State of the Arts – Ra Ra Rothko: the artist on show in Columbia

Mark Rothko, “Untitled,” 1941-42. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society

It’s easy to hate Mark Rothko. Or rather, his art works. They embody the intellectual and esoteric nature of mid-century modernist and post-modernist art — the type that regularly pushes museum-goers into improvised philosophical debate over the purpose, meaning and function of non-representational art.

Rothko is synonymous with the large-scale, limited-palette color-field paintings that catapulted his career and became a conceptual beacon for 1950s art. The 6-foot-tall canvases filled with swaths of two to three color variations serve as anchor pieces for many a museum exhibition. And like most major artists’ work, these too have permeated the culture by way of kitsch museum-shop goods (calendars, coffee mugs and the like). That is to say, they are culturally accessible, and even more recognizable.

South Carolina’s Columbia Museum of Art has but a few of these Rothkos in their current exhibition Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950, on view through Jan. 6.

The Decisive Decade
is a multi-museum effort that almost completely diverts from a would-be traditional showing of Rothko’s work. Instead, this body of work outlines and illustrates Rothko’s creative process and stylistic growth during the 1940s.

CMoA’s exhibitional intentions leave the small handful of color field behemoths as mere necessities in displaying Rothko’s early-1950s conceptual finish line. They become markers for the end to the 10-year struggle for artistic clarity and stylistic transformation. It’s this period the museums have deemed the “pivotal developmental decade.”

The exhibition was the brainchild of the Columbia Museum of Art, according to the museum’s chief curator, Will South. But it will also travel to the Arkansas Art Center, Columbus Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum, which were instrumental in piecing together the show. The exhibition departs in January for reinstallation in Columbus, Ohio. Much of the work is on loan from the National Gallery of Art’s permanent collection.

They’ve included dozens of paintings and watercolors that seem to portray a different artist altogether. The works range from a handful of traditional Rothkos to pieces from teachers and artists within his circle. With the exception of one or two pieces, the entire exhibition is drawn from the 1940s and organized in sequential categories. Rothko spent these years combing through figurative, surrealistic and mythological influences, before landing on his ultimate style in 1949.

On the cusp of drastic reformation

You’re first introduced to work by Rothko’s contemporaries. Drawings, studies and paintings from nine of the 14 original Abstract Expressionists, including Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollack line the walls. They serve as a liaison between Rothko and the greater group, but also recreate the artistic climate of the 1930s and ‘40s New York art scene.

The assembly forms a medly of similar color tones and painting styles that show a group bound by shared ideologies. Some are already set in their ways. But the postcard-size ink drawings by Pollock, for example, provide clear evidence of an artist on the cusp of drastic reformation.

At first glance, the second room’s stock seems similar to the introductory collection — small, less than 4-feet wide with deep, earthen colors and gestural markings. These are indeed Rothkos. But they are figurative, abstracted and completely unrecognizable when compared to his infamous color paintings.

The first collection derives from his mythology studies in the early ‘40s. This is not to say Zeus flings lightning bolts over an Oxbow-style rendition of the river Styx. Rather, Rothko is portraying cross-cultural thematic mythology ranging from an untitled crucifixion scene with the addition of three muses to renderings of Antigone and a pastoral farm scene.

The mythological background lingers in later works, namely in the titles and in reduced, heavily abstracted subjects. In “Sacrificial Moment” (1945) there is a ceremonial element that offers visual queues to his former work. Several figures surround an abstract, seemingly holy and very surrealist object hovering in the center of the canvas.

But by the mid-’40s Rothko is already undergoing a directional and thematic change.

During this period he shifts attention toward exploring dreams and turning out work heavily influenced by the surrealists and the work of Freud and Jung. The works have left behind much of the representational figures of the early decade, replacing them with squiggles and amorphous beings. They represent figures, supposed living entities reduced to the most basic of shapes and defining lines. Colors and hues begin to lighten and brighten from their murky, early ‘40s-era depths.

As the decade progresses, the same figures become even looser, more colorful and increasingly minimalistic. The canvases get bigger and the paint is applied sparingly, as opposed to the heavier application in the early part of the decade.

A breakthrough, or flicker of sorts, is seen in 1947. A series of untitled oil paintings contain only a few colors, indiscriminately spread and without a drop of representational rendering. They are the predecessors to the small group of “classic” Rothkos from ‘48 and ‘49 that form the exhibition’s ending point, the “arrival” period, according to the museum.

You get the ending that you expect. And after viewing the dozens of almost forcibly rendered figures, more than certainly deserve. There’s almost a sense of relief in the massive blocks of color that bounce cream-colored rectangles against orangey-red hues, as in 1949’s “No. 8.” After watching this artist struggle for ten years to find his style, there is indeed a calm in the last set of paintings.

They effortlessly elicit emotional responses that vary person to person. Rothkos have that power. It’s that power to enrage some over their almost childlike simplicity, while causing others to publicly weep, that is truly the greatest, and always subjective, ability of art. Perhaps especially so with Mark Rothko.

Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950 is on view through January 6 at the Columbia Museum of Art at 1515 Main St. in Columbia. For more information visit

Kyle Sherard writes about visual arts for Xpress and can be reached at

About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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