Major exhibition of Mark Rothko's paintings on paper announced for 2023

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Major exhibition of Mark Rothko's paintings on paper announced for 2023
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1959, Oil on paper, Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel. © 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The National Gallery of Art, the largest public repository of works by Mark Rothko, announced today a major exhibition of the artist’s paintings on paper. On view in the National Gallery’s East Building from November 19, 2023, through March 31, 2024, the exhibition will examine some 100 paintings on paper that the artist viewed as finished works in their own right, rather than sketches or preliminary studies intended for his own eyes. By considering Rothko’s work on paper, which is largely unfamiliar to art specialists and the public alike, the exhibition offers a new view of the development of the artist’s oeuvre. Made throughout Rothko’s career, the works in the exhibition range from early watercolors of figurative subjects and mythological and surrealist works to oil and acrylic paintings in the artist’s signature format of soft-edged rectangular fields arranged against monochrome backgrounds. Many of the latter are monumental in scale, measuring up to seven feet tall. The exhibition will travel to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Norway in 2024, where it will be the first major exhibition of the artist’s work held in Scandinavia.

The exhibition comes as the National Gallery approaches the culmination of a decades-long process of cataloging all of Mark Rothko’s works on paper for a forthcoming catalogue raisonné that will be available as both an online resource and print publication. In February 2019, the National Gallery launched the online resource at As of February 2022, the resource allows users to browse, filter, sort, and compare 1,903 of the approximately 2,600 works on paper by Rothko held in public and private collections worldwide. Additional content being developed in association with this initiative includes an overarching study of Rothko’s work on paper by the lead author of the catalogue raisonné—Adam Greenhalgh, associate curator at the National Gallery—as well as a robust chronology, a biographical memoir by the artist’s daughter, Kate Rothko Prizel, and studies of Rothko’s materials and process by National Gallery conservators. The online resource and print publication will be the definitive scholarly references for Rothko’s works on paper. The National Gallery continues to seek information about drawings and paintings on paper to be considered for inclusion in the catalogue raisonné. Those with information can contact or 202.842.6779. The catalogue raisonné of works on paper follows the award-winning catalogue raisonné Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas by David Anfam, published in 1998 by the National Gallery and Yale University Press.

“The National Gallery is privileged to hold the largest public collection of works by Mark Rothko, thanks to the Mark Rothko Foundation’s transformative 1986 gift. We are committed to the continued study of the artist’s work and to providing accessible resources through which the public can learn more about this renowned artist,” said Kaywin Feldman, director, National Gallery of Art. “Together with the catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s works on paper, this exhibition of the artist’s paintings on paper will add a new dimension to our understanding of his practice and output.”

Paintings are often understood to be on canvas and drawings on paper. For Mark Rothko, paintings were paintings, regardless of whether he applied his paint to canvas or paper. Little known to general and scholarly audiences alike, Rothko’s paintings on paper challenge expectations about what “counts” as painting, the hierarchy of media, and popular conceptions of the artist as primarily a painter of monumental abstract canvases. This exhibition includes 100 of the finest of these paintings on paper—works that Rothko considered on par with his works on canvas.

While Rothko made many studies and sketches on paper in graphite, ink, or even watercolor, he also created more than 1,100 paintings on paper. Some of these Rothko considered to be worthy of display or sale, as we know from the history of exhibitions during his life as well as an inventory of work in his possession that he completed shortly before his death.

The exhibition will contextualize Rothko’s relationship with paper by focusing on four key periods when his engagement with it was particularly fruitful: the 1930s, 1944 to 1949, 1958 to 1959, and 1967 to 1969. Organized around these crucial moments, the exhibition explores how painting on paper affected the trajectory of Rothko’s oeuvre. These moments reveal, for instance, how the early figural works presaged his later abstractions; how the stratified compositions and luminous washes of mid-1940s watercolors anticipated the diaphanous effects of his best-known canvases of the 1950s and 1960s; and how vibrant paintings on paper made in the final years of his life complicate long-standing associations between his canvases’ darkening palette and his physical and mental health. The works included in the exhibition draw from the National Gallery’s robust holdings as well as those of other museums and private collections.

Mark Rothko and the National Gallery

In 1986 the Mark Rothko Foundation determined that its mission to conserve its collection of Rothko’s art and to enhance and promote Rothko’s legacy through scholarly research and exhibitions would best be served by strategically placing his canvases and works on paper in major museums internationally. The foundation designated 35 institutions to receive the art, among them the Art Institute of Chicago; the Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA; the Menil Collection, Houston, TX; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; and the Tate, London. As the principal recipient of the Mark Rothko Foundation’s gift, the National Gallery received more than 1,100 works—paintings on canvas and panel and works on paper—as well as research materials, including conservation records and exhibition reviews. In 2007, Rothko’s children, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, further enhanced the National Gallery’s holdings by donating to its library the manuscript for their father’s book, The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art, which was edited by Christopher Rothko and published in 2004 by Yale University Press.

The National Gallery has presented the works of Mark Rothko in several special installations and exhibitions. In 1984, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper 1925-1970, organized by the Mark Rothko Foundation and circulated by the American Federation of Arts, opened at the National Gallery and traveled throughout the United States. In 1998, Jeffrey Weiss, then a National Gallery curator of modern and contemporary art, organized the retrospective Mark Rothko. The 2003–2007 installation Rothko’s Mural Commissions marked the centennial of Rothko’s birth. In 2010–2011, In the Tower: Mark Rothko presented seven of Rothko’s black-on-black paintings from 1964 and nine earlier works, while in 2011–2012, an installation featured three paintings derived from Rothko’s Seagram Murals project.

Additionally, since receiving the gift from the Mark Rothko Foundation in 1986, the National Gallery’s National Lending Service has lent more than 240 works by Rothko to more than 200 museums, galleries, and embassies worldwide.

When the National Gallery’s East Building reopened in 2016 following renovations, it added a new gallery that became the museum’s first space dedicated to the work of Mark Rothko. Since then, the skylit space on the Tower Level has consistently featured a rotating selection of paintings from the National Gallery’s collection and become a beloved destination of visitors to the museum.

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