A Stunning Mark Rothko Retrospective in Paris Illuminates the Artist’s Lesser-Known Sides

For many, Mark Rothko is synonymous with color field painting—large swaths of red and burnt umber that float above moody monochrome-like backgrounds. But he did not arrive at that style overnight, and in Paris, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is tracing his evolution with a grand exhibition spread across four floors of its museum’s Frank Gehry–designed building.

Collector and Fondation president Bernard Arnault states in the catalogue that this exhibition, on view until next April, is “the fulfillment of a long-standing personal wish” for one of his favorite artists, and that for him, “Every work is absolutely unique.” It is hard to disagree based on this transcendent show, curated by Suzanne Pagé and Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son.

On the museum’s ground floor, visitors are immediately thrust into Rothko’s breakthrough to color field abstraction, with a room dedicated to canvases produced during the 1950s, when the Rothko we know now emerged. Technically, this is the middle of the show, but it’s a good starting point, since it is fascinating to contrast these works with his earlier figurative paintings and initial experiments with abstraction and the works that came at end of his career, when his color palette became much deeper and richer—darker, even. These 1950s works, in contrast, exude brightness and levity.

With its intense, central red offset by a swath of rose above and bright block of white below, Light Cloud, Dark Cloud (1957), on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, contains a delicate beauty. It is enhanced by the deep violet and the vibrating yellow that dominate 1954’s No. 9 (Dark over Light Earth/Violet and Yellow in Rose), on loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Similar shades of washed rose-orange bind the two works, which hang side by side. Seeing them together elucidates the subtle changes in those tones.

Mark Rothko, The Ochre (Ochre, Red on Red), 1954.

©1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Adagp, Paris/Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Another standout here is No. 15 (1958), which hasn’t made many prominent public appearances since it sold at Christie’s New York for $8.9 million in 2004. (Its owner is not named, but its presence at the Fondation Louis Vuitton suggests something about who that person might be.) Its gradations between navy and violet in the lower third are seductive, drawn out by the faded eggplant that makes up the work’s background.

But, like any good career retrospective, this exhibition is primarily an opportunity to explore the lesser-known sides of Rothko. His early works are primarily figurative in a way that will feel very un-Rothko to many. Of particular note are several untitled works from the 1930s, part of a series depicting subway stations: spindly figures pass by the narrow green columns of the platform; small sections include the patchiness that are hallmarks of his later paintings. From the outset, it was clear that Rothko had an interest in the delineation of space as evidenced by the tiers of color that define his later works.

Mark Rothko, Self-Portrait, 1936.

©1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Adagp, Paris/Collection of Christopher Rothko

He would build on that experiment with an untitled painting from 1941–42 that is divided into three registers composed of faces (in green), torsos (in pinkish red), and hands and feet (in black and white), with sharp lines between each section. It’s an uneasy composition, and one that, with its tripartite arrangement, hints at how he would ultimately arrive at the way he arrayed his color fields.

The progression from semi-naturalistic figuration to Surrealist-inflected paintings to unresolved abstraction is fascinating. As he was working through all these different styles, art critics were not always kind. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, I found myself rooting for Rothko, the emerging artist finding his way.

Mark Rothko, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944.

©1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Adagp, Paris/Museum of Modern Art, New York

Toward the end of the 1940s, some of Rothko’s abstractions began to feature several blocks of paint. His brushstrokes began to loosen to reveal shifts in tones, and this would cause his paintings to appear to vibrate. He was on the cusp of doing something truly great—and sure enough, at this exhibition, once you arrive at the room dedicated to paintings from the 1950s, it hits you like a ton of bricks.

These subsequent galleries are dedicated to the Rothko we know—poignant, powerful, and hauntingly beautiful. To speak to that Rothko, the Fondation Louis Vuitton has obtained his famed “Seagram Murals,” on loan from Tate Britain. (The loan is an impressive one, since that museum rarely ever lets them travel, but I prefer them in London, where they traditionally stand in sharp contrast to Tate’s J.M.W. Turner paintings.) Most will want to spend time before these works, but it’s worth spending a minute with a slightly lesser-known piece that precedes them: 1958’s No. 9 (White and Black on Wine), a brighter, more jarring abstraction that pits vibrant red against deep maroon and hints at how Rothko would play with like tones in the “Seagram Murals.”

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960.

©1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Adagp, Paris/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

With an artist like Rothko, there is often an obsession with his iconic, quintessential masterpieces—the works that go on view in a museum’s permanent collection galleries. But, here in Paris, the true treasures are the pieces that don’t hold pride of place in the most august modern art museum and are rarely seen by the general public.

In a gallery titled “Black and Gray, Giacometti,” there are works from Rothko’s final series, “Black and Gray” (1969–70). Here, these paintings are paired by sculptures by Alberto Giacometti—UNESCO had proposed a pairing of work by the two artists for its Paris headquarters in 1969. The canvases are divided almost at a horizon line, with rich blacks topping off with grays, some of which also include undertones of ochre, brown, and other colors. These works are also significant in that Rothko used acrylic instead of oil, which often lend a canvas more a matte quality and, sometimes, a severity.

It is hard not to feel as though the Fondation Louis Vuitton retrospective, like any dedicated to the artist, cuts off abruptly—Rothko died by suicide in 1970, leaving behind an oeuvre that feels incomplete. Where might his art have gone next? It’s impossible to say, but this show does suggest that what he did manage to bring into the world remains important, innovative, and valuable. More than half a century on, his paintings remain some of the most contemplative and mediative art created in the 20th century—if not ever.