For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2001

Mark Rothko and the Lure of the Figure: Paintings 1933-1946

December 16, 2000 - February 25, 2001
Apse Gallery

Mark Rothko
Portrait (Untitled)
oil on canvas
Collection of Christopher Rothko
%copy 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

This exhibition explores a little-known aspect of the work of the American master Mark Rothko (1903-70) - his figurative works of the 1930s and 40s. In these enigmatic and disturbing paintings, the artist explored the human figure as a vehicle for expressing his deepest feelings about the human condition. These works were the proving ground for Rothko's classic paintings of the 1950s and 60s, contributing to his eventual mastery of tensely balanced areas of color, as well as the ability to communicate profound emotion and experience economically through abstract means.

Rothko was one of many New York artists in the 1930s who looked to their urban surroundings for subjects. While other artists used the urban setting to make social statements, Rothko sought instead to give a sense of the anxiety, anonymity, and isolation that pervade city life.

With the coming of the Second World War Rothko turned from the contemporary world, seeking instead to paint what he and fellow artist Adolph Gottlieb termed "timeless and tragic" subjects. Influenced by Surrealist artists exiled from fascist Europe, he and other artists including Gottlieb began to reflect Surrealists' interest in myth, fantasy, and ritual. Rothko mutilated the figure, presenting fragmented or fused bodies and reducing and abstracting figures so that they became symbols of the human condition.

Subsequent paintings feature fantastic organisms skimming across layered surfaces. As Rothko increasingly abstracted his figures, he seemed to become more and more interested in revealing the process of painting by layering paint and manipulating the surface of the work. By about 1946, the artist recognized that the figure no longer expressed what he wished to say about the human condition. Instead, he invented compositions at the borders of abstraction and figuration. These transitional paintings anticipate Rothko's purely abstract approach that he adopted by 1947, in which he considered amorphous color patches as "performers" in dramas.

The fifteen works in this exhibition have been selected from two distinguished collections which are particularly rich in works from the 30s and 40s - that of the artist's son, University of Michigan alumnus Dr. Christopher Rothko, and that of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Annette Dixon
Curator of Western Art

This exhibition has been made possible in part through the Friends of the Museum of Art.

Reproduction, including downloading of Rothko Artworks is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express permission of the copyright holder. Requests for reproduction should be directed to Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


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