Monday, March 12, 2012

Mark Rothko's Blazing Orange Totem: The Power of Art and Frist's To See As Artists See

Posted By on Mon, Mar 12, 2012 at 7:00 AM

To See as Artists See: American Art from the Phillips Collection leads viewers from late 19th century stateside realism to the post-war breakthroughs of abstract expressionism. Currently on display at The Frist, the exhibit offers a sure-footed journey through the development of American painting, as well as a compelling take on American history as seen through the eyes of some of its most definitive artists.

Mark Rothko stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his “irascible” comrades on the volcanic heights won by the abstract expressionists after WWII, but these artists all took unique paths in expressing their personal, inner truths. Willem de Kooning rejected the ab-ex label outright and never entirely abandoned painting the figure. And while Jackson Pollock became the movement's most iconic personality, Rothko contributed some of its most inscrutable works of art.

Untitled, Mark Rothko
  • "Untitled," Mark Rothko
Rothko's “Untitled” (1968) is on display at the Frist exhibit. An acrylic painting on paper, the label informs viewers that the work “reflects Mark Rothko's mature style,” featuring “ephemeral colors hanging in their own misty atmosphere.” This is a smaller version of the monumental “multiform” paintings the artist is best known for. While Rothko often developed plans for his larger works, his paintings are ultimately discoveries, not realizations. That said, it's a common mistake to see Rothko as an artist obsessed with arranging and spacing colors and forms in search of some merely compositional perfection. Rothko dismissed this interpretation, insisting that his paintings conveyed an experience of the transcendent through the sensual, felt power of their imagery alone.

The scale of Rothko's big paintings was meant to envelope the viewer's field of vision. "18 inches" was Rothko's answer to the question of how close one should stand when looking at his art. That won't work with a comparatively pint-sized painting, but this blazing orange totem near the end of the Frist show still throbs with its own kind of truth.

Clyfford Still's colorfield innovations made a big impact on Rothko, and one of Still's works shares the gallery here. At this intersection, the exhibit's chronological storytelling really pays off — you can see some sparks crackling between the pieces if you know what you're looking at.

I've seen To See twice now and I'll be going back. You should treat exhibits like movies: If you like them, see them again! Expansive shows like this one have a lot to say, and viewers that commit to an ongoing dialog with this exhibit will be rewarded.

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