Washington has been the hub of abstract artist Mark Rothko’s work, writing and mythology since 1986, when the Rothko Foundation donated more than 1,000 items to the National Gallery.
Besides the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection has the revered Rothko Room, a collaboration between the artist and the gallery’s founder, Duncan Phillips. And the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art all hold Rothkos.
But in the 1980s, the Rothko Foundation decided the National Gallery of Art had several elements it coveted. It had a noted conservation department and storage space galore. It had scholars who could produce the definitive catalogues. It had an established lending service. And, as a public institution, it’s open to visitors and scholars.
It is now the central repository for the study of Rothko, the Russian-born painter who lived from 1903 to 1970.
“The work has a quality that appeals to people around the world. I was talking to a curator in Hanover, Germany. He said people go right to the Rothkos. I don’t know if anyone can explain that. There is a power in his work that is open to people, draws them in and gives them a meditative experience,” said Ruth Fine, the gallery’s curator of special projects in modern art.
“Red,” the prize-winning play that opens at Arena Stage on Jan. 20, focuses on the artist’s commission to create murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. He eventually withdrew after deciding the restaurant was an inappropriate venue for his art. The National Gallery holds several pieces from that commission.
However, Rothko was about much more than his signature murals.
“He is on the level of Jackson Pollock, but I think he does function in a different way. He is very much about color and showing the power of color as a vehicle for modern art,” says Harry Cooper, the National Gallery’s curator of modern and contemporary art. Rothko was one of the rare artists who became famous early, and he wrestled with that. “He got much better off. One of the dramas that gets played out around the Seagram murals is that he wanted to push against that popularity a little bit,” says Cooper.
His mythology and status of his work has only increased over the years, bringing in millions at auction along with contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol and Pollock.
In the gallery above, take a look at Rothkos in D.C. museums, four of which you can see on exhibit now.