Major National Gallery Survey to Spotlight Mark Rothko’s Lesser-Known Paintings on Paper

It’s a commonly held belief that Mark Rothko, not unlike his other Abstract Expressionist colleagues, worked best when he was 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, D.C., aims to show that a lesser-known part of his oeuvre—his paintings on paper—is just as high-quality as his monumental canvases.

The 100-work show, which does not yet have a name, will open at the National Gallery of Art in November 2023. After a run in D.C., it will head to the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design in Oslo in 2024. When it travels to that museum, the show will become the first major Rothko survey ever mounted in Scandinavia.

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

Exhibitions of an artist’s works on paper are often perceived as being less enticing than blockbuster monographs—visitors tend to want the hits when it comes to big surveys devoted to art-historical giants. But shows of the sort can offer their own distinct thrills. One at the Museum of Modern Art last year devoted to Paul Cézanne’s drawings provided a revelatory view into the making of some of his more famous paintings; another opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this month will explore Jacques-Louis David’s adeptness at embedding politics in his art on an intimate scale. Adam Greenhalgh, an associate curator at the National Gallery of Art who is organizing the Rothko survey, is aspiring to do something similar with his exhibition.

“This show will cast new light on a lesser-known aspect of a much-loved artist,” he said. “Beyond that, Rothko’s remarkable paintings on paper provide the opportunity to critically reconsider what our field has historically considered paintings versus drawings versus works on paper to be. It might also provide the chance to think critically about the conventions of our discipline and the conceptual limitations established and reinforced by the seemingly benign practice of classification and categorization.”

According to Greenhalgh, who is at work on a catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s works on paper, these more intimate paintings by the artist can afford a closer look at the artist’s evolution. Indeed, there were even points in Rothko’s career when he was painting more often on paper than he was on canvas. (For example, in the last two years of his life, Rothko made almost 14 times as many paintings on paper as he did on canvas.) The show will include early figure studies, initial flirtations with abstraction, and late-career acrylics and watercolors, and demonstrate how Rothko’s style developed over time.

Those who come to the exhibition wanting the grand paintings for which Rothko is known will still be in luck, however—not all the works on view are small, as one may expect for works on paper. Greenhalgh has promised that show will include around a dozen paintings on paper scaled at six feet or taller. “In a way,” he said, “it will be interesting to see how the relatively smaller paintings on paper perform,” given that there has never before been a survey of this kind on this scale.

And, Greenhalgh continued, Rothko’s paintings on paper can be appreciated in the same way as his monumental canvases, regardless of their size. “Time spent with a Rothko painting can feel like a restorative or invigorating tonic. I’d argue that any and all of these responses can be stimulated by the paintings on paper, whether they are 30 inches tall or 84 inches tall, just as they can by Rothko’s better-known canvases.”


No votes yet.
Please wait...