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Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper at The National Gallery of Art

Mark Rothko, Untitled (seated figure in interior), c. 1938, watercolor on construction paper.

Even though Rothko is most known for his imposing canvases, these smaller, more personal paintings show a different aspect of his technique. The artist considered these pieces to be finished works rather than just rough sketches. He created semi-surreal experimental constructions in the 1940s and 1930s, as well as figurative works and hazy fields of color that are iconic to the 1950s and 1960s viewing public. Foreshadowing Rothko’s later anti-illusionistic style, some of these early paintings feature gentle swathes and unfurling pools of watercolor pigment sitting flat on the construction paper.

Among the themes that Mark Rothko attempted to convey in his brilliant artwork were joy, despair, ecstasy, and tragedy. Rothko is renowned for his towering abstract paintings on canvas, but few people know that he also created nearly 1,000 paintings on paper over the course of his career. He viewed many of these as finished paintings in their own right—not simply preliminary studies intended for his own eyes. These remarkable works challenge our expectations about what “counts” as painting, as well as popular ideas about Rothko and his career.

This exhibition brings together more than 100 of Rothko’s most compelling paintings on paper, many on view for the first time. They range from early figurative subjects and surrealist works to the soft-edged rectangular fields, often realized at monumental scale, for which Rothko is best known. Together, these radiant, rarely displayed paintings transform our understanding of one of the preeminent artists of the 20th century. The exhibition runs through March 31, 2024 and will travel to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Norway next year.

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