Mark Rothko, who suffered from depression and eventually killed himself, thought that art should be tragic. So it may seem strange to call him an artist of beauty and joy.
But in the Rothko retrospective now at Washington's National Gallery, one can revel in his luscious colors, bask in the warmth of his seductive reds and yellows, enjoy the breeze that seems to waft from his cool blues and greens, be dazzled by his brilliant whites and melt into his welcoming browns and blacks.
The show reveals Rothko as a great sensualist of abstract art and the spiritual heir of Henri Matisse, another great sensualist .. and the century's foremost master of color.
Rothko (1903-1970) is well served by this exhibit, the first comprehensive American retrospective in 20 years. Its 116 works trace his career from the mid-1930s until the year of his death. While it contains early works, including his surrealist phase in the 1940s, the exhibit rightly concentrates on his abstract art. And, especially his classic paintings, the stacked rectangles of color floating on a colored background, such as "Yellow and Blue (Yellow, Blue on Orange)" (1955), or white, red and plum on black in "No. 1 (White and Red)" (1962).
This unrelentingly abstract work, consisting only of colored blocks that do not appear to refer to anything in the real world, made Rothko a leading member of the abstract expressionists. A postwar art movement claiming such members as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, abstract expressionism was the first major American manifestation of abstract art, and the works produced by Rothko and the other members of the movement at first seemed strange and forbidding.
"Formalist" critics of the day often took a coolly intellectual approach to abstract art. Technical aspects, such as the color and space relationships in Rothko's paintings, were analyzed in ways non-initiates found hard to understand. Rothko, for his part, rejected the critics' analyses and, instead, claimed for his work a tragic essence of epic proportions. "Only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless," he said.
Both Rothko's grand notions and the formalists' dry intellectualizing can make his art seem intimidating, and obscure its more human side. But it is a side which he acknowledged. Speaking of the size of his paintings, he remarked, "I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however ... is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human."
It is the intimate, sensual side of Rothko that shines forth in this show, perhaps because of the passage of time. It is now almost half a century since the ascendancy of abstract expressionism. It has lost its strange newness, and can be seen as just another step in the history of 20th-century art. From that point of view, Rothko's art in some ways connects a lot less to fellow abstract expressionists Pollock and de Kooning than it does to Matisse.
When the century was young, Matisse's paintings were considered so radically new and jarring that he was one of a group of artists called "Fauves" or wild beasts. Like Matisse's, Rothko's work has inevitably become less threatening with time.
At first glance, Matisse's art seems about as far from blocks of color as you can get. His work is representational, it concentrates on the human figure, it often shows women in interior settings amid highly patterned surroundings. Much of Matisse's work is lush, decorative and seductive.
But there is much that ties the two, especially in how they use color and in the emotions their works engender. And there are many blocky areas of color in Matisse's paintings that anticipate Rothko, such as the green fishbowl under a yellow rectangle in "Goldfish and Sculpture" (1912), or the blue window of "Interior with Goldfish" (1912).
Rothko and Matisse were not that separate chronologically. They were born 34 years apart, and died 16 years apart. At the time of Matisse's death in 1954 Rothko was 51 and at the height of his powers.
Rothko knew and much admired Matisse's work. In 1954 he even painted an "Homage to Matisse" (1954), a red and orange rectangle over a blue rectangle on an orange background.
While that painting is not in the present show, the ones that are recall Matisse in inescapable ways. The colored blocks of "Yellow and Blue (Yellow, Blue on Orange)", for example, are an almost exact reversal both in color and proportion of the colored blocks in the background of Matisse's "Seated Riffian" (1912-1913).