criticismExhibitions
Thursday, February 12th, 2004

Rothko at PaceWildenstein and Esteban Vicente at Ameringer & Yohe


“Rothko: The Year 1949 – A Painter’s Progress” at PaceWildenstein until February 23 (32 E. 57th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, 212-421-3292)

“Esteban Vicente: Early Works” at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art until March 20 (20 W. 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 212-445-0051)

Mark Rothko Untitled 1949 oil on canvas, 31-3/4 x 23-5/8 inches Collection of Christopher Rothko Courtesy PaceWildestein, New York

Mark Rothko, Untitled 1949 oil on canvas, 31-3/4 x 23-5/8 inches Collection of Christopher Rothko Courtesy PaceWildestein, New York

A good Rothko is always an enigma: You can sense its beauty and feel its emotion, yet both are ineffable. It is very hard to believe, for instance, that if a given lozenge were a few inches taller or shorter, it would make a blind bit of difference. Yet the beauty seems intricately calibrated. And as with the formal, so with the emotional component. We can feel “emotion” without being able to quantify it, without really being able to say whether a given Rothko is cheerful or melancholy, tragic or ecstatic.

To a considerable extent, appreciation of Rothko is conditioned by Rothko’s myth. The artist, steeped in Nietszche and Greek tragedy, who pondered the Holocaust and ended up taking his own life, has us expecting, and finding, gravitas and catharsis in his work. But, in the Nietzschean sense, Rothko’s emotionality is “beyond” happy and sad. Emotion, like form, is abstracted from the particular and taken to a transcendent place.

That is putting it in rather mystical terms. An equally valid approach would be to say that, more than most modern artists, Rothko demands emotional investment from the viewer: The artist’s intuitions about color and shape set up ciphers for the feeling and thought of others. Where traditional art, drawing upon shared iconography, made demands on collective knowledge of myth and fable, a Rothko appeals instead to self-knowledge.

In terms of curatorial focus and quality of work, “Rothko: The Year 1949,” at PaceWildenstein’s uptown premises, is an exhibition that would not be out of place in any of the institutions that have lent works to it – including the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Hirshhorn, and the Museum of Modern Art. Put together by Bernice Rose, a director at PaceWildenstein who is herself a museum transplant (she was MoMA’s chief curator of drawings until 1993), the show is dedicated to a single year of intense search and decisive discovery that was axiomatic to Rothko’s development.

1949 is the year of choice for a Rothko exhibition, as it represents both striving and achieving. By 1946 the future abstract expressionist had already made his break with imagery. He didn’t so much jettison the vaguely mythological, whimsically doodled creatures floating in surreal dreamscapes as allow both figures and grounds to drift into a nebulous abstraction. The paintings of the next three years, the period of his so-called “multiforms,” represent Rothko at opposite extremes of sensual voluptuousness and formal restlessness.

Spurred by the Bonnard retrospective at the Modern the previous year, and by that museum’s acquisition of Matisse’s “Red Studio” (1911) in January 1949, Rothko developed a new awareness of color as more than a means to an end. He described his encounter with the Matisse in terms of a totality of experience that accords with the emotional ambition of his own mature work: “When you looked at that painting, you became that color, you became totally saturated with it.”

The “classic” Rothko is a stack of pulsating rectangular lozenges that dominate a tonally closely related ground, which is usually glimpsed along the edge of the painting only. There is also typically a tripartite division of the canvas. The double horizon line that often forms from this arrangement, although non-referential, can bring a seascape to mind, reminding us of the early influence on Rothko of the American painter, Milton Avery.

In 1949, the last year of “multiforms,” Rothko’s work seems to be anxiously edging toward the structural rigor of the “classic” idiom. Rothko revels in color and its painterly application while striving for clarity, for symbolic order. Ms. Rose conceives this inner struggle in the perennial terms of the Italian Renaissance, the opposition of “colore” and “disegno”. Her catalogue essay, making a heady appeal to the theories of Erwin Panofsky, argues that Rothko, in his “classic” idiom, discovered in color a symbolic form of equivalent weight to perspective.

