In his preface to Mark Rothko, Jeffrey Weiss defines the catalog’s purpose rather narrowly. While providing a broad retrospective of Rothko’s career, this exhibition catalog’s primary mission is to discuss the artist’s work as “an increasingly distilled approach to pictorial form.” As a result, while primarily chronological, the exhibition, and the catalog, were organized to demonstrate the evolution of Rothko’s career and the development of his concerns with composition and elements such as color, light, shape, and proportion.
Weiss is an associate curator of twentieth century art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the author of The Popular Culture of Modern Art: Picasso, Duchamp and Avant- Gardism (1994). Other contributors of essays in the catalog include John Gage, reader in the history of Western art at the University of Cambridge; Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, chief conservator of the Menil Collection in Houston; Barbara Novak, Altshul professor of art history at Barnard College and Columbia University; and Brian O’Doherty, university professor of fine arts and media at Long Island University at South Hampton. Interviews by Mark Rosenthal and Jeffrey Weiss with five artists—-Ellsworth Kelley, Brice Marsden, Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman, and George Segal—-provide a context for Rothko’s contributions to the modernist movement in art. There are several photos of the artist and a detailed chronology of events in the artist’s career and personal life, prepared by Jessica Stewart of the National Gallery of Art.
Mark Rothko includes examples of works from each period of the artist’s career, though the essays focus squarely on the paintings of Rothko’s classical period. Weiss had the benefit of the Rothko family’s support, and the resources and clout of the National Gallery of Art at his disposal, so the book provides readers with an unparalleled look at the variety and volume of Rothko’s creativity. The National Gallery has a significant collection of Rothko’s works on paper and canvas, as a result of a gift from the Mark Rothko Foundation. In addition to paintings provided by other museums, the family and other private sources permitted works of art from their collections to be included in the exhibit. Rothko intended his paintings to be environmental, and most of the work of his classical period is on a grand scale; many are more than one hundred inches tall and more than eighty inches wide. Although no book can convey the size and power of Rothko’s mature works, the artwork chosen for the exhibition is given justifiable prominence in the catalog’s layout. There are 115 color plates of paintings and drawings, each given a full page, with captions provided on another, usually facing, page. The result is that the reader/viewer is able to experience each work without visual interruptions or curatorial “chatter.” Contemplation is possible, and as a result, one can begin to understand what these paintings might “feel” like when viewed in person. Even the small images of paintings by Rothko and others that enliven the essay and interview portions of the volume are treated with respect, and most are color prints. As a matter of fact, the few black-and-white plates in the text are real disappointments, despite their excellent quality, because the reader has become so used to brilliant, well-printed color images. As a result, Mark Rothko is a “coffee-table” book with illustrations that are luscious and mesmerizing and that reward repeated viewings.
In addition to reproductions of the paintings in an exhibition, catalogs are often occasions for learned scholars to demonstrate their erudition and emphasize the importance of the artist, art, or artifacts under examination. Museum exhibits and their catalogs are generally collaborative efforts, and one of this book’s greatest strengths is in the ways in which different voices discuss Rothko’s work and its impact on the world of modern art. The result is a kind of conversation, in which the reader is a silent participant, among people both familiar with, and moved by, the singular style and emotional impact of Rothko’s paintings. The interviews humanize Rothko’s powerful influence on other painters of his time, and the detailed chronology provides interesting personal and professional contexts for the works of art in the exhibition. The chronolgy also allows readers to “hear” the artist’s voice with quotations from Rothko himself interspersed among the dated entries, commenting on events and ideas. Yet the essays form the heart of the catalog’s commentary on Rothko’s art, and they do so with relatively short, pungent looks at specific, basically formal elements of his paintings.
The first essay, “Rothko: Color as Subject,” by John Gage, discusses what is for many viewers, most striking and memorable about Rothko’s work—his use of color. Despite Rothko’s protestations that he was “no colorist,” this component of his art has certainly the focus of much of the critical attention his work received,...
(The entire section is 2086 words.)