On Rothko and the Portland Retrospective (Part 5): A review of the PAM Rothko Retrospective based on my first 2 walkthroughs

Posted: February 20, 2012 in Experiences, On Beauty
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

I’ve been in Portland now since 1989. I’m from California so Oregonians still don’t consider me to be a full-fledged Oregonian. My understanding is that the non-official rule for ex-Californians is 40-years (rumor has it that, from any other state, you need only wait 20 years, but who really knows). In any case, regardless of what the native Oregonians think, I personally consider myself an Oregonian and I’m proud of that. Couple that with my love for the work of Mark Rothko and I feel justifiably proud that Bruce Guenther and his team at the Portland Art Museum has brought about Harold Schnitzer’s dream of bringing a truly important Rothko exhibition to the museum where, in 1933, Mark Rothko had his very first museum show.

From that day in 1933 until this day in 2012 Rothko’s work has become recognized as among the most significant work of the “New York School” of Abstract Expressionism. For we who love art and who live in Portland, that period of time has brought the joy of seeing PAM mature from its humble beginnings to a well-respected institution – one capable of acquiring Clement Greenberg’s complete collection and one worthy of hosting a world-class Rothko show. In my opinion, this transformation is very directly attributable to Mr. Guenther and his recognition that great rewards only come with the taking of financial risk. It costs many millions of dollars to create a world-class institution and Mr. Guenther had the guts to do just that. It is that institution, and Mr. Guenther’s cultivation of significant financial resources, that has made this show possible. I’m sure that Mr. Guenther does not have any idea who I am; but after walking the Rothko show, both early in the day on an uncrowded Saturday morning and midday on a packed Sunday before Christopher Rothko’s lecture, I want to thank him from the very depths of my soul for his dedication to both the cause of modern art, and to the more specific cause of Mark Rothko!

Of course, Rothko is considered part of the New York School and lived most of his life in New York. So we need to ask: “Why does Portland, Oregon claim Mark Rothko as OUR native son?” The answer is simple. Rothko (then Marcus Rothkowitz) came to Portland in 1913, at the age of ten. He may be a New York painter, but he is a Lincoln High School graduate. When he took off for Yale, he did so with his good friend Aaron Director, one of the truly important founders of the Portland we know today. I had the opportunity to spend yesterday afternoon with a large group of Rothko’s relatives and, judging from the number of Rothkowitz people who still live here, he may have gone off to become a New Yorker, but the Portland Rothkowitz clan abounds. So, in my opinion, Portland has every right to lay claim to OUR Rothko!

So, let’s talk about the show. First, it’s important to remember that this is a retrospective. It’s express intent is to illustrate the complete history of Rothko’s endeavors and to show the ways in which Rothko’s work matured into the “color field” paintings we most readily associate with him. Because I love those last 20-ish years of paintings so deeply, I was drawn to do what I urge you all NOT to do. I walked into the gallery and turned right toward the later work and only then returned to the earlier paintings. If you want to see color field paintings, that’s fine. But, if you want to understand Rothko, DON’T do that; instead turn left.

If you turn to your left and walk the show clockwise you will enjoy a variety of surprises. You see, of the 44 paintings in the show, only 15 of them are the “classic” color field paintings. Twenty-nine paintings are a combination of figurative paintings from 1926 through about 1937, semi-surrealist paintings through about 1945, and pre-color field abstractions from 1946 through about 1948. The earliest of the color field paintings is the 90″x66″ orange, yellow, and white “panel” called “No. 8″ from 1949. The other 14 of these paintings carry on through 1969 with the latest being the 54″x68” grey and black “Untitled” from 1969.

Mr. Guenther and his team did a fabulous job of assembling the selection of work. Many of the paintings are on loan from The National Gallery in Washington. Several are from private collections, including one owned by Paul Allen. And a surprising number are from the personal collections of Rothko’s son, Christopher Rothko, and his daughter, Kate Rothko Prizel. This is, by no means, the largest Rothko retrospective exhibition. It is also not the biggest collection of color field paintings. But, the show is extremely effective, easy to understand, well displayed, and very well curated. It is a very beautiful show, meets an important educational need, and is among the Pacific Northwest’s most important shows of the 21st century.

If there is anything to complain about, those complaints are minor and are far offset by the positive aspects. First, I don’t know why, but I find it sort of humorous that it is acceptable to photograph (without flash!) every one of the paintings but one. For some reason Paul Allen withheld approval to have his one piece photographed. Considering that the Rothko children had no issue with their personal works being photographed, I don’t know what Mr. Allen’s issue is. I don’t know why I find that annoying because that has absolutely nothing to do with the show. So, I suppose I can’t count it as a complaint.

There are, however, two items worth mention.

First, I think that the show is just a tad too brightly lit. Especially when it comes to viewing the three Seagram Mural sketches from 1958 and 59 and “Untitled” from 1963, I get the feeling that Rothko would have liked the lighting more subdued. Had they been lit differently, the audience would have had a chance to experience some of what one feels upon entering a space like Rothko Chapel. You miss that experience in this lighting. Then again, that probably is not practical with this particular gallery layout and, on the upside,  it’s easier to see the subtlety in color shifts the way that PAM has chosen to light them. So, it’s not a bad choice. Just a choice.

Second, again just a personal opinion, I would have liked to see 3 or 4 color field paintings hung in very close proximity in a confined space. Many years ago I saw the 3 Rothko paintings that Duncan Philips owned, hung in the original gallery space that Rothko specified for the Philips Collection in Washington DC. That was a very small space and, because of that, the paintings were almost overwhelming. It would have been nice if Portland viewers could have the experience that I first had; sitting alone in that small room in DC with 3 overwhelmingly emotional “classics”. But, as with my opinion about lighting, (a) that might not have made for a practical gallery layout (even the Philips Collection Rothko’s are now hung differently), and (b) I have no question in my mind that this was considered without me having to bring it up. It’s a minor issue, is far offset by positives, and does not detract from the synergy of the show.

Overall, I must say that this show exceeded my expectations. It is simply beautiful. Because I’m a color field freak, I made a bad choice for a first walk-through and I really do encourage everyone to “turn left and walk clockwise”. When I returned on Sunday, to walk the show with my wife, we went chronologically clockwise and I think we learned a lot from doing that. I’ll be back many more times before the show closes – that I guarantee.

I’ll leave you with one last suggestion. If you really want to learn as much as possible from a single visit to this show, do this: Walk the show clockwise; study the color field paintings; then walk the first 29 paintings again and try to look for similarities in color palette and the use of foreground/background distinctions. I will give credit where due and will tell you that I learned this from Christopher Rothko, I did not figure it out myself. But, if you look back at the earlier paintings, after studying the color fields, you WILL find that, even as early as his earliest work, Rothko’s philosophy of art is consistent and is continuously moving toward that which reaches full expression in his last 20 years of classic paintings.

With that said, I leave you to enjoy the show – it will be worth every moment of your time!

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