Mark Rothko (1903–1970) was among the most remarkable artists of the twentieth century. This exhibition, the first ever to be mounted in Austria, brings together more than forty of his major works and presents a survey of Rothko’s artistic career, from his early figurative paintings of the 1930s, through the transitional years of the 1940s to the groundbreaking mature works of the 1950s and 60s. The artist’s children, Kate and Christopher have been closely involved in the project from its very beginning, and have themselves kindly lent a number of paintings from the family collection.
Presented within the Kunsthistorisches Museum, whose historical collections trace some five thousand years human creativity from Ancient Egypt to the Baroque, the exhibition provides a unique opportunity to examine Rothko’s deep and sustained interest in the art of the past. From his earliest visits as a student to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and his first encounters with Rembrandt, Vermeer and classical art and architecture, to his trips to Europe to see its churches, chapels and Old Master painting collections in Paris, London, Venice, Arezzo, Siena, Rome, Pompeii and Florence, Rothko dedicated himself to the study of historical art and architecture.
The exhibition underlines the influence of specific places on his stylistic development, from Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library and Fra Angelico’s murals in the convent of San Marco in Florence, to the Greek temples of Paestum and the Baptistery of Torcello in Venice. When Rothko broke with tradition in the latter part of his life to create a radical new form of artistic expression, he did so with extensive knowledge and respect for what had come before. In the words of the critic John Berger, Rothko looked back “in a way such as no painter before had ever done”.
The exhibition reveals the radical development of Rothko’s work across several decades, from his early figurative paintings of the 1930s, through the transitional years of the 1940s to the groundbreaking mature works of the 1950s and 60s. At the heart of the exhibition is an entire gallery of large-scale mural paintings produced in 1958-59, originally commissioned for the Seagram Building in New York. This is followed by a final gallery of classic paintings from the last decade of Rothko’s life that demonstrate how he learnt from the techniques of the Old Masters, layering colour in the manner of Titian and developing a sense of ‘inner light’ similar to that of Rembrandt.
Curated by Jasper Sharp with the close support and advice of Christopher Rothko, the exhibition will be presented in the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s Picture Gallery. Major loans have been secured from the Rothko Family and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in addition to museums including the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, the Jewish Museum, New York, Kunstmuseum Bern, Kunsthaus Zürich and Kunstmuseum Basel.
In recent years, the museum has deepened its engagement with the art and artists of more recent times in order to explore their complex relationship with those historical collections. A new programme of major exhibitions was initiated in 2013 with a survey exhibition of the painter Lucian Freud, conceived together with the artist before his death. The programme continued in 2015 with a retrospective exhibition of the boxes and collages of Joseph Cornell in conversation with the Kunstkammer, the first major show of this artist to have been staged in Europe for more than three decades. The exhibition of Mark Rothko in 2019 now continues this dialogue.
Biography Mark Rothko
On 25 September 1903, Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rotkovich in Dvinsk, part of the Russian Empire (now Daugavpils, Latvia). Between 1910 and 1913, the Rotkovich family emigrated to Portland, Oregon. In 1921, following his graduation from high school, Rothkowitz (as the US immigration authorities have recorded the family name) was awarded a scholarship to Yale University, but he left Yale for New York in 1923 without having graduated. Rothkowitz did not engage with art until relatively late, when he was invited by a friend to a life drawing class at the Art Students League. Under the influence of his teacher, Max Weber, Rothkowitz completed several works in the mid-1920s in the manner of Paul Cézanne, before painting his subway series in the 1930s. During this time, he was part of the group The Ten, which existed until 1939.
From the very beginning of his artistic career, Rothko gave art classes; in 1948, he even created a school called The Subjects of the Artist. In 1940, he changed his name to Mark Rothko, and wrote the larger part of a philosophical manuscript, which was published many years after his death by his son, Christopher Rothko, as The Artist’s Reality. Entering into a close exchange with Adolph Gottlieb on the topic, he became intensely preoccupied with mythological themes.
In 1946, Rothko began painting his ‘Multiforms’, an important series of transitional works that eventually led to the classic abstract compositions for which he became famous. Rothko went on the first of four extended trips to Europe in 1950, with Italy’s art and architecture becoming a major influence for his mature work.
From 1958, he worked on different series of paintings that were meant to be shown in very specific spaces. Besides his works for the Seagram Building in New York (today partly at Tate Modern, London) or for the Holyoke Center of Harvard University, his paintings for a dedicated chapel in Houston were among the highlights of his career.
In June 1969 the Mark Rothko Foundation officially began its work. After the artist’s suicide in 1970, legal proceedings revealed the dubious business practices of the Marlborough Gallery’s owner Frank Lloyd and the executors of Rothko’s estate. Kate Rothko was eventually declared sole executor of her father’s estate. A new Rothko Foundation, with a new board, was created by court order; it receives more than half the works held by the estate.
Image: Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
No. 16 (Red, White and Brown)
1957, oil on canvas
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Bildrecht, Vienna, 2019
© Photo: Kunstmuseum Basel