Melt the world away, lose its details, dissolve its borders; it doesn’t sound like such an unwelcome prospect right now. The most substantial Mark Rothko retrospective in a generation has opened at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, and it is a show of monumental dispersion: a pull-out-all-the-stops blockbuster where life passes into vapor.
From 1949, when his early figurative pictures finally liquefied into stains of translucent color, Rothko painted with no allusions, no particulars. Over and over, in soft-edged blocks layered on filmy backgrounds, he modeled a commitment to abstraction that charged at the hardest questions of life and art through refusal of the easy path. A lot of people find his large paintings consoling, or seek the Romantic sublime in the depths of his reds and violets. Rothko never thought of them as peaceable. “Behind the color lies the cataclysm,” he said in 1959 — a citation that rarely makes the auction preview catalogs.
His misty abstractions are now so beloved, and their prices so elevated (one was for sale for $40 million at Paris+, the Art Basel spinoff here last week), that we might feel we know Rothko backward and forward. Yet it’s been 25 whole years since the last full-scale exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington and later seen at the Whitney in New York. To mount a Rothko retrospective of this scale — there are 115 works at the Fondation Vuitton, spanning all four floors of its Frank Gehry-designed glass schooner in the Bois de Boulogne — is a far heavier lift than it was in 1998, now that costs have reached such extremes that almost no public museum could afford it.
These paintings are fragile, too, in addition to being a fortune. Nobody wants to lend them without a good reason. It therefore helps when your museum is presided over by the second-richest man on the planet; Bernard Arnault, the luxury conglomerate CEO, is, if nothing else, spending his billions more civically than the South African meme lord, Elon Musk, who overtook him this year to the top of the rich lists. It helps, too, to have the artist’s son, Christopher Rothko, as co-curator of this show, with Suzanne Pagé of the Vuitton. Christopher and his sister, Kate Rothko Prizel, hold a trove of their father’s paintings, which they recovered after a notorious, epic lawsuit in the 1970s.
The French foundation and the estate have been working together for years to construct this very rare assembly. Unlike the 1998 show, whose core was the National Gallery’s huge Rothko holdings and the children’s personal collections, here in Paris the curators have borrowed some of the weightiest works of MoMA and the Menil, Yale and Stanford, SFMOMA and the Art Gallery of Ontario. There are also rarely seen paintings from smaller institutions like Munson, a museum in Utica, N.Y., which has generously parted with two prime Rothkos: a blotchy abstraction from 1947, when the artist was on the very hinge of his breakthrough, and a 1951 painting of classic vermilion and diffusing white.
So in organizational terms this show is a milestone, with dozens of classic foggy rectangles bookended by Rothko’s early city scenes (sweet but not special) and late color-free abstractions (truly underrated). It plays everything straight, on a strict chronological path to the abstract sublime, and its cool tone only amplifies its extravagance. Whole galleries are given over to 10 or more abstractions, and paintings throughout are hung much lower to the floor than usual — the artist’s preference, to echo the conditions of his studio — against walls of elephant gray rather than nuclear white.
It keeps the focus on the pictures and nothing else, with just passing glances to the young Marcus Rothkowitz’s flight from present-day Latvia, the influence of his Talmudic education or the impact of the Holocaust, the mixed reception of Abstract Expressionism in American and European museums, or his suicide in 1970. The maturation of Rothko’s style into a luminous overlay of hazy-edged not-quite-squares occurs in a horn-blowing room (or perhaps the sound is more like a muffled trumpet?) with a dozen choice pictures from 1952 to 1958, unencumbered by internal walls or supplementary texts.
For all that, may I grumble for a moment? In can coolly appreciate the artist’s modulations of color; I’m not a philistine. I have a sly admiration for how he imparted the highest seriousness to a few blurry stains. But there is a repetitiousness to this much Rothko, and a fair bit of pomposity to its metaphysical claims. For an artist with such a horror of the decorative, his classic phase is uncomfortably stylish, and feels all the more so in a museum funded by handbag sales. A particular bugbear is his preference for, or fixation on, low-lit rooms containing no art but his own, reducing many of his paintings to props in a moody installation.
