) of the artist standing, his eyes invisible behind blue spectacles; it is signed on the lower right Rothkowitz, which he shortened to Rothko in 1940. Proceeding chronologically from Social Realism to Surrealism, the exhibition was presented in thematic groupings: images of the New York scene, portraits and figure studies in domestic interiors, leisure activity in cinemas and restaurants, cityscapes, and mythological abstractions. The influence of Picasso and early Cezanne is evident in Bathers, a small canvas from 1933-34, and subsequent oils reveal how the artist worked through Matisse, Milton Avery and Max Weber. The movie theater and subway platform scenes are the most interesting, especially the latter with their perpendicular architectonics and shifting perspectives. A film noir atmosphere pervades Untitled (Subway) of 1939, a 19-by-14-inch oil on gesso board. In the center, a woman stands in a slanting frontal pose–arms behind her back, head thrust into the air, left leg darting out sharply–in a rapt state of self-involvement. She is a whisper of a creature. To the left, rendered in marks scratched into dark pigment, the rails rise abstractly, denying conventional recession. Far down the platform from the woman is a figure in blue shunted into the corner. Against the white wall in the right foreground, a man garbed in brown reads a tabloid; he stands in a spread-legged, defiant anti-contrapposto, his hat occluding his face. This man and woman are oblivious, lost in their own separate worlds. The picture has a vaguely threatening feeling, exacerbated by the earthy hues and textures of the airless subterranean realm.

Both galleries showed some of the artist’s compartmentalized Classical mythology pictures, with titles like Sacrifice of Iphigenia and Oedipus. Figurative but not realist, such works are structured by blocky designs that presage Rothko’s later signature abstractions. In their unvarnished washes, they are consistent with the artist’s lifelong interest in the materiality of his surfaces. Crucifix (1941-42), at Washburn, has a Surrealist “exquisite corpse” composition. Four melded heads suffused with Hellenistic pathos hover above two dismembered arms nailed through the hands to horizontal planks; below the arms are cubbyholes with feet and hands and legs, recalling Picasso at La Rue-des-Bois in 1908 and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. Rothko referred to such works as “trunk murders,” and their claustrophobic air of Homeric gore and menace represent the imaginative search for an idea. Rothko would ultimately find it, of course, not in figuration, not in the city, not in Euripides, but in the enveloping fields of color of his mesmeric mature style.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Brant Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group