Mark Rothko’s Art Is A Captivating Color Story



From the earliest art movements, painters were bound to the skills acquired through apprenticeships and academies. This education would result in the creation of masterpieces that, while technically flawless, were often formulaic. As a result, artists belonging to a singular movement were often overlooked or easily mistaken for one another.

But born from Jacques Louis David’s painstakingly didactic classical works and J. M. W. Turner’s sublime landscapes came new movements that delighted in colorful brushstrokes, Impressionism, and the unconscious, Surrealism.

With new expressive elements at their disposal, a number of twentieth-century artists emerged under Abstract Expressionism, a loosely defined movement that embraced everything from Jackson Pollock’s signature drip paintings to Morris Louis’ Magna dyed canvases.

In the past, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has housed many old world masterworks but lacked a home for its comprehensive modern collection. That was until the recently opened $504 million Art of the America's expansion. 

The new four-floor wing, which opened last November, is made up of 53 unique galleries. Located on the expansion’s uppermost floor, the Saundra and William H. Lane Galleries house the MFA's wackiest abstract pieces. 

Within the gallery are Pollock’s dizzying paint-splattered work “Troubled Queen” which hangs in direct contrast to Frank Stella’s cylindrical wall sculpture "Hiraqla." But it's a more modest piece that hangs lonely on an opposite wall which proves to be the gallery's most enchanting.

The painting in question is an untitled piece on loan by Color Field painter Mark Rothko. 

Those working under this Abstract Expressionist sub-movement sought to thoughtfully pair colors that would evoke viewer reaction based on shared human emotions. Their compositions are typically little more than squares and Rothko was one of the most prominent in the movement, although he was reluctant to label himself as such. 

In the untitled piece that hangs in the MFA, a pair of onyx-hued rectangles of varying sizes sits atop a saturated blue background as a rust-colored halo faintly outlines each rectangle.

The strident cobalt background illuminates the otherwise bleak canvas, adding a dimension of tension, while the rust-colored outline suggests prolonged corrosion. 

Although easy to attribute the dreariness of Rothko’s work to his deeply depressing life, this assumption is incorrect. His intention, like all Color Field painters, was to represent collective human emotions opposed to personal ones. 

In many ways Rothko’s paintings are the modern equivalent of Jacques Louis David’s classical works except in this case balance, order and viewer response are summoned through color staging rather than historical depictions. 

Because of Rothko’s focus on the emotive qualities of color, his pieces are far less painterly than an artist like Pollock. His artworks also remain unframed, as not to detract from the coupling of colors. Unfortunately, the overhead lighting within the Lane Gallery reflects poorly on the surface of Rothko's black and blue piece.

Regardless of where it hangs in the MFA, Rothko’s untitled work remains one of the museums most commanding pieces on display. Proving that there’s more to color than meets the eye.