I feel that especially in the case of the Seagram Murals, exceptionally lent to Paris from Tate Modern in London, which the artist painted for a disastrous commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan and which, sorry!, I have never liked. Rothko grew more and more upset between 1958 and 1960 that his somber, wine-dark canvases would accompany business lunches, and though he fantasized of making the diners vomit even he knew art didn’t have that power. “People can stand anything these days,” he said regretfully, and even more today; these stifled pictures of charcoal and rusty burgundy appear more than ever as decorative detours.
Yet even the somewhat Rothko-resistant will find a lot to admire in the Paris show, especially in the pictures that rub against the grain. His early paintings of New York subway stations, for example. Made in the late 1930s, just before he changed his name, these relatively small pictures treat stairs, tracks, commuters and supporting columns as shallow blocks of color, and present the Big Apple as a hermetic pressure cooker. There is a certain charm, too, to his orotund Surrealist pictures of the early 1940s: superpositions of totemic birds and monsters that suggest the abstract arrangements to come, gassed up with classical/biblical titles like “Tiresias” and “Rites of Lilith.”
We see how those totems defused and deformed into his first splotchy postwar abstractions, known as the “Multiforms,” and from there into the melancholy but still luxurious classic Rothkos of 1949, with their rough symmetry of floating color blocks. They are spectacular, even if they soon all became broadly similar. The effect of all these Rothkos glowing in darkened galleries recalls nothing so much as the OLED screens of Apple and Samsung smartphones: not exactly radiant in themselves, but illuminated from a power source within.
Forgive me for the smartphone analogy; I know it’s vulgar. Yet the art historian T.J. Clark and the painter Amy Sillman have both argued that Abstract Expressionism had its greatest impact when it embraced its own vulgarity, and found its way to the sublime via a certain American ludicrousness. I felt that reaffirmed here in Paris, where the most engrossing and challenging paintings are the later, more self-consciously theatrical Rothkos of the 1960s: no longer mysterious, shamelessly immersive, rich and bloody as canard à la presse. The prize of the show is SFMOMA’s “No. 14,” done in 1960 and 9.5 feet tall, whose cloudy purple background supports a huge, diffuse square the color of a persimmon and, beneath it, a rectangle of metallic blue.
Still this show’s final gallery has a shock: after all that gloom, a blast of bright light. In 1969-70, the diaphanous squares and rectangles get pared back to simple, bisected compositions of deep, dense blacks atop brushier grays that recalls the lunar surface. There are 11 of these achromatic puzzles on view here, smaller than the immersive canvases that made his name, and in a cunning move they appear with two large, spindly bronzes by Alberto Giacometti: another artist of existential austerity and eye-watering expense. (The pairing is inspired by Rothko’s own unrealized idea of exhibiting alongside Giacometti at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris — a very rare act of openness from this fussiest of exhibitors.)
Rothko painted these in the wake of a serious illness. For far too long, these were glossed as his “last paintings,” or even premonitions of his suicide; in fact, Rothko also painted with bright colors until his final days. Here in Paris, the “Black and Gray” series appears sprier, smarter and more honest about their medium than almost anything that came before.
“I’m only interested in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” Rothko said in 1957, denying any interest in the mechanics of abstraction or color. It was another aggrandizement, but maybe I should stop being such a hardhearted formalist and take him at his word. Awe, love, fear, faith, emptiness, immanence, infinity, eternity: Are these not the whole reason we bother with form in the first place? On most days I find it faintly ridiculous to try to locate such grand themes in a spume of green or a blood-red fog. On other days, days like now, I find it ridiculous to get through life without them.
Through April 2, 2024, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; fondationlouisvuitton.fr.