Rothko’s 1940s works on display in Denver

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His luminous Color Field paintings of the 1950s and 1960s have given Mark Rothko a pre-eminent place among contemporary American painters, but he was active in the 1940s, creating works that ranged from figurative to Jungian myth, surrealism, abstraction …

Early images include stories from classical mythology and others inspired by European surrealists and cubists, which led to linear abstract forms, soft colored shapes and finally “Untitled” in 1950, with bands of color — his distinctive style for the remainder of his life.

His son, Christopher Rothko, works with his sister Kate Rothko Prizel to advance their father’s legacy. He said: “The 1940s is the decade when everything happens for my father. He enters the decade and he comes out the other end the Rothko we know.”

The Denver Art Museum has opened an exhibit called “Figure to Field: Mark Rothko in the 1940s,” running through Sept. 29, which has 28 works, primarily from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Many have not been displayed in 20 years and illustrate Rothko’s journey as an artist.

Also included are 11 works by his contemporaries, including Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Milton Avery, Adolph Gottleib, Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. These artists exchanged ideas and influenced and supported each other.

Paintings are hung chronologically with well-written wall text that discusses Rothko’s early years.

Born in Russia, Rothko lived in New York in the 1940s, was acquainted with European artists who had escaped from World War II to America and became active with the group of artists who were known as Abstract Expressionists. A copy of the famous Life magazine photo of that group is included in this show.

Representational images no longer worked to represent the war, although he is quoted as saying of the figurative paintings, “I think of my pictures as dramas, the shapes in the pictures are performers ….”

“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstacy, doom and so on,” he is quoted in a New York Times story. By 1947, he eliminated all surrealistic elements and worked with pure form. The back portion of the Gallagher Gallery is devoted to early Color Field Paintings, with oil washes, egg-based paints, stains, some drips left as they happened.

“If I must put my trust somewhere, it would be in the psyche of sensitive observers,” he said. His spiritual qualities are especially expressed in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, but all paintings held symbolic meaning for him.

He met Clyfford Still, whose works are housed in the next-door Clyfford Still Museum, and they were close friends for 10 years. He introduced Still to collector/gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim, who gave Still a major show before he withdrew from the New York art world.

Readers may have had the opportunity to see the excellent play “Red” at Curious Theatre last year, which conveyed the artist’s intensity as he worked on his famous series of red canvases. It portrayed a conflicted man, uncomfortable in his world. (He committed suicide in 1970.)

This exhibit was organized by four museums, which each provided particular expertise and will each exhibit the Rothko works: Arkansas Art Center, Columbia, S.C., Art Museum, Columbus Art Museum and Denver Art Museum—in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art, which holds the world’s largest collection of Rothko’s work.

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