A Different Look

The Columbus Museum of Art showcases the eclectic works of Mark Rothko.

Dominique Vasseur ascends thestaircase to the Columbus Museum of Art’s second-floor galleries. He stops before a massive 81-1/2-by-66-1/2-inch canvas and invites the visitors accompanying him to take a look. It’s clear from the raised eyebrows around the room that many of us don’t “get” “Untitled.” In fact, the quartet of colors swathed across the painting resemble a cross between a swatch we’d pick up at Sherwin-Williams or an art-class project from kindergarten.

Vasseur, the museum’s director of curatorial administration, smiles patiently and tells us to look at Mark Rothko’s classic work once more. Only this time, he asks that we leave cogitation out of the equation.

“Rothko wrote that he doesn’t want you to experience his work with your intellect,” Vasseur explains. “He wants you to experience his paintings with your gut.

“What the artist is trying to do,” the curator adds, “is pull you in with shapes, colors and energy.”

Indeed, the more we stare, the more the painting takes on a luminosity that isn’t readily apparent at first glance: Scribbles of chocolate brown embedded in forest green slowly come to the fore. And the midnight black band becomes a mirror to infinity.

Vasseur has led us to enlightenment. And it’s a role he relishes, particularly when it comes to Rothko.

“I think that of all the Abstract Expressionist painters, Rothko was the most successful of all,” the curator says. “He met the challenge of finding a way for his paintings to speak with a voice that came very, very deep from the human psyche.”

Through May 26, visitors to the Columbus Museum of Art will be able to draw their own conclusions about the artist’s work. “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940–1950” showcases 27 of the painter’s dream-like images.

Vasseur, who’s also the museum’s curator of European art, admits that researching Rothko for the exhibition was a departure from his usual exploration of the pre-World War II artists he admires. But it was time well spent.

“It was fascinating getting to know Rothko and the period in which he lived,” the curator reflects. “The artist and his contemporaries existed in a very conflicted world. Society was changing dangerously with the rise of Nazism, Communism and Socialism.

“And,” Vasseur adds, “on the science front, great inroads were being made into psychoanalysis. Doctors were plumbing the depths trying to see what made people the way they were.”

As a result, he explains, Rothko and his contemporaries — Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, among others — would talk into the wee hours of the morning about how to capture what was going on around them in ways that had yet to be attempted.

“Rothko admired the talents of predecessor Rembrandt van Rijn — the fact that just by using paint on a flat surface, he created seemingly living, breathing people that not just have life, but a soul as well,” Vasseur says. “And there’s no doubt that Rothko was also an incredibly sensitive man who wanted his art to have that kind of presence and life. But, he didn’t want to paint like Rembrandt since Rembrandt already exists.”

Eschewing the human figure that artists through the ages had perfected, Rothko opted to infuse his work with emotion and leave interpretation to the audience. Although a 1940s painting is aptly subtitled and clearly depicts “man and two women in a pastoral setting,” their faces remain largely undefined.

As the decade progressed, Rothko would move even further away from easily recognizable forms. Initially drawing inspiration from mythology, he started focusing on shapes and colors.

Vasseur cites “Untitled,” painted in 1945 and 1946, as an example.

“Suddenly, even the suggestion of a human figure clothed in classical garb is gone,” the curator says. “And you’re left with biomorphic shapes resembling cells floating in an environment that could be water.

“But,” the curator cautions, “we’re not sure because we don’t want to be too literal about it.”

Vasseur reflects that Rothko’s use of tint adds a sense of mystery. In fact, he adds, the artist’s late style comprised of rectangles of color was not intended
to be abstract. Rather, it was meant to convey universal experiences of “tragedy, ecstasy and doom.”

“Rothko finally found a way to paint that for him, at least, has what he would say is the breath of life,” the curator explains. “All you need is to be open to it so that you will feel the same kind of deep spiritual, human beauty that you would find in Rembrandt.”

Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940–1950
Columbus Museum of Art
480 E. Broad St., Columbus 43215
614/221-4848, columbusmuseum.org
Hours: Tues.–Sun., 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Thur. 10 a.m.–8:30 p.m.
Admission: $12 adults, $8 seniors and students