This once-in-a-generation Rothko exhibition is spellbinding

This once-in-a-generation Rothko exhibition is spellbinding

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PARIS — This will seem odd, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between a painting by Mark Rothko and my smartphone. What do they have in common?

Nothing extraordinary. Just that both objects were in a particular relationship to me and my body as I spent time in “Mark Rothko,” an exhibition of more than 100 Rothko paintings at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. The show has been generating a lot of excitement — and for good reason. It’s the first Rothko retrospective in France in almost a quarter-century, and probably the best Rothko show in my lifetime.

The loans have come from some of the world’s great art collections, including several in D.C., which is usually the best city in the world to see Rothko. The generosity of the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection (which created the first dedicated “Rothko Room” in 1960), Glenstone and the Hirshhorn Museum has left a Rothko-shaped hole in D.C. But in compensation, the National Gallery has mounted an exhibition of Rothko’s paintings on paper (through March 31).

While I was at the Paris show, I was very conscious of my phone, slightly to my shame. It was in and out of my pocket. Like almost everyone around me, I was using it to take photos of the paintings. You can easily picture the scene.

Phones are seductive. Their scale and rectangular shape are part of the attraction. They may seem inert, but when you want them (and often when you don’t) they buzz, they glow, they pulse away in your mind, like the throat of a toad. You’re made to feel you can do anything with them, gratify almost any desire, pretty much instantly. But it’s strange. Those desires tend to arrive unbeckoned. And they don’t always seem to belong to you. They’re generated by people who know how the dopamine in your brain works, people who have designs on you.

A Rothko painting is a different kind of thing. You see it on a museum wall. It’s not yours. It’s not for touching. But something about its symmetry and its specific scale, which is tailored to your body, encourages you to stand directly in front of it, and to look not just at it but into it. Into what? That’s the great mystery.

Like the phone, it seems to glow, even to pulse. But, of course, it features no cats or attractive celebrities or angry political pundits, no “like” or “submit payment” buttons. It doesn’t want anything from you. It has no designs on you. And it doesn’t change, except with the ambient light, and with some weird internal weather system, origins unknown.

I’m sure it’s obvious which of these two things I like better. But that’s not just because of the halo of piety we’re supposed to feel before great art, nor the rhetoric of transcendence that Rothko’s work in particular tends to stimulate. It has to do with very specific things about how two objects relate to our bodies and desires. One kind of thing has a certain autonomy, an aloofness; the other is instrumental, transactional. One things exists in its own right; the other exists with all kinds of ulterior motives.

The Paris show’s curatorial team, led by Suzanne Pagé and Christopher Rothko (the artist’s son), have kept the galleries as dim as possible. Their presentational strategy, which works beautifully, might have been inspired by the museum director Bryan Robertson’s memory of a late winter afternoon with the artist in 1961 at the Whitechapel Gallery, where Robertson had mounted a Rothko show. When, on Rothko’s request, Robertson switched off all the lights, “the effect,” he wrote, “once the retina had adjusted itself, was unforgettable, smoldering and blazing and glowing softly from the walls — color in darkness.”

That same feeling is recaptured in Paris, where the first galleries show Rothko digesting the influences of such artists as Arshile Gorky, Milton Avery, Joan Miró, Adolph Gottlieb, André Masson and Henri Matisse. (Matisse’s “The Red Studio,” with its drenching, space-flattening reds, was decisive in tipping Rothko over into abstraction). Gradually, he moves from painting street scenes, theaters and subways to surrealistic imagery drawn from the unconscious, then to vatic, symbol-laden compositions inspired by Nietzsche’s idea of tragedy.

Rothko was born Markus Rothkowitz. As a 10-year-old, he emigrated to the United States from Latvia, which was then part of the Russian empire. Russia was roiled by pogroms, and violent antisemitism was never far from the Rothkowitz family. Markus had been studying the Talmud since he was 5, after his pharmacist father, a secular Jew, returned to religion. The boy’s studies left a deep imprint on his later life as an artist, his politics and his principles.

Affable but finely strung, Rothko was clearly very intelligent. He was admitted to Yale University but dropped out, alienated by antisemitism and the clubbiness of the college’s wealthy elite. His own success, and the wealth it brought him, placed unaccustomed pressures on him. Annie Cohen-Solal, his biographer (and a contributor to the show’s catalogue), described Rothko as “inherently tormented,” while Elaine de Kooning thought he was “hypnotized by his own role,” which was “that of the Messiah.”

