Rothko Achieves Clarity at the National Gallery of Art

Don't miss this exhibition that brings together more than 100 of Mark Rothko’s most illuminating paintings on paper.

An abstract painting in blue and black with many indistinct shapes
‘Untitled,’ c. 1944, watercolor, ink, and graphite on watercolor paper sheet: 38.1 x 53.3 cm (15 x 21 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

“The progression of a painter’s work,” wrote Rothko, “as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity, toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, between the idea and the observer…To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.”

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This quote perfectly describes the soon-to-close exhibition of Rothko’s paintings on paper at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Included in “Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper” are 100 works curated by Adam Greenhalgh, the lead author of the catalogue raisonné. The exhibit spans two floors of the gallery and to take it all in, it’s best to go through twice: starting at the early works from the 1930s all the way to the late 60s, and then reverse. It’s a dizzying journey, partly because he experimented voraciously all the way until the end, achieving the synthesis and “clarity” he sought. And because the work reaches out and draws you inside.

A painted portrait of a woman
‘Untitled (seated woman in striped blouse),’ 1933/1934, watercolor on construction paper sheet: 11 x 8 13/16 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. Copyright © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

It takes a lifetime to find one’s signature, and then to have time to deepen into that clarity. Rothko did that, despite the fact he died at the age of 66. Starting with portraits from the early 30s, his sitters appear, as he said, “alone in a moment of utter mobility.” Then come his bathers on the beach with Rubenesque physicality. Rothko often painted on construction paper in the 30s, a method recommended to him by his friend, Milton Avery. The bathers are liquid and luscious, lounging in pools of watercolor. On to his watercolor landscapes, with darting lines and dashes of color, of Portland, Oregan where he lived.

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In the early 40s, he began experimenting with Surrealism, referencing Greek pottery and Christian iconography.  In these, you can see his later work emerging. Here he draws with a nibbed pen into the still-wet watercolor, creating fine lines in the often muted color. ArtNews in 1945 wrote about these paintings on paper in Peggy Guggenheims’ Art of the Century gallery: “color so subdued and subtle that it has a rather hypnotic affect.”

An abstract painting in neutral shades with wavy lines
‘Omen,’ 1946, watercolor and ink on watercolor paper sheet: 99.4 x 63.8 cm (39 1/8 x 25 1/8 in.) The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin. © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

In the last room of the lower-level gallery are his 1950s work in oil and watercolor. Because there is no glass in front of the paintings, you can receive the work full-force. Here, he has found his signature; rectangle canvases with blocks of color; merging, disappearing, transforming before the viewer. The fusion of his colors is luminescent. Stand in front of one of these paintings long enough and you too will vibrate.

Moving to the second floor, we come upon Rothko’s large paintings in acrylic. Here is the full essence of shimmering with his uncanny ability to pulse the light from within the paint, as if emanating from behind the paint. In part this is due to layering dark over light, or light over dark, with sparks of the undercoating coming through. An important ingredient in receiving these paintings is time, going slowly and stopping often. Rounding the corner and seeing his huge easel, like a wall against a background of black, with a life-size photograph of Rothko moving toward it, takes your breath away.

An abstract painting in various shades of orange and red
‘Untitled,’ 1969, acrylic and ink on wove paper sheet: 127 x 107 cm (50 x 42 1/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

I told curator Adam Greenhalgh about viewing the exhibit from bottom to top, and then back again, giving a deeper sense of Rothko’s evolution and boldness with experimentation. “In the end is the beginning,” Greenhalgh told Observer. “Rothko was all about taking risks. I wanted the exhibition to be about risks. Showing the paintings on paper without glass, as he intended. In the end is the beginning. Circular. Going from the inner human with portraiture, looking to Surrealism, and in the last decades, fully abstraction. Showing key moments.”

An abstract painting in shades of green, pink, yellow and blue
‘Untitled,’ c. 1949, oil and watercolor on watercolor paper sheet: 101 x 66.4 cm (39 3/4 x 26 1/8 in.) Collection of Christopher Rothko. © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

I asked about the gravity of the brown and gray paintings, right before the last room, mentioning how frightened my friend was by them. Greenhalgh responded, “They are moving, difficult, terminal in their severity.” In contrast, in the next and last room of the exhibition, the paintings were filled with light, with a lot of white paint. And then the very last painting is pale pink edged in pale lilac.

This was perhaps Rothko’s last painting before he committed suicide, offering us hope rather than despair. Yet another risk Greenhalgh took. “We aren’t certain what his last painting was, but that one is one of his last. Ending with that painting with the quote above on the wall, ‘Silence is so accurate’ is an ending in possibility. Asking questions about his life, our life.”

How refreshing.

Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, closes on March 31.

An abstract painting in shades of red, purple and yellow
‘Untitled,’ 1959, oil on Whatman illustration board sheet: 76.2 x 55.6 cm (30 x 21 7/8 in.) Private collection. © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

Rothko Achieves Clarity at the National Gallery of Art