Exploring the rich layers of Mark Rothko’s artistry, the Fondation Louis Vuitton recently unveiled an extraordinary retrospective that delves deep into the painter’s journey through color, space and emotion. The magnitude of this exhibition cannot be understated, showcasing an expansive collection that highlights Rothko’s unwavering commitment to abstraction.
The journey of Rothko’s artistry, starting from 1949, is a story of transformation and dedication. His early figurative works evolved into powerful abstract forms, devoid of any allusions, capturing the audience with their emotional depth and complexity. Rothko’s large paintings, often seen as sources of consolation, are filled with vibrant colors, drawing viewers into their depths. However, Rothko himself never considered his works to be peaceful, once stating, “Behind the color lies the cataclysm,” a powerful reminder of the intense emotions that lie beneath the surface.
Visitors to the Fondation Louis Vuitton will find themselves immersed in the vastness of Rothko’s oeuvre. With 115 works spread across four floors of the Frank Gehry-designed building, the exhibition is a testament to the artist’s legacy. It is a rare opportunity, given the monumental financial and logistical challenges associated with mounting such a comprehensive presentation of Rothko’s work.
Rothko’s paintings, characterized by their delicate nature and immense value, rarely leave their homes. However, the influence of Bernard Arnault, CEO of a luxury conglomerate and the second richest man in the world, has been instrumental in bringing this collection to the public. In addition, the collaboration between the Rothko estate, co-curated by the artist’s son, Christopher Rothko, and Vuitton’s Suzanne Pagé, has been instrumental in assembling this extraordinary exhibition.
The exhibition features Rothko’s work from several prestigious institutions, including MoMA, SFMOMA, Yale, and Stanford, as well as gems from smaller galleries. The chronological arrangement guides visitors through Rothko’s artistic development, from his early urban scenes and surrealist influences, to his signature abstract pieces, to his lesser-known but equally fascinating later works.
While the exhibition is undeniably impressive, it is not without its critics. Some may find a certain monotony in the sea of Rothko’s large, immersive canvases, while others may question the metaphysical claims attached to his work. The repetitiveness and the stylishness of his classic phase can, at times, feel overwhelming, prompting a reflection on the relationship between art and its surrounding context. Yet there are moments in the retrospective that challenge these views and offer a fresh perspective on Rothko’s legacy.
The inclusion of Rothko’s early subway paintings and his surreal, totemic works from the 1940s provide insight into the artist’s journey toward abstraction. These works, filled with blocks of color and mythological references, serve as a prelude to his signature style, a unique blend of emotion, color, and form.
Rothko’s later works, particularly those from the 1960s, are bold, theatrical, and haunting. SFMOMA’s “No. 14,” a towering canvas bathed in a hazy purple and bold khaki, captures the viewer’s attention and showcases Rothko’s mastery of color and emotion. The inclusion of Alberto Giacometti’s bronzes in the final gallery adds an additional layer of complexity, creating a dialogue between two artists exploring existential themes. The exhibition concludes with a series of achromatic paintings, “Black and Gray” series, painted after a serious illness, challenges preconceived notions of his work, presenting a more honest and introspective reflection on his medium.
With this retrospective, the Fondation Louis Vuitton offers a unique opportunity to immerse oneself in the world of Mark Rothko. It is a journey through color, emotion, and the profound questions of life, offering a glimpse into the mind of one of the most enigmatic artists of the 20th century. Rothko’s work, which transcends time and space, continues to captivate, challenge, and inspire, proving that his legacy is as vibrant and relevant today as it was during his lifetime.
(From 18 October 2023 to 2 April 2024)
Fondation Louis Vuitton
8 Av. du Mahatma Gandhi
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