The Rothko exhibit at the Arkansas Arts Center will renew your faith, if it had been lagging, that non-representational art can provoke a deep visceral response. Go sit in the final room of the exhibit, in the Winthrop Rockefeller Gallery, and be quiet with the work and be convinced that Rothko’s application and placement of color were not random or decorative gestures, but nearly narrative expressions of emotion.
“Mark Rothko in the 1940s: The Decisive Decade” illustrates Rothko’s evolution in the 1940s from his myth-referencing paintings to the color blocks he is so celebrated for today. All the work is wonderful to look at and, like a good story, mind-expanding. His greatest talent — the way he layers paint and creates unnamable colors with glazes brushed and streaked and dripped on the canvas — and his predilection for dividing the picture plane into top, bottom and middle are always there, from the Rousseau-meets-Gaugin-like “Untitled (Man and Two Women in a Pastoral Setting)” (c. 1940) to his mythical figure arrangements to the color fields of “No. 8” (1949).
Rothko was cerebral, and thanks to The Rep’s production of “Red,” a one-act play about Rothko’s commission to create paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant, we know a little bit about his thinking in some of these paintings — the Apollonian (death)/Dionysian (revelry) conflict for one, his use of red for another. (If you missed the play, and want to go beyond Rothko’s art to Rothko’s mind, you can pick up the exhibit’s eponymously titled catalog, which by the way has an introduction by Arkansas Arts Center Director Todd Herman.) It’s a great read, in fact, with a little history on Rothko’s contemporaries. But you don’t have to recognize references to the kabbalah or understand art theory to be swept away by the work.
A painting I stared at for quite a bit is “No. 18” (1946), a Rothko “multiform,” one of his first non-representational works that he made before landing on the squares and rectangles of intense color that made him immortal. Watery crimson shapes float against a brown-ish backdrop that is framed in white shapes that suggest a vertical rectangle. This is a smashing painting, and a smarter writer could better articulate why. It isn’t a painting to glance at and walk by; it has structure and color and movement and cannot easily be divined all at once.
The show also brings to the Arts Center works by Rothko’s contemporaries Clyfford Still, Mark Tobey and others. It runs through Feb. 9 and tickets, at $8 for adults and less for students, are cheap.
Also at the Arts Center: The wonderful “Face to Face: Artists’ Self-Portraits from the Collection of Jackye and Curtis Finch.” This is a huge show that will take a lot of time to see, so if you want to see it the same day as Rothko, plan to spend some time at the Arts Center.
The Finch collection of self-portraits includes works on paper by early 20th century artists (Moses Soyer, Raphael Soyer, etc.), later 20th century artists (George Tooker, Jack Levine, Alex Katz, Al Leslie, Arnold Bittleman, James Valerio, Milton Avery), contemporary artists whose acquaintance you’ll be glad to make (Monique Passicot, Melissa Cooke, Nicola Hicks, Lawrence Finney) and Arkansas artists (Kevin Kresse, George Dombek, Daniel Sprick, Aj Smith, Jim Johnson, Kendall Stallings, Warren Criswell, Thom Hall). Some of the portraits Curtis Finch commissioned. All are presented in pairs (Hence the “Face to Face” title) so that, for example, the partial and fine-lined portraits of Amnon David Ar are paired with Wade Reynold’s and the distorted tremendous work by Melissa Cooke is hung next to Ian Ingram’s oversized Easter Island head. There is something about portraits that make us want to look, and this is a fine exhibition that will make you want to go home, look in the mirror and sketch what you see there.
“Portraiture Now: Drawing on the Edge,” from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, is a fine fit, featuring astounding work by Mequitta Ahuja, Mary Borgman, Adam Chapman, Ben Duram, Till Freiwald and Rob Matthews. Like the Rothko show, the portrait shows also run through Feb. 9.