The first time Mark Rothko’s paintings were exhibited in Paris, their reception was frosty. Organized by MoMA in 1962, 44 works made between 1945 – 1961 travelled to the Musee d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris and were presented in a poorly maintained basement. Three important curatorial elements had been overlooked: lighting, wall colour and painting height. The show failed to create the conditions for a transcendent encounter with these monumental colour field paintings; then, it closed prematurely due to actual frost. Perhaps more illustrative of New York’s dominance as the capital of the art market post-WWII, the exhibition was devastating for Rothko. Already disenchanted with the aggressive character of art dealing, eight years later, he would take his own life on the eve of his works smashing record auction prices.
In 1999, MAMVP set the record straight and staged a blockbuster show on par with the Art Institute of Chicago, the Houston Chapel, or the TATE (where Rothko bequeathed 9 of his undelivered Seagram Murals). I was at that show, and it was life-changing; yet until now, Paris has only two works by the artist on public display (at Le Centre Pompidou). Mark Rothko at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne, which opened during Art Basel Paris + not only confirms his enduring legacy but also points to an essential shift in the art market: Paris has reclaimed its place as the capital of the art world, not in the least for multidimensional – je ne sais quoi – value the French place on culture.
A show intended to top them all, this major retrospective co-curated with Susanne Page and Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son, showcases a staggering 115 paintings across Mark Rothko’s entire career (1932 – 1970). “Today’s retrospective will enable several generations to experience the work here for the first time… in a space that respects the conditions desired… inspired by his conversations with curators in charge of his (previous) exhibitions,” says Page in an interview with Valerie Bougault for a special edition of Connsaissance des Arts. From this they identified three imperatives. Firstly, “the colour of the walls: white tending to grey for most of the rooms, and a darker shade of grey for the Seagram Murals”; secondly, the lighting which was “controlled, not too bright, but even”; and finally hanging the works “as close to the floor as possible”, creating a sense of intimacy that promotes individual encounters.
Rothko believed that creating the optimum conditions for viewing his paintings was fundamental to their experience. “A picture lives… expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.” Therefore, the curators envisaged an exhibition route across the five floors of Frank Gehry’s fantabulous structure that would encourage visitors to plunge into the depths of the paintings. Working towards the ideal of “immersion”, Page explains her intention was to “nourish the interaction between art and viewer”. What Rothko would have thought of this expanded vision, we will never know. What we do know, through the legacy of his iconic commission for the Houston Chapel, is that above all, he wanted the paintings to interact with each other. For this, wall texts have delimited the walls outside exhibition spaces, painted in a range of muted tones chosen from his colour palette. Running along the corridors were quotations by the artist, punctuating the silence. Owing to its scale, this is where the exhibition really succeeds. Rothko’s words underscore the paintings with poetry as sophisticated as Goethe’s writings on colour, Kandinsky’s musings on tone, or Agnes Martin’s meditations. “I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry” is written in both English and French vibrant red along a warm grey wall. It is a reminder that this exhibition, and the works we see collected here, have much more to do with thinking, and feeling that showing or telling.
Organised chronologically, the exhibition opens in the basement, which is thankfully well lit. Here we find intimate scenes and urban landscapes – such as visions of the New York subway – that dominate Rothko’s output in the 1930s. However, the damp, insipid nature of his early works is difficult to process. There is a muteness to his palette, one that seems to reflect the wordless mindset of a refugee, trapped by the deficiency of thinking in a language that is not your own (Contemplation, 1937-1938). Born Marcus Rotkovitch in 1903, in Dvinsk, in the Russian Empire, now Latvia, into a cultured Jewish family, at the age of ten he emigrated with his family to Portland in the United States. There are images that I will never unsee; they hang around like ghosts on the periphery of my vision throughout the rest of the show(Portrait, 1939). How did Rothko move from this, and learn to express himself with the truthfulness of colour into the language of colour that is so universally understood? A brilliant student, he attended Yale until 1923 before leaving for New York. It was there – fortuitously – that he discovered his natural milieu after joining the Arts Students League.
