In what can only be described as a minor coup, the Saint Louis Art Museum presents Tragic and Timeless: The Art of Mark Rothko, a collection of eight paintings and works on paper that span the last three decades of the artist's career. Organized by SLAM's curator of modern and contemporary art, Simon Kelly, the exhibit combines three paintings from the museum's own collection with four works on loan from Switzerland's Beyeler Foundation and one from a private collection.
The result is a miniature survey of this important artist's career. Opening with an untitled surrealist watercolor from 1944, the show quickly moves on to the purely abstract works that made him famous — achingly beautiful paintings featuring rectangular fields of color that appear to hover against the background. (Notably, the show contains an early "multiform" from 1948 — the last canvas the artist signed on the front of the painting.)
Rothko was a cerebral painter if ever there was one. His work — profound investigations of color unmoored from symbolism, landscape and the figure — were intended as meditations on the human experience. He wanted his canvases displayed at low light and hung low on the wall. He painted large, and he wanted viewers to get close, allowing them to immerse themselves in the experience.
Tragic and Timeless does just that. The eight paintings displayed in this show are quite simply alive. For instance, Untitled (Red Brown, Black, Green, Red), a massive canvas from 1962, features four rectangles stacked atop one another (in the order of the title) against a dark violet-blue background. From a distance, all four quadrangles are distinct. But move closer. Enter the painting. Concentrate on a single color. In a few moments that color will spread across the entire canvas, overwhelming the other fields. The painting's border remains, but the dominant color now seems to glow from within. Devoid of context, the color simply exists, offering viewers a communion — intimate, even metaphysical — with the color itself.
Blink your eyes, however, and the painting reassembles itself. Its four rectangles reassert themselves, only to fade once again as you concentrate on another field. Rothko called these forms of his "protagonists," and in Untitled (Red Brown, Black, Green, Red) — as in several other of the show's works — different forms come to dominate depending on where the viewer concentrates.
In that sense, although Tragic and Timeless boasts only eight works of art, it also contains multitudes.
Tragic and Timeless: The Art of Mark Rothko
Through September 14 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, One Fine Arts Drive. 314-721-0072 or www.slam.org. Admission is free. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tues. through Sun.; Fridays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Follow RFT critic-at-large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.