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Mark Rothko’s Sublime Works on Paper: A Conversation with Adam Greenhalgh, Christopher Rothko, and David Ebony

David Ebony

Perhaps the most expressive of the American Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is internationally recognized as one of the most dynamic and influential artists of the twentieth century. A twenty-first century celebration of Rothko’s formidable achievement is now underway both here and abroad with a major Mark Rothko retrospective currently on view at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris through April 2. In the U.S., an unprecedented exhibition of Mark Rothko’s works on paper, Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (on view through March 31), travels to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Olso, Norway (May 16-September 22).

Born in Latvia in 1903, and a New York resident until his untimely death in 1970, Rothko [née Markus Rothkowitz] is best known for large abstract canvases of ethereal color and infinite spaces that are primary attributes of the artist’s unique and esoteric vision.

Throughout his career, works on paper were central and crucial to Rothko’s art. As the artist’s son Christopher Rothko notes in his 2015 book on his father’s work, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, “These are not drawings; they are paintings with which to have direct interactions, just like the canvases. These are not studies or supporting works. . .” Some paintings on paper were in fact as large as major canvases, not framed under glass like most works on paper, and intended to be displayed as paintings.   

For the book and accompanying exhibition, author and National Gallery of Art curator Adam Greenhalgh has gathered some 100 of Rothko’s paintings on paper, many of which have never before been publicly exhibited or published. In a recent Zoom conference, I spoke with Adam Greenhalgh and Christopher Rothko about the artist, his paintings on paper, and the special and exalted place they hold within Rothko’s oeuvre.          

Mark Rothko, Untitled (seated woman in striped blouse), 1933/1934, watercolor on construction paper, National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.56.472. Copyright © 2023 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.

David Ebony Adam, in the introduction to the book, you mention that Mark Rothko rarely or never destroyed works on paper, yet a great deal of them were not intended for public view. Can you just talk a bit about that distinction?

Adam Greenhalgh The distinction between the public and private has to do with an inventory that he did rather late in life, the end of 1968 to ’69, which you can read as a kind of vetting or retrospective review of a life’s production, and maybe a chance to curate his own legacy in separating things. The private works on paper are what we would call traditional line drawings—graphite, and ink drawings—of which there are hundreds, over 1,000, probably, that we know of, plus small watercolors that are either preparatory or sketchy. These would be thought of or understood as not fully finished, autonomous artworks. There are about 3,000 works on paper that exist. About half of those are small works intended for private use as exercises or studies. The rest are oil paintings on paper, watercolors or acrylics, selections of which were exhibited, sold, or given as gifts.

Ebony Do you have anything to add to that, Christopher?

Christopher Rothko The “public works” receive an inventory number, and that’s how we classify them, and the more private works do not receive a number. There are some things that may fall between the cracks there, but this is the basic division.

Ebony The first works on paper that Rothko publicly exhibited were Cézanne-esque watercolor landscapes, shown at the Portland Art Museum.

Greenhalgh There is no checklist from that 1933 show in Portland. There are a couple of reviews that appeared in the Portland newspaper that described the works that were on view. They mention the Cézanne-esque landscapes, but they also talk about another body of work painted in poster paint on linen-finish paper. What we think he showed were landscapes painted in Portland that very summer, and many of them are from an elevated perspective looking down on the city, or looking down on the bodies of water—the rivers and so forth, and in the brushwork and the atmospheric qualities, they really do read as Cézanne-esque. But they also recall works on paper by John Marin, which we believe Rothko would have seen in New York around this time. Another group of works—painted in poster paint or watercolor—are landscapes painted using only black, and there are also some portraits in black. He may have been showing those at the same time.   

Ebony Christopher, what would you say is the relationship between these works and Rothko’s work as a whole?

Rothko It’s interesting that these are the first works he exhibits, but they also don’t make the cut of those “public works” that he designates late in life. It’s clearly a process that he was working through, but not a medium that holds for him a lot of promise or potential.