Over the coming decade, he would struggle to find a means of expression that was both authentic and universal. Then in 1940, dramatically, he abandoned painting, believing he had failed to represent the human figure without leaving it “mutilated”. Instead, he devoted himself to writing a manuscript, posthumously titled The Artists Reality. This work foregrounded new pictorial forms, which – along with fellow painters Gottlieb and Newman – questioned the very subject of art itself. Influenced by the reading of Nietzsche, he began sketching out a loose syntax of foundation myths, strange hybrid creatures and biomorphic forms that seemed to manifest from the unconscious. One painting in this section, “Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea” (1944), completely took my breath away. As expansive, and heartfelt as some of his later works, I would learn that Rothko painted this after he met the love of his life, (Christopher’s mother) and I must admit that it made me cry – so rarely is that life-shaping encounter given lasting form. I imagine this was the moment that Rothko became entranced with the beauty and sensuality of pure colour, infinite in variations and vibratile in touch.
Just after the war, Rothko made an important shift towards abstract expressionism in Multiforms – chromatic masses floating harmoniously on a canvas – compositions balanced almost entirely by tone. These anticipated his great breakthrough, in which he finally released the full expression of his emotions through expansive colour fields. As the number of forms decreased, the spatial organization of his painting evolved towards what would become his signature style, in his iconic works of the 1950s. In these, rectangular shapes overlap according to a binary or ternary rhythm, as if we are looking across a vast expanse of ocean, towards a blazing sky; water holding onto the light which has sunk beneath the waves.
“His paintings from the so-called classical period have often given rise to metaphors, the most common of which is that of the window: given the format of the canvases and the lightness of the figure,” says Christopher Rothko. “It’s easy to see light pouring in on the viewer… But you have to understand that it’s a window that opens onto the inside of each of us and not onto an outside.” With these words, the artist’s son unlocks that peculiar rush of inward expansion that one experiences with Rothko. One of the greatest features of this show is that it leads us up to this moment of transcendence – the artist’s achievement in finding his true, unadulterated voice. Two especially euphoric colours dominate this period: yellow – pure and radiant as the midday sun, and red – vibrant and throbbing in all its tones, from warm scarlet through to vivid blood and on to the brooding tones of burgundy wine.
The shift from yellow into red is significant, as it expresses the bloodthirsty quality of his emotions – his anger, his angst. “I would like to say to those who think of my pictures as serene that I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface.” Yes. I could feel it; and it continued room after room, too much to take in. There was so much on display, with so many visitors to see it, and getting in was such a rare (and expensive) treat, that I simply could not find that singular moment with the work. You can do that at the TATE, for example, in a room where only a handful of people ever venture. It is worth noting that Rothko was vehemently against privilege. He wanted his works to be freely accessible which is precisely why he cancelled the Seagram Murals commission – furious that only a well-heeled few would dine out in their company. No doubt he would have some dark thoughts about such a major retrospective being produced by the biggest luxury consortium on the planet – but let’s be honest, haven’t they spent it well. You only have to step out of this massive show into the spaces dedicated to the construction of the actual building to see what wondrous things can come from giving free reign to creativity.
Walking through the last room, with its sombre palette of greyish blacks and muted whites (Black and Grey), which stages the unrealised dialogue between Rothko and Giacometti at the UN Headquarters in Paris, it occurs to me that the lines here might attempt at actual poetry. The ghosts that have been following me through the show seem to reappear: gaunt, shallow figures rendered in washed-out tones. We have the sense that his mind has been rinsed of all colour – even thought – and was about to flatline. Except for one stroke of utter genius – what separates the pale grey sky from the inky black sea is not a line but a smudgy, loose and quivering horizon lit full of possibility, ready to face the light.
Words/Photos Nico Kos Earle © Artlyst 2023
MARK ROTHKO: Fondation Louis Vuitton – Exhibition From 18.10.2023 to 02.04.2024 8, Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi Bois de Boulogne, 75116 Paris Open from 10 am to 8 pm