National Gallery Exhibit Shows Another Side Of Mark Rothko

National Gallery Exhibit Shows Another Side Of Mark Rothko

When superstar artists’ work manages to penetrate the popular zeitgeist, it can have the unfortunate side effect of pigeonholing their work. The name Jackson Pollock brings to mind “drip” paintings, Andy Warhol silkscreens of soup cans, and so on.

To most art lovers, a reference to Russian-American artist Mark Rothko brings to mind large rectangular canvases with deep tones that can take on a reverent, transcendent quality. But a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art attempts to give a fuller look at his oeuvre and put his most famous work in a broader context. “Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper” allows visitors to take a fresh look at an artist they thought they knew.

Paper Works as Mini Canvases

Giving his paper paintings their due through a dedicated exhibition seems wholly appropriate, as Rothko did not consider them inferior to his canvas works. While some artists only use paper for preliminary sketches, Rothko considered his paper creations the equal of his canvases. In their preparation — he often hung them on stretchers, with paint flowing to the edges — they can look like smaller versions of his famous canvas creations.

The more than 100 paper works in this exhibit run the length of Rothko’s career, from his early days as a struggling artist in 1930s New York to some of the last works before his tragic suicide in 1970.

The show starts with his 1930s watercolors, which seem light years away from the works of his later career. For starters, using watercolors, as opposed to oil or acrylic, seems somehow foreign. The subjects also diverge from his later work: Some of his landscapes echo the works of Cezanne in Provence, while portraits of bathing women hearken to Degas. Even though his landscapes feature frenetic brushstrokes, they, along with the portraits, also include pools of transparent watercolor that foreshadow his future work with fields of distinct color.