Greenhalgh In the inventory that he does in 1968 and ’69, some of those early works do wind up getting inventory numbers—a couple of the Portland landscapes, but not the black pieces. We have works that show signs of having been signed, matted and exhibited; but when he reviews those works later on, he leaves most of them out of the inventory of public works.

Ebony In the mid-1930s, he starts to paint the figure and uses color that presages his abstract works. Often the model was his then wife, Edith.

Greenhalgh In some cases we think we can identify Edith, but Rothko and a number of other artist friends are having life-drawing sessions at each other’s houses, putting in a dollar or something like that to hire a model. In some cases, it’s not certain who the sitter is.

Ebony Milton Avery and Adolph Gottlieb were part of that group—or trio?

Greenhalgh Yes; if you look at Gottlieb’s drawing from the time, in some cases you can actually match up the sitters in Rothko’s drawings.

Rothko From what little I know of my father’s first wife’s personality, I can’t image that she would be willing to sit for these drawing sessions every week—maybe she did it a few times.

Ebony I’ve always been fascinated by Milton Avery’s relationship to the younger artists. What was that dynamic like?

Rothko My father, and Gottlieb as well, became very friendly with the Averys. Milton was a generation older and certainly had a sort of mentorship role, but my sense is that he did not lord that over them. His place was very welcoming for these young artists, to spend time in the studio, and occasionally share a meal. They almost became members of the family during those years.     

Mark Rothko, The Bathers, 1934, watercolor on construction paper, National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.198. Copyright © 2023 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.

Ebony What was the significance of those early figurative works for Rothko, the series of Bathers, for instance—how important were they for his development?  

Greenhalgh Certainly the Bathers were significant. We know that a number of those were exhibited in 1935, painted in the summer of 1934. They are signed. In some cases the signature has been adjusted sometime later, so that the last letters are erased or painted over or removed, changed from Rothkowitz to Rothko—and that must have happened sometime after 1940.

Rothko And he cared enough and valued the works enough to go back and do that.   

Greenhalgh Yes. It proves that for him they were still relevant. He was involved with them, still engaged with these works. Was he trying to sell them, exhibit them, or just give them away in the 1940s, almost a decade later? We don’t know. That happened with the Bathers, and also to some of the landscapes, that he re-signed “Rothko” some years later. So, yes, these are pretty significant works.

Ebony After that period, according to the book, there is a gap of about ten years where he produced no works on paper. That period is followed by the Surrealist-related works that he showed at Peggy Guggenheim’s New York gallery, Art of the Century, in the mid-1940s. 

Greenhalgh This is a kind of slippery subject. There’s a gap in the book and in the exhibition, from about 1935 to 1944. But that’s not to say that he wasn’t working on paper in those intervening years. There are hundreds of small drawings and preparatory studies done in ink, graphite and watercolor from that time. It’s just that for whatever reason he seems not to be making works on paper that were exhibited, sold, or conceived of as fully finished works. As they were basically private studies, they don’t fit the criteria of the public works on paper.

Ebony Were you able to examine any of those?

Greenhalgh Yes, sure. As the lead author of the catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s works on paper, I have had the great pleasure of examining many of these works. The National Gallery has the largest public holdings of Rothko, including around 900 works on paper. We have examples from all of those years. There are some really great pieces from those years, but for the purposes of this exhibition, we had to leave them out.  

Ebony The transition seems rather abrupt to me, I mean from the Milton Avery-esque figure paintings to the André Masson-like or Surrealist-inspired works.

Greenhalgh There’s a whole range of influences in those years. In the late 1930s, he’s looking at Picasso, so there are Cubist, proto-abstract compositions. In the early 1940s, Rothko’s working in a kind of classical-mythic mode, in canvases featuring striated, hybrid figures with multiple heads and legs and dismembered bodies in boxes, as well as architectural forms. You can see those in the Paris exhibition. There are a number of works on paper like that, but they are smaller, and clearly about working out ideas for the canvases.

