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Hamburger Kunsthalle Presents American Painter Mark Rothko. The Retrospective
Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Entrance to Subway (Subway Station / Subway Scene), 1938, Öl auf Leinwand, 86,4 x 117,5 cm. Collection Kate Rothko Prizel © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2008.
HAMBURG.- Hamburger Kunsthalle presents Mark Rothko. The Retrospective, on view through 24 August 2008. The American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is one of the most important representatives of Abstract Expressionism. Twenty years after the last retrospective in a German museum this show at the Hamburger Kunsthalle offers a unique opportunity to discover his outstanding oeuvre anew. In the face of the most recent developments on the art market, where prices for Rothko’s paintings have skyrocketed and considering the high sensitivity of the colour surface of his pictures and the challenging issues of conservation, the realisation of this exhibition marks a very special effort and a great responsibility to both the lenders and their works. A comparable opportunity to see Rothko’s oeuvre in this concentration and quality will not arise in Europe for a long time to come.

The exhibition comprises more than 110 works including more than 70 oil paintings on canvas and more than 40 works on paper. It presents works from all phases of Rothko’s career and allows the immediate experience of their intriguing and mysterious aura which no reproduction is able to capture. More than two thirds of the paintings come from the USA and the majority of these have never before been shown in Germany.

After his early interest in Surrealism, Rothko completely turned towards abstraction around 1946. In his multiforms, multiply-layered, freely composed, varying shapes of colour, he devoted all attention to the interaction of colour and shape in both the contrasts and harmonies resulting from their combination. In the later phase for which he is best known, Rothko most often arranged three horizontal, coloured rectangles with slightly blurring edges above one another. Like no artist before him did he foreground the expressive potential of colour alone – liberated from all narrative or figural elements – and in this way created paintings of high emotional intensity. Rothko himself said that his work was about the expression of the most fundamental human emotions with the means of colour.

“I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on … The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions … the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.”

Seen in a surrounding of dimmed lighting and viewed from a close distance, these paintings unfold their overwhelming power and their capacity to dissolve all borders. As the exhibition reveals, the glowing, intensely coloured and highly emotional paintings have lost nothing of their fascination and immense power of attraction.

Mark Rothko. The Retrospective presents the paintings of the American painter within an unusual context. Two historical precursors mark the poles between which Rothko struggles for his abstract visual language: On one side there is the Romantic European legacy of Caspar David Friedrich. In his landscapes the viewers (their place in the paintings taken over by the figures shown from the back) are drawn into the revelation of a space of personal emotion and reflection very much comparable to Rothko’s paintings. This comparison can be made directly in the exhibition where Rothko’s large intensely colourful abstractions are hanging right next to paintings by Friedrich like the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1817).

On the other side there is painting as practiced by Pierre Bonnard, the famous modern French painter of the Nabis School, whose works are flooded by the sensuous colours and bright light of the Mediterranean and who took part in modernity’s effort to liberate colour from its representational function and to foreground, instead, its presence and radiance within the artwork. The paintings by Bonnard selected for this exhibition clearly show how Rothko, who had seen Bonnard’s pictures in New York, picked up the special quality of Mediterranean painting in his colour field painting.

The exhibition closes with a perspective on the traditions relevant for contemporary American art and shows the late Black and Gray paintings which give an idea of the bewilderment and despair that Rothko sensed late in his life.

Curators of the exhibition are Professor Dr. Hubertus Gaßner and Oliver Wick who has already been responsible for the Rothko Retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler in Basle in 2001. It is most of all due to the help of the children of the artist, Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel that the Hamburger Kunsthalle has been able to organize this exhibition and to acquire loans from all over the world, a support for which our institution is deeply grateful. To accompany the exhibition a substantial catalogue with texts by Gottfried Boehm, Hubertus Gaßner, Christiane Lange, Karin Koschkar and Oliver Wick is published by the Hirmer Verlag. The exhibition can be seen at the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung in Munich from 8 February to 27 April 2008 where it is presented in a smaller version and without the works by Caspar David Friedrich and Pierre Bonnard.





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