Show chronicles artist’s progressionThroughout the course of western art history, abstraction has often been described as a spiritual genre that captures the aesthetic phenomenon of transcendent values of humanity.
It’s true. There’s a need for restraint of the urge to speak to describe profound themes in life, such as tragedy and the sublime, through a single painting. How transcendent does one have to be to use the least words in ways that contain the most meaning?
With Mark Rothko (1903-1970), it’s evident his artistic abstraction was a direct expression of the pain in his own life.
Abstraction as an artistic form didn’t appear until the later years of the artist’s life before his suicide at the age of 67, but Rothko was one of the foremost abstract expressionists in the development of post-war painting.
Rothko started out as a figurative painter, as is evident in a recent display of his work at Leeum, “The Art of Rothko.” The wide range of works on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington includes many of his earlier classical paintings of nudes, portraits and landscapes that almost romanticize reality.
Rothko’s later experiments with color fields lasted for 20 years. By 1947, he moved on from representational imagery to compositions of color shapes called “multiforms,” the broad spectrum of colors and tones that divide the canvas plane into simple rectangles.
At first, his series seems to have begun as a formal experiment to test various radiant optical effects. Then he gradually moved onto conceptual concerns, and often described his work as conveying “the simple expression of the complex thought.”
By the late 1950s, he abandoned radiant colors in favor of darker reds, maroons, browns and blacks in a series of public mural projects. His last painting on canvas, which is included in the Seoul exhibit, features a hypnotic field of color soaked in vibrant red, which art critics believe references blood.
The exhibit at Leeum shows selected works from the National Gallery, which has the largest collection of the artist’s works, chronicling Rothko’s artistic evolution over five decades. They range from early representational images of figure and landscapes of gouache drawings on paper, to transitional works, which reveal Rothko’s interest in key modernist concerns. The exhibit ends with a series of abstract paintings that convey his conceptual concerns, which were influenced by readings on mythology and psychoanalysis, the paintings of Rembrandt, the music of Mozart and the philosophy of Nietzsche.
Perhaps Rothko’s artistic path is an exception in abstract expressionism, which is often explained in art history as “an intellectual genre” because it strictly delves into formal aesthetics of art. Instead, his art is an essential depiction of loss and humanity, as he deliberately chose abstraction as a way to stress more “power in telling little than in telling all,” beyond an aesthetic medium of art.
by Park Soo-mee
“The Art of Mark Rothko: Selections from the National Gallery of Art, Washington” shows at Leeum, the Samsung Museum of Art, through September 10. For more information call (02) 2014-6901.