Rothko In the early 1940s, there are an unusual number of preparatory drawings—not necessarily studies for specific canvases but little doodles, of bird figures and strange vessels and things that show up in different paintings.

Greenhalgh Those kinds of drawings are fascinating—tracking various motifs and finding them in the different canvases. But it’s all part of the process behind the finished works.

Ebony And he achieved a certain level of success for the work of the mid 1940s—his first museum acquisition, for instance, when the Whitney acquired Baptismal Scene [1945].

Greenhalgh The Peggy Guggenheim 1945 show was a turning point. The Whitney acquired Baptismal Scene in early 1946, and another one in 1947; a watercolor entered the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1946; and the Brooklyn Museum acquired a watercolor in 1947. Four of the first five Rothkos to enter museum collections were works on paper.

Rothko We’re talking here about a total of maybe a few thousand dollars in sales in this period, but it did mark a notable leap forward compared with the exposure he had up until that time.

Ebony In the book, you mention, Adam, a successful show in San Francisco at a gallery specializing in ancient art. Could you just address the connection between Rothko’s work of this period and antiquity?

Greenhalgh In 1946, Betty Parsons, who would be Rothko’s first dealer, organized an exhibition of watercolors at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery in New York. That show traveled to San Francisco and on to Santa Barbara. In the California venues a number of canvases were added to the show. At the time, in the aftermath of the war, he’s looking for a universal visual language that would be relevant to this traumatic historical moment. Having read Nietzsche and Jung, Rothko believes that the path to create works of art in 1945 and ’46 that will resonate with viewers is to find what he calls tragic and timeless subject matter. He looks to Greek myth, to religious rituals, antiquity, and related subjects. His images suggest a kind of hazy past or a liquid, primordial origin story.

Ebony I can’t recall from his biography if he travelled to archeological sites, or if he ever visited ancient ruins.

Rothko He went to Pompeii, and also went to the Greek site Paestum, which is not that far away. But while traveling through Italy, he focused mostly on Renaissance art and architecture.

Greenhalgh Yes, that was a little later, in the 1950s. But in the 1940s, he would study works of ancient art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and elsewhere.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, c. 1946, watercolor and ink on watercolor paper, National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.226. Copyright © 2023 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

Ebony There is a dramatic change of technique in the works on paper in the 1940s. Can you say a bit about that? There’s a quote in the book from page 147 saying that the “familiarity of things has to be pulverized.”

Greenhalgh I think the techniques like gouging or attacking, scraping the paper as a kind of excavation, is an attempt to dig into the past. But it works, too, with the desire to eradicate, to pulverize, to break down and destroy.

Rothko There’s a parallel process with the canvases, where he’s also rubbing, gouging, etching away. He talks about the importance of physicality—what he calls tactility in art, to make it believable. Later, he talked about wanting the viewer to have the same religious experience with the painting that he had in making it. He’s creating a lived experience with the art that the viewer can relive on some level. It’s not completely different from sculpture, like a stone sculpture chipping away to make something. There’s an inner truth there that has to be revealed.

Ebony Adam, you quote Rothko later in life saying that he was the most violent of the American painters, saying, “Behind the color lives the cataclysm.” Did that start in the 1940s or ’50s?  

Greenhalgh You could say it starts even earlier, in the 1930s. The thing I’ve come to realize is that Rothko’s great aim, I think, is to paint the full range of human experience: from ecstasy to despair, from joy to tragic annihilation. The form changes over the years. He finally arrives at a type of abstraction and pure color as the best means of conveying that experience. The violence is still in there because it’s part of human emotional life. It’s not just about pretty colors, or formal ideas. I think that it’s part and parcel of the sort of grand intention that’s there in the work from the very beginning.

Rothko In terms of the pure abstract compositions, the violence is often on the surface and is directed more to the emotions. He’s not going to let you sit calmly in front of the paintings. I know a lot of people find them meditative, but he really wants to stir up your inner world, and get past everyday thinking, and return to those most essential, existential thoughts. He wants the work to resonate with viewers in a way that is both stimulating and disturbing.