A messiah he may not have been, but a reverent idea of Rothko prevails. That’s hardly surprising: He is one of those few artists whose work can make you weep. But for a writer, it’s almost impossible to describe the impact of his art without groping for a lyricism that’s liable to collapse into bathos.

So what is there to say? It can’t hurt to describe the actual paintings. They are things, after all. And to describe a thing can be to reassert its reality in the face of inflated claims and false preconceptions.

Rothko’s mature paintings, which date from around 1950, are — as many people know — composed of softly painted rectangles of luminous color. These rectangles have feathered, broken edges. They are like clouds torn from cotton candy. The rectangles are placed symmetrically. They’re usually oriented horizontally and placed one above the other on a vertical, more opaque ground.

Already, then, you may grasp Rothko’s interest in orchestrating contrasts within a format of extreme simplicity: Horizontal vs. vertical. Translucent vs. opaque. The hard edges of the stretched canvas vs. soft-edged, floating lozenges.

End of carousel

Howard Devree, a skeptical early reviewer, compared Rothko’s paintings to “a set of swatches prepared by a house painter for a housewife who cannot make up her mind.” (Ah, the 1950s.) Others understood immediately what Rothko was up to. He was trying to paint space and light, to make them portals to what he called “the exhilarated tragic experience which for me is the only source book for art.”

Critics compared the indeterminacy in his art to Turner’s seascapes, Whistler’s “Nocturnes” and Monet’s late work. What made Rothko different was that there was nothing to recognize. Nothing to decipher. A painting by Rothko, from 1950 on, was a thing in itself, and not a representation of any other thing.

This thingness can make his paintings feel very austere. (“We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth,” Rothko wrote in an early manifesto authored with Gottlieb). But if you are in even a mildly receptive state, it can also seem luxuriant, radiant with complexity and nuance. And if you are feeling still more receptive, it might seem to conceal, as the critic Robert Rosenblum put it, “a total, remote presence, that we can only intuit and never fully grasp.”

Color, of course, was at the heart of Rothko’s efforts. I’ve said nothing about it until now, but it is what draws so many of us to his art, and it is what makes me respond more intensely to some Rothkos than others.

Classic Rothkos involve reds. He used every variation of red you can imagine. I love these works. But the painting I won’t forget from the Paris show has only a thin, raggedy strip of pale pink in it. This strip runs horizontally above a wider band of rich yellow. Together, they separate two large rectangles, both green, one more inflected with yellow than the other.

I have to confess, I had a moment with this painting. “Moment” isn’t quite right: It was an extended period, but it had no beginning, middle or end, and I lost track of time. There was no This happened, then this, then that. It was all present tense.

By this time, I had already been through the exhibition — a sequence of miscellaneous, crowded galleries across multiple levels. I felt elated, but also jet-lagged. And in my primitive, critic’s brain, I was feeling confused by the final galleries. What to make of the way Rothko’s work becomes steadily darker and is almost drained of color as he nears the end of his life? How, if at all, to relate this to his illness and suicide? In short, did I like this late stuff, or not?

Mostly not, I was deciding. And in this befuddled, slightly undone state, I prepared to leave. But I got to the glass doors and saw that it was pouring with rain. I had no umbrella. I would have to walk back across the Bois de Boulogne, a wooded park. It was better to wait for the rain to ease before venturing out. So I reentered the exhibition and found a bench. It was only then (I realize in retrospect) that my tensed mind relaxed.

The bench faced a wall with three paintings, all astonishingly lovely. On the left, yellow, white and blue. In the middle, yellow and white. On the right (but directly in front of me), green and yellow. Rothko himself used the names of colors in his titles (the green and yellow one is called “No. 14/No. 10 (Yellow Green),” 1953). But how, really, do you attach words to the way his floating rectangles — their edges wispy and broken — fuse and fizz, their underlayers alternating warm and cool beneath a thin but chromatically steady top layer, the whole emulsion working on the eye in gently pulsing waves that are like sighs, like tides, like emanations of bliss and selfless love?

My “moment,” as I said, has no story attached. (Or if it does, I think I’ve just told it.)

I can only add that I thought I was looking at the most beautiful painting in the world. Unlike the phone in my pocket, which I’d been using just a few minutes earlier to check for routes across the park, I had no use for the painting, and it wanted nothing from me. It was aloof, inviolate. Not mine to possess or exchange for anything.

What’s more, although many feet separated me from it, it seemed improbably close. Elements within it appeared to move, imperceptibly, in front of me. The air between us was charged with dancing particles, and for a second there — as you do in moments of intense intimacy — I think I stopped breathing.

Mark Rothko Through April 2 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. fondationlouisvuitton.fr/en.

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