Woman of Substance

FOLLOWING THE PAPER TRAIL

With brilliant hues, simplified forms, and broad, thin washes of color, Mark Rothko’s immersive abstract paintings convey the impression of a shallow pictorial space while engulfing the viewer in energetic, expansive emotional swells. Vastly outnumbering his iconic paintings on canvas, nearly 1,000 paintings on paper were created by Rothko (1903–1970). In his final years, he prioritized the making of works on paper, pointing to their importance to him. In recognition of his output, a momentous exhibition has been mounted at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., “Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper” (November 19–March 31, 2024), which brings together 100 of the artist’s finest such examples—paintings he considered equal to his more famous works on canvas.

Representing the full arc of Rothko’s artistic output, the assembled paintings range from his early watercolors, which feature intimate figurative subjects and surrealist mythologies, to his signature soft-edged rectangular fields painted in oil and acrylic. These works on paper were not studies, sketches, or technical experiments; for Rothko, they were paintings in the fullest sense. He regarded them as important as his canvases, and equally capable of producing the powerful emotional experience he sought for the viewer.

The National Gallery is the largest public repository of Rothko’s works, and the show draws principally on this extensive permanent collection. For the exhibition, curator Adam Greenhalgh also searched out significant Rothko pieces from other museums and private collections, including those in the possession of Rothko family members. In this way, the exhibition reflects the full range of Rothko’s connections and reveals the plurality of mesmerizing effects characteristic of his evocative painterly style.

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WRITTEN BY ELLIOT GORDON MERCER

This story appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of MILIEU.