Ebony There is another gap in the production of works on paper, from about 1949-1956.

Greenhalgh In those years, he’s directing his energy toward the canvases. We know a small group of works on paper from 1953, but his focus is mostly on the canvases.

Ebony You mention in the book that he did over 40 works on paper related to the Seagram’s commission in 1958. Can you provide just a brief overview of that ill-fated project?

Rothko My father was commissioned by Philip Johnson, who was working on the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building, designed by Mies van der Rohe. He was to do a series of five murals for a private dining room there. My father sees this as a chance to make a major public statement and create his own room. He had a lot of misgivings about the project, and over time he realizes that his serious paintings would not be able to compete with the restaurant’s atmosphere of wine and dining. He withdraws from the commission, but in the meanwhile he pushes his technique and visual vocabulary quite far forward with these works that would influence the rest of his career. The series of large paintings on paper he did in 1958 and ’59 closely relate to the Seagram commission.                

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1959, oil and watercolor on watercolor paper, Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel and Ilya Prizel. Copyright © 2023 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.

Ebony This is also the point when his palette gets darker. Was that a reflection of this feeling about this troubled commission, or what do you think caused this dramatic shift in tone?

Rothko We don’t have any quotes in direct response to this question. But he is on record as expressing concern that some people thought his work to be decorative or too beautiful. He wanted to make sure that viewers understood the seriousness of the work. I also think that with those works the nature of the engagement changes. He’s not looking to grab the viewer’s attention in the same way as in earlier works. Rather than grab you by the lapels, he wants the works to enter your consciousness slowly, osmotically.

Greenhalgh In the works on paper in 1958-59 he does everything—paintings that grab you by the lapels, as well as darker, richer things that lure you in and make you linger and spend some time.

Ebony Later, in the 1960s—in 1968—he suffered a heart attack.

Rothko Actually, it was an aortal aneurism, but effectively, it’s the same thing. His heart is in bad shape; his cardiovascular system is in terrible condition.

Ebony Strangely, it’s one of the most productive times ever for him.  

Rothko Absolutely. As the story goes that has been passed down to us, after a considerable amount of time laid up in bed, he’s restricted from painting on canvas. His physician doesn’t want him to be painting at all. He felt that the strain is too great.

Greenhalgh The aneurism happens in April 1968, and he recuperates for several months. Under this medical prohibition, he starts painting on paper, on a small scale—most around 18 by 24 inches. But after just a few months, he starts painting much larger, with a very surprising high level of energy, with great gusto and vigor in a wild and surprising palette, from dark tones to sort of phosphorescent orange. Whether it’s because he is defiant or distraught, he is painting at a wild pace. He produces 120 works on paper in 1968 alone, as well as a few [3] canvases. He continues at that rate up until his death from suicide in February 1970.

Ebony There are so many beautiful works on paper from that period reproduced in the book. Can you comment on or dispel the general perception that the late works were brooding and tragic, foretelling of his demise?     

Greenhalgh There is the perception that the dark palette in the canvases must mean dark mood or ill health. With their sheer quantity and variety, the works on paper from the period dispel that simpleminded association. But more broadly it calls into question the whole idea of doing a psycho-biographical reading of Rothko based on palette. My goal in the exhibition and book  is to undermine that conventional reading of the late work, and to showcase the great range of the works on paper in those final two years.

Adam Greenhalgh is associate curator at the National Gallery of Art, and lead author of the online catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s works on paper published by the National Gallery of Art.

Christopher Rothko, a writer and psychologist, chairs the board of directors of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and manages his father’s legacy and organizes exhibitions of his work around the world. He is the author of Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out.

David Ebony is a contributing editor of Art in America, and founding editor of Snapshot of the Artworld, as well as the author of numerous artist monographs, most recently, major publications on the work of Larry Poons, and Stephen Antonakos.

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