Let me start with a confession: Mark Rothko is among my favorite contemporary artists, so I’m already in the tank for the guy. And when a loved one is wronged, you stand up for him – that’s a big part of being a good friend, a supportive family member, or in the case of Rothko, a devoted admirer. But part of loving someone faithfully and well is not hesitating to tell him when he’s fallen short, because honest criticism, like love and affection, is also part of the arrangement.
Most notably associated with Abstract Expressionism (or “Action Painting”), Mark Rothko immigrated to the United States from Latvia as a boy, grew up in Portland and later moved to the East Coast. In the years that followed, he rose through the ranks of the abstract artists who came of age in the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Many say that this generation of painters helped turn art into the multi-billion dollar industry it is today—both for better and for worse.
While never an obscure artist, Rothko spent many years in the shadows of his more famous contemporaries, such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Rothko has enjoyed more public attention in recent years, as many of the world’s top museums, including MOMA and the Tate Modern, have hosted major exhibitions of his work. Denver Art Museum (DAM) is only the most recent to join the Rothko admiration society, with the opening of Figure to Field: Mark Rothko in the 1940s , which is on view at DAM through September 29th.
Figure to Field lays the groundwork for Rothko’s mature work of the 1950s and 60s and recounts his early development, from surrealist-inspired work to early representations of his famous field paintings, the pieces for which he is best known. One room of the exhibition includes works by Rothko’s contemporaries, which places Rothko in dialogue with other works and styles that emerged during and immediately after the Second World War. As with many young artists, we see the echoes of other painters in Rothko’s early work: namely, the influence of Surrealism and Cubism is plainly evident (many prominent Surrealists went into exile in New York during the Nazi occupation of France and exerted considerable influence on young American artists of the period).
While I’m a big fan of Rothko’s work of the 1950s and early 60s, my favorites are his later works—chiefly the Seagram murals—which were commissioned by the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York but never permitted to hang there, owing to Rothko’s reservations about the suitability of the venue. Instead, his Seagram pieces made their way into a number of collections: The National Gallery in Washington DC, the Tate Modern in London, and the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura, Japan, where they reside to this day.
While Figure to Field provides valuable context and contributes to our appreciation of Rothko as a colorist, it also makes the mistake of emphasizing some of Rothko’s weakest work. I’d hate to think that thousands of people could potentially be prevented from ever experiencing Rothko’s best, simply because they saw this exhibition first. It’s like teaching schoolchildren Robert Frost and then wondering why they don’t grow up to become readers of poetry.
And this is less Rothko’s fault – because after all, every artist has weaker pieces – than it is a failure of curatorial vision. I’ve noticed this tendency before at DAM, with the work Henri Matisse, for instance. With its traveling exhibitions, DAM often seems to go for the lesser work of major artists, perhaps thinking that name recognition alone will be enough to draw curious onlookers. It could be due to a lack of resources, as I don’t doubt the considerable expense (not to mention the sheer difficulty) involved in borrowing a canonical artist’s best works. But in the end, I’d much rather that DAM featured the best work of underappreciated or emerging artists, rather than opting for the weaker works of known names. When DAM chooses the latter, it does a disservice to both the artist and the venue itself.
Figure to Field: Mark Rothko in the 1940s  runs from June 23rd - September 29th, 2013 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave Pkwy, Denver, CO 80204.