The newest exhibit to hit the Columbus Museum of Art delves into the work of Mark Rothko (did you know his real name is Marcus Rothkowitz?). It focuses on merely a decade of the artist’s life, but those ten years showcase the severe stylistic transition in Rothko’s creative career. Rothko enters the 1940’s as a figurative painter and leaves the decade as an abstract one. This exhibit traces his development subtly, allowing the viewer to mark the changes he makes within each work.
Room one is full of Rothko’s earliest, most figurative works. He focuses on myths and the meaning of them with the constant use of three figures. Through his patterned use of three he seems to be stating something about the human identity; that all of us are inseparable in some form. Rothko throws a lot into a painting. A myriad of forms, strokes, shapes, and color; yet they all work together to interpret a specific myth. By 1945 it is evident that the paintings are becoming more abstract; the figures become less clear and more structural. While deciphering the paintings I realized each piece is like a game of “I Spy”, or rather a puzzle. I knew that Rothko incorporates three figures in his work, so I found myself blending the colors and shapes together to decipher the title or myth portrayed in the piece.
Room two picks up in the mid-1940’s and the change from surreal to abstract is apparent. The three figures are still there but have become ghost-like apparitions rather than literal forms. The game of “I Spy” has become more difficult because the still forms his earlier pieces consisted of have now turned into shapes that have gained motion. The colors are brighter and the lack of an instructional title forces the viewer to find the story within the piece. Rothko is changing to an abstract style in order to represent emotion without human subject matter. The size of the paintings increases and the development of bright hues of color become breathtakingly prevalent.
Room three holds Rothko’s more iconic paintings. His use of figures has diminished and has been replaced with an increased use of color and geometric shapes. In his iconic piece titled “No. 8”, a colossal canvas with bricks of red, yellow, and pink color emits immense emotion. To me the piece is mysterious yet magnifying. Rothko intended the use of color to better represent the human condition than the use of figures. I urge viewers to take the time and absorb the color like the canvas it lives on, for figures needn’t be necessary to convey a thought. Rothko’s evolution from character to color may seem to be a stylistic withdrawal to some, but Rothko got it right with his less-is-more mindset.
Tickets are $12 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $5 for students ages 6-17 and free on Sundays. The exhibit runs through May 26th, so select a sunny spring day and head downtown Columbus to revel in Rothko’s renderings.