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Summer blockbuster exhibits, like big summer movies, typically plant warm, genial affirmations into the willing ears of people trying like hell to make an escape. The National Gallery of Art, to the contrary, has made the surprising decision to mount the frigid retrospective of abstract expressionist giant Mark Rothko—né Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia, in 1903—at the height of the summer season. The Rothko show, which is calculated to align the National Gallery with the artist’s virile ab-ex mythos, presents a chronicle of the artist’s descent into darkness and, ultimately, suicide. It will likely send a chill through even the sweatiest summer tourist.

With the 115 works on view, curator Jeffrey Weiss attempts to induct Rothko into the art-historical hagiography: The early figurative and “biomorphic” canvases from the late ’30s to late ’40s demonstrate how he evolved from contemporary urban realism and surrealism, while the planar canvases Rothko revised and refined from 1949 until his death in 1970 show how he broke free of history and defined the color-field school of abstract expressionism. But no amount of Rothko’s sunny, ’50s-era works, on which this show relies heavily, can obscure the fact that this was a fundamentally unhappy man whose paintings can make the viewer ponder his or her own worthlessness.

Rothko’s earliest canvases divulge occasional hints of the bleakness that defined his mature vision, but they mainly show the artist gaining his toehold within established genres. The first pieces are from the late 1930s, when Rothko was toiling within the uninspired “social painting” idiom that was popular at the time. (He’d been painting since the early ’20s, but the National Gallery deemed those early experimental sketches and landscapes incompatible with this exhibition. Too bad: Some figure sketches from the early ’30s show an expressive distortion of forms reminiscent of Schiele or Giacometti.) The urban subject matter on view here isn’t innovative, but the blocky figures in New York’s subway tunnels offer glimpses of the towering verticals and rectangular color planes of his later work. The humans populating Untitled (Portrait) (1939) and Underground Fantasy [Subway] (ca. 1940) become rectilinear verticals confined to architectural backgrounds where segments of colors occupy the upper and lower picture planes. The claustrophobia of these compositions points directly to the despair that lay ahead of Rothko.

Under the auspices of tutor Arshile Gorky in the 1940s, Rothko dispensed with figures in his paintings to embrace surrealist biomorphism—a penchant for ambiguous yet distinctly organic forms—and an obsession with psychology and the subconscious. He worked primarily with watercolor on paper, exploring themes from Greek and Hebraic myth, with quirky, sinewy forms that descended directly from Miró: The rounded, segmented red body of Primeval Landscape (1944) could be an insect or the curves of a woman’s body. During this period, Rothko developed a fascination for the surrealists’ practice of “automatic handwriting,” which attempted to transpose unconscious impulses directly onto canvas. This desire to paint the unconscious would become the basis of his later works, which he described as having “no direct association with any particular visible [conscious] experience….[I]n them one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms.”

In 1947, as if fueled by the artist’s mounting dissatisfaction with regurgitating established styles, Rothko’s hovering biomorphic creatures exploded into globular colored gases as his singular approach to depicting the unconscious emerged. These multiforms, painted from 1947 to 1949, juxtapose ethereal clouds of color as his later works do, but the colors are not yet confined to rectangles and squares. Feathery lines between color zones manifest the subconscious conflict between reason and desire that constitutes the crux of Rothko’s color-field work: In No. 19 (1949), a distinct square of white emerges from a vaporous orange background to assert its identity; the border between white and orange is charged with their struggle for power.

Rothko’s brief dalliance in multiforms gave way to distilled, horizontal bands in 1949. It’s this middle-period work, from what the National Gallery’s brochure terms his “classic” period, that the tourists expect: Let’s see Rothkos that look like Rothkos. The National Gallery presents multitudes of blue-, orange-, and ocher-stained canvases from the 1950s that take us to transcendent, meditative places. But none of his work is immune to conflict: Yellow and Blue [Yellow, Blue on Orange] (1955) could be a beachscape, with warm, sunny yellow floating above the horizon of sea-blue below, but the line between these contrasting fields—where blue paint laps over yellow, and yellow over blue—is the battleground where the “passion of organisms” plays out.

