It is a commonly held belief that Mark Rothko, much like his other Abstract Expressionist colleagues, worked best when painting dramatic abstractions that tower over viewers and engulf them in their rich tones. But a new survey coming to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, aims to show that a lesser-known part of his oeuvre – his paintings on paper – are just as high quality as his monumental canvases.
The as-yet-unnamed 100-work exhibition will open at the National Gallery of Art in November 2023. After a run in DC, it will travel to the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design in Oslo in 2024. When it travels to this museum, the exhibit will become the first major Rothko investigation ever mounted in Scandinavia.
Exhibitions of an artist’s works on paper are often seen as less appealing than bestselling monographs – visitors tend to want the bests when it comes to major surveys of the giants of the history of art. ‘art. But shows like this can offer their own thrills. One at the Museum of Modern Art last year devoted to the drawings of Paul Cézanne provided revealing insight into the making of some of his most famous paintings; another opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this month will explore Jacques-Louis David’s skill in integrating politics into his art on an intimate scale. Adam Greenhalgh, associate curator at the National Gallery of Art which organizes the Rothko survey, aspires to do something similar with his exhibition.
“This show will shed new light on a lesser-known aspect of a much-loved artist,” he said. “Beyond that, Rothko’s remarkable paintings on paper offer the opportunity to critically reconsider what our field has historically viewed as paintings versus drawings versus works on paper. It could also provide an opportunity to reflect critically on the conventions of our discipline and the conceptual boundaries established and enforced by the seemingly benign practice of classification and categorization.
According to Greenhalgh, who is working on a catalog raisonné of Rothko’s works on paper, these more intimate paintings of the artist provide a closer insight into the artist’s development. Indeed, there were even times in Rothko’s career when he painted more often on paper than on canvas. (For example, in the last two years of his life, Rothko produced nearly 14 times as many paintings on paper as on canvas.) The exhibition will include early figure studies, early flirtations with abstraction, and late-career acrylics and watercolors. , and show how Rothko’s style has developed over time.
However, those who come to the exhibition wanting the large paintings Rothko is known for will still be in luck – not all of the works on display are small, as you would expect for works on paper. Greenhalgh promised the show will include a dozen paintings on paper in scales of six feet or more. “In a way,” he said, “it will be interesting to see how the relatively smaller paintings on paper perform,” given that there has never been such a survey in this scale.
And, Greenhalgh continues, Rothko’s paintings on paper can be enjoyed the same way as his monumental canvases, regardless of size. “Time spent with a Rothko painting can feel like a restorative or invigorating tonic. I would argue that all of these responses can be stimulated by paintings on paper, whether they are 30 inches or 84 inches, just as they can by best-known paintings by Rothko.