Rothko: ‘A painting is not a picture of an experience, it is an experience’

Mark Rothko, Ochre, Red on Red, 1954 Oil on canvas 235.3 x 161.9 cm The Phillips Collection, Washington DC Acquired 1960 © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko - Adagp, Paris, 2023

The Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris presents its first retrospective dedicated to Mark Rothko (1903-1970) since the exhibition held at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1999. The retrospective brings together some 115 works from the largest international institutional and private collections, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the artist’s family, and the Tate in London. Displayed chronologically, the exhibition traces the artist’s entire career: from his earliest figurative paintings to the abstract works that he is most known for today. The works fill ten rooms and four levels.

The exhibition opens with intimate scenes and urban landscapes – such as visions of the New York subway – that dominate Rothko’s output in the 1930s, before he turned to ancient myths and surrealism to express the tragic dimension of the human condition during the War.

From 1946, Rothko moves towards abstraction expressionism. The first phase of this switch is that of Multiforms, where chromatic masses are suspended in a kind of equilibrium on the canvas. Gradually, these decrease in number, and the spatial organization of his painting evolves rapidly towards Rothko’s “classic” works of the 1950s, where rectangular shapes overlap, characterized by shades of yellow, red, ochre, orange, but also blue, white…

In 1958, Rothko was commissioned to produce a set of wall paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. Rothko later decided not to deliver the paintings and kept the entire series. Eleven years later, he dedicated them to the Tate, which created a room to display them. Exceptionally, this series are included in the exhibition.

Rothko’s son Christopher is a co-curator of the exhibition and cites his father’s comment to Life magazine, ‘A painting is not a picture of an experience, it is an experience’: “My father’s well-known statement makes explicit not only the actuality of his work, but the central role of the viewer in the work’s purpose.” His son says that Rothko made his paintings as direct and genuine as possible to the viewer.

The painter’s final Black and Grey series is displayed in the tallest room in the Frank Gehry building, alongside Alberto Giacometti’s large-scale sculptural figures, creating an environment that is close to what Rothko had in mind for a UNESCO commission that was never realized.

Post-minimalist British/German composer and pianist Max Richter has been appointed as artist in residency for the exhibition, he has a strong affinity with the painter – comparing how Rothko’s concept of place works well with the imaginary landscape of music. 

The exhibition continues to 1 April 2024

Mark Rothko, Self Portrait, 1936 Oil on canvas 81.9 x 65.4 cm Collection of Christopher Rothko © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko – Adagp, Paris, 2023

Mark Rothko, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944 Oil on canvas 191.1 x 215.9 cm Museum of Modern Art, New York Bequest of Mrs. Mark Rothko through The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko – Adagp, Paris, 2023