The problem with offering so many mid-period Rothkos is that it’s difficult to have a singular experience with any one. Rothko was a formalist, and his subtle variations eventually dull even discerning eyes. The sheer onslaught of painting after painting makes it tough to focus on one at a time, to sit on a bench and meditate (sadly, many galleries are benchless—an outrage at a Rothko show, where communion with the canvases is required). Rothko’s work hinges on the beholder’s receptiveness to its message; the ability to look closely reveals his pleasurable quirks. From the left edge of the red field of Untitled (1960) peeks a man’s face—a quiet profile complete with nose, mouth, and chin in a flourish of subtle humor.

Rothko’s little joys dissolve at the end of the 1950s. No. 1 (White and Red) (1962) cements his dim view of the unresolvable conflicts of the mind. The three reaches of the psyche—the id, the ego, and the superego—unfold as rectangles on a black ground: Edicts of righteousness issue in drips of white paint from the pure white field at

the top, which represents the superego, hovering above the red body of the ego in the center. At the bottom, the fecally brown field oozing instinctual yearning (the id) folds smoothly into the black. Although the red field is wider and taller than the other two, its power is a chimera: The whiteness and darkness pull and push it. At the canvas’ top right, sharp lines of white paint emerge in high relief from the angelic cloud and plumb down into the blackness toward the red body below, while red paint strains upward. As a testament to Rothko’s ultimately pessimistic view, the colors reach out to each other but never meet.

Rothko’s personal descent gained speed in the bleak period from 1963 until his death, during which the artist’s palette lost most of its brightness. This work hangs in the show’s darkest room, the gloom of which is nearly intolerable. It includes works painted as part of a series for the de Menil family’s Rothko Chapel in Houston. Giant canvases like the 9-by-6-1/2 foot No. 2 [Black on Deep Purple] (1964) offer only dark, yawning voids. With nothing to grasp onto, we see ourselves in mirrors of endless blackness. In the year before he died, Rothko had developed a new, surreal sense of depth. The final work in the show, Untitled [Black on Gray] (1969-1970), shows the artist stepping forward into the infinite. Just under 7 by 8 feet, the canvas looks like oblivion, a black-and-gray moonscape into which you could walk and continue on endlessly. The profound angst seen in these later works propelled Rothko into drug addiction and then to his suicide in 1970, at the age of 66.

Rothko was no savvy estate planner; he left his entire oeuvre to the charitable foundation he established the year before his death and appointed close friends as executors of both his estate and foundation. The greedy friends, in cahoots with New York’s Marlborough Gallery, Rothko’s dealer, established a lucrative monopoly on the sale of the late artist’s work. Both of Rothko’s then-underage children were left penniless. A subsequent lawsuit filed on the children’s behalf proved to be a boon for the National Gallery. A 1975 court ruling removed Rothko’s appointed executors, rescinded the original Rothko Foundation’s contracts with Marlborough, and divvied up the estate among his two children and the foundation’s second incarnation. This new, court-ordained and -recruited eight-member foundation board, including art historian Irving Sandler and Rothko friend and former assistant William Scharf, met in June 1976 to establish objectives that included the foundation’s eventual self-liquidation by doling out the Rothkos to museums worldwide. The Pecksniffian National Gallery wooed the foundation with offers of exquisite storage space and promises to treat the collection as a “national treasure.” The foundation was won over, naming the National Gallery beneficiary of the artist’s core collection—295 paintings and 662 lesser studies. In 1986, the estate was transferred to the custody of the National Gallery and a handful of museums worldwide by these court-appointed agents whom the artist had never approved.

This is glum stuff, and an odd counterpoint to the museum’s zany Calder show upstairs. But showing Rothko aligns the National Gallery with the nationalism of post-World War II-era politics. When Rothko abandoned biomorphism to solidify his identifiable late style, he was embraced by political and art institutions as an emblem of unfettered American individualism—ab-ex symbolized American democratic freedom when juxtaposed against the Communists’ doctrinaire socialist realism. But Rothko, himself anti-nationalist and hostile to capitalist society, in fact felt constriction in the postwar years. The National Gallery’s earnest association with the heroic aspects of the Rothko myth cannot temper the artist’s insistence on terminal darkness. His profound psychic struggles, wittingly or not, form the basis of this show’s appeal: Those who relish the pleasure and pain of dissecting inner human struggles will look into a Rothko and see forever.CP