by Roberta Carasso


"Untitled," o/c, 17 3/16 x 23 7/8", 1942/43.

"Memory," o/c, 27 3/4 x 38 11/16", 1945/46.

"Number 11," o/c, 68 1/8 x 43 5/16", 1949.

"Untitled," oil/mixed media on
canvas, 53 x 46 5/8", 1948.

(Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, Orange County) This exhibition is small compared to the scope of Mark Rothko's work, but it contains many treasures. It traces his visual evolution from traditional, socially realistic oil paintings on canvas, to the abstract multiforms, also referred to as stacked rectangles. In the forty-some years he created, his painting took several paths. Yet it always had one commonality: Rothko sought to excavate, no matter what period we consider, the visually pure and absolute as he sought to describe some hidden aspect of modern life. Hence his quest, at the threshold of developing his signature imagery, to convey the spirit of human mythology.

Two aspects of the show are particularly fascinating--his earliest works, and the transformation of how he arrived at his now famous rectangles.

In the '30s, Rothko focused on the city as a living being. He portrayed its vastness and isolating effects on those within it. Subway Scene conveys a claustrophobic crunch as frozen vertical characters are positioned in architectural settings. Early attraction to a vertical and horizontal spatial placement of form is evident.

But most engaging, as the viewer walks from painting to painting, is to see how his '40s concern with using oils as watercolor combined with a desire to describe the subconscious. This led to a series of paintings that gradually became more and more ab stract, eventually losing any reference to figure or symbol, until what remains are the noted rectangles. These one, two or three, four-sided fields embrace the viewer and effect a meditative state. Their brilliant or subdued colors evoke a sense of transcendence like no other.

Note: all photos courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.