Mark Rothko. No. 10. 1950. Oil on canvas, 7′ 6 3/8″ × 57 1/8″ (229.6 × 145.1 cm). Gift of Philip Johnson. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This installation, drawn from the Museum’s collection of paintings by Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, focuses specifically on the fertile years between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, during which each artist identified the style and format that would engage him for the rest of his career. Reinhardt’s and Rothko’s ideas about form and color challenged and reconsidered European artistic traditions and philosophies, giving rise to a unique American sensibility in art in general, and particularly in painting. Their paintings were characterized not by the grand, expressive gestures and brushwork of their Abstract Expressionist colleagues, including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, but rather by subtleties in color, form, and composition.

Reinhardt was a prolific writer, and he used the blank page to address many of his ideas about art. The planar surface of the canvas likewise served as support for his experiments and his studies of monochrome palettes, in blue, red, and, ultimately, black, throughout the early 1950s. By mid-decade he had committed to an increasingly nocturnal palette of layered, close-valued, almost indistinguishable colors laid adjacent to one another in a vertical rectilinear format. This exploration of color and symmetry resulted in a trisected three-by-three grid, which developed further in the 1950s and 1960s and concluded in the quietly ordered sub-patterns and homogenous surfaces of his five-foot-square “black” paintings. With prolonged looking, these seemingly all-black surfaces yield colors and hard-edged shapes that shift and slide.

Like Reinhardt, Rothko had a profound interest in internal compositional organization. Also using a tripartite structure, Rothko floated three blurry-edged rectangles atop one another, connecting them as much by the interstitial spaces as by the oscillating shapes. Rothko’s oversized, unframed, color-saturated canvases were meant to engage the viewer through envelopment. These large-scale pictures are all encompassing, and their gaseous forms of vibrant color were intentionally placed to pulsate optically and sustain the viewer’s attention through physical sensations and constantly changing visual perceptions. Both Reinhardt and Rothko ask viewers to look closely, allow their eyes to adjust, and experience the interior space of the picture.

Organized by Elizabeth Reede, Assistant Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture.

The Focus exhibitions, part of an ongoing series highlighting noteworthy aspects of the Museum’s collection, are made possible by BNP Paribas.

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