Mark Rothko


8 February31 August 2008

The place of the Abstract Expressionism 

Mark Rothko is one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century. He is famous for his mostly large-format paintings with their horizontally-layered colour planes. Nowadays these meditative abstractions are seen as synonyms of Abstract Expressionism. Under the catching headline New York School, American Abstract Expressionist Art takes over the leading role in the world of arts at the same time that America becomes a leading economical and political world power.


Rothko, however, has always struggled against being classified as a painter of abstract images. Born in 1903 as Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia, he arrives in the United States with his family as a ten year old boy. After studies in Yale and at the New School of Design in New York, he begins to work as an artist from 1930 onwards. Very slowly he makes his way from his figurative beginnings via surrealism towards pure constellations of colour. Even in his early cityscapes does one recognize experiments with formal reduction and it soon becomes apparent how his surreal biomorphic shapes concentrate into increasingly compact clouds of colour, the socalled “Multiforms”. At the end of the 1940s these mark the transition to his most typical, genuine composition scheme, the veils of colour superimposed on one another, achieving a deep, spatial effect in the translucency of their layers. Even though liberated from all representational function, the artist carries on associating his paintings with content meaning.

colour ensembles

For this reason he even wants completely non-figurative paintings to be understood as something concrete. Through their proportions in relation to each other and the combination of their colours, his formal structures, developed from the rectangle, produce an expression that each viewer perceives in individual manner, something the artist understands as their immanent meaning. These colour ensembles which can be perceived as harmonious or tension-laden, glowing or sombre, dominating or harmonious, are at the same time cause for and artistic reflection of inner moods and deep emotion. The black in his colour scale represents the void and nothingness. The Blackform and Black on Gray paintings mark a radical break and also stand for refusal. Any beauty that would be too obvious is withdrawn to make room for an iconic austerity. Blackness therefore is not a reflection of illness and depression but much rather a call for the utmost involvement on behalf of the viewer who is in this way confronted with the fundamental tragedy of these last works in inescapable manner. Therefore it is probably not wrong to understand this series in its ultimate logic as the last complete set of images and to see them as a legacy that antecedes the 1970 suicide.

An Overview of rothkos life’s work

In European collections Mark Rothko is only rarely represented. Few German museums, like Berlin, Düsseldorf or Stuttgart own a painting of his at all. Because of the extreme fragility of his sensitive picture surfaces and the exorbitant developments on the art market, it is highly unlikely that a survey exhibition of a scale comparable to that shown in Munich and Hamburg in 2008 will once more be realized in Europe in the foreseeable future. All the stronger, therefore, is our gratitude to Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, the two children of the artist without whose generous support this ambitious project would not have been possible.

coming from Rome

The reconstruction of the Rothko Room at the Biennale in Venice in 1958 was the point of departure for an exhibition at the Palazzo delle Esposizione, which could be seen in Rome. Oliver Wick, who was, among other exhibitions responsible for the major Rothko exhibiton at the Fondation Beyeler in 2001, was also the curator for the Italian presentation. Thanks to his dedication the Roman exhibition could be modified and moved on to Munich and Hamburg in altered form.

Twenty years after the only retrospective to date – 1988 in Cologne – and nearly forty years after the first museum exhibition in Germany – 1971 in Berlin – it was high time to present the overall oeuvre of Mark Rothko with more then 100 paintings and works on paper to the German public once more. With key works of modernity and many paintings that were not publicly shown, a wide public was introduced to Mark Rothko and those who esteem his work could make the experience of abstraction in highest intensity.

Exhibition leaflet

To accompany the exhibition a special catalogue was published by Hirmer publishers Munich with reproductions of all works exhibited and texts by Gottfried Boehm, Hubertus Gaßner, Karin Koschkar, Christiane Lange, Renée Maurer, Jessica Stewart and Oliver Wick.

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