Rothko’s Progress Toward Abstraction Focuses on 1949

Among the many exhibitions of Mark Rothko’s paintings I have seen over the course of many years-and this includes major museum retrospectives-the two that have most profoundly defined for me the quality of his artistic achievement have both been organized at the PaceWildenstein Gallery. The first, called Bonnard/Rothko: Color and Light , was organized by Bernice Rose in 1997. The second, which amplifies the revelations of the 1997 show, is the current exhibition, Rothko: A Painter’s Progress, the Year 1949 , a show not to be missed by anyone with an interest in the aesthetics of abstraction.

The irony, of course, is that Rothko adamantly refused to acknowledge that he ever was or ever aspired to be an abstract painter. His blunt statement to the poet Selden Rodman in a 1957 interview-“You might as well get one thing straight …. I am not an abstractionist”-expressed a sentiment that he never tired of repeating. He seems truly to have believed it too, even as he continued to produce the paintings that all the world regards as prime examples of abstraction. A decade before that 1957 interview, Rothko was already insisting, “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers.” The “dramas” he had in mind appear to have been the Greek tragedies. If ancient Greek drama was his measure of achievement, it’s easier to understand why he would want to dismiss mere abstraction as an inadequate account of his artistic mission.

Painting is nonetheless the art to which Rothko’s ambitions were confined, and the year 1949 marked the crucial turning point in his artistic development in that medium. Everything prior to that-especially his ill-fated detour into the mystifications of Surrealism-was a prologue to his emergence as a major abstract painter.

How, then, can we account for Rothko’s unexpected breakthrough after a prolonged period of producing very minor work? Of the many attempts that have been made to elucidate what the current show calls the “Painter’s Progress,” Bernice Rose’s essay for the Bonnard/Rothko show remains the most persuasive. To my mind, it’s nothing less than conclusive.

In her essay, Ms. Rose identifies the winter of 1946-47 as the moment when Rothko commenced his search for an exit from the pervasive influence of the Surrealists. She asks the crucial question (“What was the catalyst for Rothko’s shift?”), and provides an answer in veryspecificterms-painterlytermsthat shocked a lot of Rothko’s admirers, who, in taking their cues from the artist, rejected all formalist explanation of his pictures.

“The forms and the range of hues in Rothko’s first color paintings,” according to Ms. Rose, “suggest that the immediate catalyst for change was Pierre Bonnard.” Even more startling than the claim itself was the installation of Bonnard/Rothko , in which paintings by Bonnard were juxtaposed with the early Rothko color abstractions that were directly derived from them. The evidence was irrefutable, and so was Ms. Rose’s account of the resulting change in Rothko’s art.

“Bonnard’s last exhibition in New York opened in December 1946 and ran through January 1947, the month of his death. It was a small exhibition, with 15 paintings, shown in a gallery that was well-known at the time, but has since closed, the Bignou Gallery on Madison Avenue. Rothko may well have looked at Bonnard earlier with his friend, the painter Milton Avery, but this time there seems to have been an immediate reaction: the leap into color. In the paintings that he began in that winter of 1946/47, now called Multiforms, Rothko’s color patches appear to take up details of Bonnard’s paintings and enlarge them, transforming Bonnard’s tendency to free the colored paint gesture from the object description into a kind of abstraction …. This selection of abstract areas from Bonnard was one aspect of what Rothko took away with him from the exhibition. He also took away the sensation of brilliant color as the source of light.”

Anyone who’s made a close study of Bonnard’s paintings will have no trouble finding traces of the French master’s aesthetic in the pictures that have now been brought together in the Painter’s Progress exhibition, which focuses on the year 1949. This was the year in which Rothko perfected his own mastery of the paintings he called “dramas,” which most of us regard as some of the most beautiful abstract paintings in the entire modern canon.

It has been admitted that Bonnard was an unlikely figure to influence any painter associated with the Abstract Expressionists, who prided themselves on their independence from the School of Paris. And it goes without saying that Rothko never acknowledged the debt. Yet, as D.H. Lawrence once said-Trust the tale, not the teller of the tale-meaning, of course, that a writer’s or artist’s work must be judged on the basis of what it is, not on the basis of descriptive claims. Unless prompted by Rothko, I doubt that any visitor to Rothko: A Painter’s Progress would regard this beautifully installed exhibition as a show of “dramas.” But thanks to what we now know about Rothko’s interest in Bonnard, this exhibition turns out to be an even richer experience than it might otherwise have been. It remains on view at Pace Wildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, through Feb. 23.