Mark Rothko

The Decisive Decade 1940-1950

Sep 14, 2012 to Jan 6, 2013

The Columbia Museum of Art premieres an exhibition focused on one of the 20th century's most influential and best-known artists, Mark Rothko. This extraordinary show features 37 works including paintings, watercolors and works on paper drawn largely from the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

"This exhibition explores Rothko's work in the 1940s in a way that has never been done before," director Earl A. Powell III said. "The National Gallery of Art is delighted to partake in both making this exhibition possible and contributing to the fine catalogue. This is part of our commitment to have more of our collection seen by the American public."

This is the first significant exhibition of Mark Rothko's work to be on display in South Carolina. This exhibition is organized by the Arkansas Art Center, the Columbia Museum of Art, the Columbus Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum, in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

"We are excited about this exhibition for its contributions to understanding Rothko more fully," executive director, Karen Brosius, said. "The show brings to Columbia and South Carolina the art of a modern American master, providing a special opportunity for everyone in the region. We believe visitors will be absorbed by Rothko's powerful and mystical style of painting. In addition, the accompanying catalogue explores a period of Rothko's development the 1940s that has received little attention and yet had a profound effect on his late career. We are bringing new scholarship to art history."

"This is not an exhibition that needs to justify its existence," the artist's son, Christopher Rothko, said. "On the contrary, the only thing that needs to be explained is its tardiness, because within the realm of Rothko's oeuvre, the works in this exhibition are the key to everything. Everything."

The work from the 1940s is rarely seen by the public and often elicits a response of utter surprise because it is so unlike the work for which the artist is justly famous. In the 1930s, Rothko was painting figures based on the work of his influential teachers, Max Weber and Milton Avery, also represented in this exhibition. However, the artistic style known as Surrealism, where dreams, accident and chance play a large role in creativity, took on increasing appeal for him. By 1940, Rothko was practicing what is called "automatic drawing," that is, drawing not meant to represent the details of things we can see but rather the energy of things we feel. This then-radical way of thinking began to transform both Rothko and the art he made.

Visitors discover how the artist studied mythology and dreams and voraciously read the works of the psychologists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Rothko sought, as he said, symbols that were tragic and timeless, that expressed "man's primitive fears and motivations no matter in which land or what time." A great example of this in the show is entitled The Omen of the Eagle, 1942, taken from Greek mythology. The artist himself explained it this way: "The picture deals not with the particular anecdote, but rather with the Spirit of Myth, which is generic to all myths at all times. It involves a pantheism in which man, bird, beast and tree the known as well as the knowable merge into a single tragic idea."

Walking through the exhibition, one sees the recognizable parts of The Omen and the Eagle begin to disappear into the swirling and rhythmic lines of The Rites of Lilith, 1945, as Rothko keeps moving toward a new kind of art. By the end of the decade, he achieves his signature style in works like his Untitled of 1949 where a horizontal band of yellow floats in a muted violet rectangle, all of which sit upon a vast sea of red beneath. Color and its expert organization is now his style, and his mastery of it calls out our emotions and sense of mystery. Rothko himself believed this late style was not abstract, but rather that it conveyed the very real universal human experiences of "tragedy, ecstasy and doom." Visiting this exhibition is an opportunity to trace the artist's steps toward a new and powerful way of making art. In addition, many of Rothko's influencers and supporters are seen in the exhibition, including Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still.

Supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.


Exhibition Catalogue:

Exhibition Catalogue

more details

Sponsored By:

  • Presenting Sponsor:
  • First Citizens Bank
  • Supporting Sponsors:
  • Hannah & Ron Rogers
  • Mrs. Joyce Martin Hampton
  • The Vein Clinic
  • Contributing Sponsors:
  • Mr. and Mrs. Ben D. Arnold
  • Mr. and Mrs. Joseph R. Blanchard
  • Dr. Suzan D. Boyd and Mr. M. Edward Sellers
  • Mrs. Ethel Brody
  • Mr. and Mrs. David E. Dukes
  • Ms. Cheryl R. Holland and Mr. P. Douglas Quackenbush
  • The Joye Cottage Foundation
  • Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Kennedy, Jr.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Stephen G. Morrison
  • Ms. Susan Romaine
  • Susan Thorpe and John Baynes
  • Media Sponsors:
  • free times