My opening remarks about the enigma of Rothko may be interpreted as an abnegation of the role of criticism in relation to his work, but it is not intended to be. While the nineteen works on display here are all of exceptional caliber, part of the thrill of watching a master on the brink of discovering his form is to see the pathways he might have followed towards a more varied, if less rich, formal vocabulary- to see “good enough” Rothko’s which aren’t quite Rothko’s, so to speak.

Mark Rothko No. 11/ No. 20 1949 oil on canvas, 93-3/4 x 53 inches Collection of Christopher Rothko Courtesy PaceWildestein, New York

Mark Rothko, No. 11/ No. 20 1949 oil on canvas, 93-3/4 x 53 inches Collection of Christopher Rothko Courtesy PaceWildestein, New York

It is also the pleasure of seeing a greater diversity of influence than is perhaps ackowledged in the canonical interpretation of the artist. In this regard, one painting in particular intrigues me: “No.11/ No 20,” (1949). Many other works in the show attest to the influence of Matisse and Bonnard; here, a much graver symbolist than Bonnard comes to mind: Munch. Of course, this would make sense of Robert Rosenblum’s legendary interpretation of Rothko as the culmination of a northern romantic tradition, and it might be fanciful on my part to read the painting along such lines, but I can’t help seeing in the loose, fractured, wobbly line (a motif that would resolve in classic Rothko as the vibrating edge formed of exposed ground) that frames the tall, green rectangle to the right of the composition, something of the sperms that stalks the edges of some of Munch’s compositions. The pulstaing lozenge of light in the corresponding left rectangle in the Rothko, with this connection in mind, starts to look like the reflected moon motif in Munch’s twilit Nordic lakes.

***

While PaceWildenstein presents Rothko’s breakthroughs afresh, Ameringer Yohe, two blocks away, provides a complementary thrill: a reminder of the achievements of an overlooked contemporary.

Estaban Vicente was born in Madrid in 1903, the same year Marcus Rothkovich was born in Dvinsk, Russia. He trained at the Real Academia, befriended Picasso, Dalí, and Buñuel, and had several shows in Barcelona and Madrid before moving (via Paris) to New York in 1936. A fine museum in Segovia now bears his name, and he is counted by Spaniards as a canonical abstract expressionist.

Back in America his name will never quite roll off the tongue with Pollock’s, Rothko’s, or de Kooning’s, but there is plenty still to marvel at. His work of the 1950s is very typical of the period, with its abstracted intimations of the figure or landscape lurking in a cubist-informed dynamic structure. Vicente distinguished himself from the legion of de Kooning’s acolytes, however, by refusing their lugubrious palette.

His breakthrough came from collage. Like many of his contemporaries (Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, George Sugarman-a fine show of whom is presented upstairs from Ameringer Yohe, incidentally, at the Joan T. Washburn gallery–and Conrad Marca-Relli), Vicente discovered whole new possibilities for shape and color through experimentation with torn and cutout materials – in his case, paper. The half-dozen collages gathered here, exceptional works in their own right, demonstrably galvanized his painting.

The effect of cutout on younger artists working in the same period, such as Ellsworth Kelly, Al Held, and Alex Katz, was to lead to a hard-edge sensibility. But Vicente’s paper works inspired, on the contrary, a newfound painterliness. In his canvases of the late 1950s and early 1960s, eloquently expressive painthandling cohabits with an accentuated shape consciousness. The pulsating, interlocking forms in “No. 6″ (1961), for instance, have an earthy sumptuousness about them that brings to mind the abstract period of Philip Guston.

Such Old Master-ish qualities, and his Spanish (Goyaesque) handling and palette might just be what makes him too conventional for the top tier of AbEx innovators. But these endearing qualities place him very high in the second tier.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, February 12, 2004


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