As the art world gathers in Paris for Paris+ Art Basel, the doors to a monumental retrospective on one of the most important artists of the 20th century opens its doors. For many, Mark Rothko is synonymous with colour field painting—large swaths of red and burnt umber that float above moody monochrome-like backgrounds. But he did not arrive at that style overnight, and the Fondation Louis Vuitton is tracing his evolution with a grand exhibition spread across four floors of its museum’s Frank Gehry–designed building. We've taken a closer look at five works - all included in this historic retrospective - that defined the career and artistic evolution of Rothko.
Often overlooked, the exhibition opens with Rothko's origins as an artist – intimate scenes and urban landscapes such as visions of the New York subway – that dominate Rothko’s output in the 1930s, before his transition to a repertoire inspired by ancient myths and surrealism which Rothko uses to express the tragic dimension of the human condition during the War.
In 1923, Rothko gave up his studies at Yale University and moved to New York City. There he spent hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and attended classes at the Art Students League, briefly studying under American Cubist, Max Weber. In the late 1920s, he met the modernist painter Milton Avery, whose simplified and colorful depictions of domestic subjects had a profound influence on Rothko's early development. At this time, Rothko was particularly interested in Self-portrait by Rembrandt from the National Gallery of Art in Washington especially caught his eye and echoed in Rothko's Self-Portrait from 1936.
From 1946, Rothko makes an important shift towards abstract expressionism. The first phase of this switch is that of Multi-forms, where chromatic masses are suspended in a kind of equilibrium on the canvas. Gradually, these decrease in number, and the spatial organization of his painting evolves rapidly towards Rothko’s “classic” works of the 1950s, where rectangular shapes overlap according to a binary or ternary rhythm, characterized by shades of yellow, red, ochre, orange, but also blue, white. In the pivotal year of 1949, Rothko distanced himself from his Surrealist-inspired work of the 1940s and began to explore pure abstraction by painting soft-focus squares in diaphanous colours. 1949 is also the year that Matisse's 1911 painting The Red Studio, in which the artist's room is subsumed by a brilliant field of solid Venetian red, went on view at the Museum of Modern Art. This work represents the transitional phase in Rothko's artistic development.
On the museum’s ground floor, visitors are immediately thrust into Rothko’s breakthrough to colour field abstraction, with a room dedicated to canvases produced during the 1950s, when the Rothko we know now emerged. These 1950s works, in contrast to his earlier figurative explorations, exude brightness and levity. At the heart of this ground floor is Rothko's luminescent'Light Cloud, Dark Cloud' (1957), which in many ways encapsulates each of the characteristics of this decade in Rothko's artistic development.
In early 1958 Rothko was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Rothko was interested in the possibility of having a lasting setting for his paintings to be seen as a group. He wanted to create an encompassing environment of the sort he had encountered when visiting Michelangelo’s vestibule in the Laurentian Library in Florence in 1950 and again in 1959:
"I was much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo’s walls in the staircase room of the Medicean Library in Florence. He achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."
Mark Rothko’s ‘Dark Paintings’ of 1969-1970 are by far some of his most misunderstood works. As the artist neared the final years of his life, his palette took an unexpected, monochromatic turn. Rothko abandoned his bright, vibrant hues in favour of a series of grey, black and white canvases. Often assumed by the general public to be a visual reflection of his deteriorating mindset and depression, the artist himself and the critics regarded the series as his “most profound” work, a magnificent culmination of decades of exploration of the abstract. Foundation Louis Vuitton have dedicated a room to Rothko’s Dark Paintings, directly asking viewers to “avoid associating the use of greys and blacks with depression and suicide”. They have displayed his Dark Paintings alongside Alberto Giacometti’s large-scale sculptural figures, creating an environment that is close to what Rothko had in mind for a UNESCO commission that was never realised.