National Gallery exhibit challenges traditional view of Rothko's black paintings

Dark victory: Black paintings in the National Gallery's exhibit "In the Tower: Mark Rothko" reveal rich gradations that challenge theories about the artist's mood and the symbolic meaning of blackness.
Dark victory: Black paintings in the National Gallery's exhibit "In the Tower: Mark Rothko" reveal rich gradations that challenge theories about the artist's mood and the symbolic meaning of blackness. (Blake Gopnik/The Washington Post)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

A spacious room at the top of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art has recently been rehung with seven big, flesh-colored abstract paintings.

They are all in shades of black: One is a blue-black square on a purple-black field, almost eight feet tall by more than six across; another is a rectangle of violet black behind a square of black that has a hint of brown to it.

Of course, when Mark Rothko painted these works in 1964, he didn't have the skin of African Americans in mind. I'm suggesting that we might want to as we look today.

Starting around 1950, Rothko built his reputation -- the reputation that survives to this day -- on almost-geometric abstractions done in luminous washes of color: a brushy rectangle of sunset red on a corn-yellow ground, or maybe Corvette blue floating on Kustom Kar purple. By the mid-1960s, however, Rothko was moving on from there, following a larger art-world trend toward paring back -- sometimes all the way to black, as in other inky paintings of the era by Frank Stella and Ad Reinhardt.

The National Gallery's rehang of its East Building "tower" with those seven moody, crepuscular Rothkos (six from its own extensive Rothko holdings plus one that is a promised gift from the Meyerhoff Collection) is meant to allow us to look more closely than ever at that shift toward the lightless and color-free in Rothko's work. And one of the goals of the installation, organized by curator Harry Cooper, is to move beyond some of the cliches that can swim around art such as this -- cliches including the idea that it's only and inevitably "moody" or "crepuscular."

Rothko suffered from chronic depression, leading to his suicide in 1970 -- so these paintings, the story goes, must reflect that anguish. (Funny how, when he paints in yellow, no one imagines the artist cured of his disease.) Or, because abstractionists in Rothko's day liked to make oracular pronouncements about the Deep Meaning of Art, these black paintings must be about the Eternal Emptiness of Being or some such thing. Blackness, according to these trite ideas, must always come saddled with the weightiest of connotations: It's never just a tone; it's always a kind of placeholder for something else, bigger and deeper and more "profound" than itself.

Close looking at these seven pictures -- they repay hour after hour of attentive contemplation -- made me realize that the great thing about them isn't that they stand for something else, but that they are so rich in their own particularities. They aren't just black on black, produced as a kind of conceptual gambit at reduction. They are every color of black against every other tone and hue and shade of it. Those distinctions, rather than their common gloom, are what really come to matter about them. After an hour or two of looking, some of the paintings in this display can end up seeming almost colorful, as though all that shared blackness cancels itself out, like a common variable in middle-school algebra, leaving only blues and browns and greens to be counted.

The surfaces of these paintings are equally irreducible to generalities, and equally full of incident: a drip here, a tiny spit of magenta there, a big matte field balanced by the subtle sheen of the square set on top of it. Those cosmetic imperfections -- the painterly equivalent of moles and warts and shiny foreheads -- got me thinking of these paintings as individuals, as portraits, as skins. And that's when I realized that, even when we're looking at abstraction, we have an almost moral imperative to go beyond our cliches about what blackness means.

As I stood watching Rothko's works, I noticed that I was being watched in turn -- by two African American security guards, both in regulation blue-black suits and both with notably dark complexions. And it suddenly seemed wrong to reduce the complex color of their skin -- or, for that matter, of any color out there in the world -- to a single formulaic reading. These guards, happily protecting the works under their care, certainly didn't stand for existential angst, or for a depressive mood, any more than the pervasive blacks and charcoals in the clothing of many of my fellow visitors -- tones which these Rothkos helped me notice more than before -- said anything about their brains' serotonin levels. If anything, these paintings risk coming off as almost too stylish for their own good: Like an elegant Armani suit on a gorgeous woman, they are more likely to leave you smiling than blue.

In fact, what I came to notice was how Rothko's supposedly dour, restrained paintings made my gallery experience more animated than it has sometimes been when looking at other, supposedly livelier works. To take in Rothko's seven paintings -- to get anything at all from them beyond the poorest paraphrase of them as merely "black" -- you have to keep moving around them, from near to far and side-to-side, catching at the way different lightings and angles of view reveal different things about them.

It's all too easy for us to reduce a standard figurative picture to the content it conveys -- to "a yellow bed," to "a little boy in blue," even, in a classic Rothko, to "an orange square on red" -- thereby saving us the trouble of actually looking at what's there on the gallery wall. Rothko's black paintings don't allow us that sloth. With them, it's all or nothing: They are either empty, meaningless, uniform blackness, barely worth attending to, or they are themselves in all their rich detail, which itself shifts and changes over time and space as we look on. And all that detail, along with the work it takes to winkle it out and take it in, makes you aware of yourself as a living, moving, engaged being, attending to the art in a lovely space that's full of light and air -- and more aware of that light and air because of that atmosphere's notable, indispensable effects on the black-on-black objects that bathe in it. Looking at the "dour" blackness in these pictures, it turns out, is all about the joyous light it takes to make that looking possible at all -- it's a kind of paradox, and like most brainteasers, it's full of restless energy. It is literally a lighthearted affair.

As you look at these fiendishly complex paintings, you also become aware of the tremendously energetic artist who brought them into being, mounting ladders to access all corners of his canvases, meticulously laying down the many layers of paint it took to achieve his effects, allowing one drip to stay while brushing off another, permitting that tiny fleck of magenta to carry over from another, brighter picture he must have worked on at the same time. These are not the lackluster actions of someone whose spirit has been sapped by depression. Simply in the physical, intellectual and perceptual ambition of these pictures, there's a tremendous joie de vivre.

In the Tower: Mark Rothko

runs through Jan. 2, 2011, at the National Gallery of Art, on the north side of the Mall at Fourth Street. Call 202-737-4215 or visit http://www.nga.gov.

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