Mark Rothko

Fondation Louis Vuitton (Paris), Oct/23-Mar/24

Mark Rothko’s retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton marks his long-awaited return to Paris, following his 1999 exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne. Displayed across four floors of the Frank Gehry designed building, this show features over 115 works from major global institutions and smaller collections, some of which have been rarely displayed. The exhibition offered a unique opportunity to observe the evolution of one of the most important artists of the twentieth century.

Mark Rothko, “Untitled (The Subway)” (1937). © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko - Adagp, Paris, 2023.

Upon arrival, the lengthy queue of reserve ticket holders, even on a cold and wet Monday morning, testifies to the popularity and significance of Rothko’s oeuvre — a popularity that only began in his late career. The exhibition is organised in chronological order, guiding the viewer through Rothko’s artistic journey. In the first room we encounter his early figurative works from the 1930s, marking the start of his exploration of the human drama. Here, Rothko paints urban life in New York, people in the streets and the subway who are almost indistinguishable from the surrounding architecture. Elongated, static, and fragile, these inanimate figures bear the weight of the burden of humanity, and like Giacometti’s sculptures, they speak to the complexities and uncertainties of human existence.

Installation view © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko - Adagp, Paris, 2023

The next stage of his work is marked by the liberation of his use of the figure in a surrealistic period during which he painted abstract geometric shapes, resembling Miró’s compositions, and made use of the machinery of Dada painters. This progression culminated in the dissolution of the figures into stains of colour: the human drama in this work transcends mere visual representation to become an introspective journey, accessible to all who encounter Rothko’s paintings.

As we walk through the exhibition, each painting serves as a portal. The curatorial team facilitates the immersive experience by directing spotlights onto individual canvases, casting a quasi magical aura around them, as if light emanated from the paintings themselves. This ethereal quality is inherent in Rothko’s process, which is highly characteristic of his artistic language and has influenced numerous other artists. Rothko employed a technique of layering zone upon zone with thinly applied oil paint to create a translucent effect that allows viewers to see through the layers. By blending the edges into the background, he generated hues within hues, creating the impression that these colours are gradually emerging from the depths of the canvas.

Paintings by Mark Rothko and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti. Photo: © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko; © Succession Alberto Giacometti © Fondation Louis Vuitton / Marc Domage

The artist is known primarily for his canvases with blocks of colours and cloudy edges and his ability to evoke emotional responses and invite meditative contemplation, however, he never intended his paintings to be peaceful and consoling. Rothko is a painter of suffering. Affected by migration and the violence of war, Rothko, like many of his generation, produced work that reflects disillusionment with the human condition. As Rothko grew older, he looked for purer meaning and his palette became darker and his compositions larger and more minimalist. In the final room, his black and grey paintings are exhibited with the work of Alberto Giacometti, another artist of existential gravity, a curatorial decision of Christopher Rothko to fulfil his father’s wishes.

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