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Monday 05.28.12

« Last Weekend of May 2012 | Main | Tuesday Links »

Final Thoughts on Rothko

Mark Rothko retrospective at the Portland Art Museum (all photos Jeff Jahn)

It is the last day for the Rothko Retrospective at the Portland Art Museum and though I've written on the Rothko retrospective frequently, and discussed on OPB's Think Out Loud radio program, even taught a seminar on the subject... it never becomes exhausted.

Though it is a very main line even predictable retrospective....read that as a Christopher Rothko style focus on the singular stylistic development achievements rather than a more complicated look at how artists and other thinkers like Miro, Matisse, Milton Avery, Adolpf Gottlieb and Clyfford Still all played a part in his still singular breakthrough, it is arguably the most important show the Portland Art Museum has put on since Rothko's first solo show in 1933 at that same institution. You should see it right now if you haven't already.

It is important because it is above all else, excellent. I cannot tell you how many artists and Portland art scenesters saw it as a moment of pride for their city. PAM has pulled off an unquestionably good show, something which many openly doubted was even possible. Thus, the show is a benchmark as a definite point of greatness. It will be the show by which everything else will be judged.

Mark Rothko, Sketch for Seagrams building (1959) on loan from the National Gallery of Art

So what is my favorite work? It is easily the darker of the two sketches for the Seagrams Building project on view. I prefer its size and the close monochromatic tonal range. The Seagrams murals as they are called were an odd project where Rothko's ideals and the world's expectations collided head on. Notice how they are never called The Four Seasons Restaurant Murals? You see Rothko (ever the populist) thought he was doing a lobby for the Seams Building only to find he was doing decor for the upscale Four Seasons Restaurant. This gave him occasion to confront his own success, reputation and benefactors in a direct way.

Mark Rothko, detail of Sketch for Seagrams building (1959) on loan from the National Gallery of Art

This early sketch is much more muted and subtle than the the final versions and frankly I prefer it's depthless mysteries to the starker color contrasts of any of the finished panels. Even the peachy-orange under painting of the work only reveals itself at the edges of the canvas in the most muted understated way. As Rothko worked on the commission he rightly realized this setting was not the best for taking in subtleties and acted accordingly.

Eventually, he quit the commission as the project produced works simply too good for such a setting... and Rothko, ever the staunch social advocate just did not want to be the pet of the rich providing a backdrop as they sipped their soup.

It set the tone for the later Rothko chapel project but I prefer these earlier sketches for the Seagrams murals as his finest series of works? Why... because this is the point where Rothko is at the height of his powers, is just starting to see financial success but isn't in full revolt against it. Instead he has moved into a new phase in his life and just allowed to "be", and these paintings have a gusto and self assuredness that is tough to beat. To this day this particular work feels singular, with no phantom limb of a larger commission around it. For me it is complete and fulfilled... no wonder Rothko had to do other version... why paint a suite of paintings when one says it all?

It reminds me how great artists place greater demands on the world, patrons and institutions... asking them to raise their expectations and allow something to exist outside of prescribed roles (something artists like Olafur Eliasson and Cartsen Holler with their funhouse amusements do not). To this day Mark Rothko asks that we expect more, linger longer and embrace something unexpected... it is a message Portland needed to feel at this time. So fitting that its most famous son could deliver the message.

You have a few hours, go see this show... the city of Portland will be talking about it for decades to come. Perhaps PAM can work out an arrangement with the national gallery to have a few Major Rothko's on loan at all times in his boyhood home city as Tyler Green once suggested to me? Perhaps the next time PAM expands (by 2017?) a gallery designed specifically for presenting Rothko's paintings could be accomplished? That would be incredible... and fitting for the city where he came of age, learned to draw and had so many formative experiences.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on May 28, 2012 at 12:47 | Comments (0)


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