COLUMBUS — For many art lovers, Mark Rothko's layered bands of misty color represent the apex of 20th-century abstraction. Here was an artist who painstakingly distilled the achievements of the painters who came before him and forever changed how we see the horizon line.
The artist's philosophical and spiritual bent — perhaps most in evident in the somber Rothko Chapel in Houston — made a deep impression on those who revered his paintings, leading poet Stanley Kunitz to call him “the last rabbi in Western art.”
But that comment, and much of reverence given to the artist, was largely based on the signature Color Field works that Rothko (1903-1970) did in the last 20 years of his life. Throughout the 1940s, Rothko was living in New York and making very different-looking works, sometimes with figures and other identifiable shapes.
His struggle to achieve an original style is the subject of a touring exhibition, “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade, 1940-50,” which is on view at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio until May 26.
''It's a really important show,” said Christopher Rothko, the painter's son, who has in the past organized some exhibitions of his father's work. “Frankly, I can't believe it hasn't happened before.
''The 1940s is the decade where everything happens for my father. He enters the decade one way and he comes out the other end as the Rothko we know.”
''The Decisive Decade” is relatively small, with 37 works in different media, mostly lent from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, even though the show is not stopping there. The show began its run at the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, S.C., and eventually travels to the Denver Art Museum and the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.
The exhibition traces a sweeping visual arc but one that evolves rapidly over just a few years. The clearly defined figures in the early 1940s give way to the fuzzy spots of color in the middle of the decade and then the majesty of his signature style in Untitled, 1950, with just two primary bands of color. (As the decade progressed, Rothko increasingly declined to title his works.)
''People love a behind a behind-the-scenes story,” said Will South, the chief curator at the Columbia Museum. “This show is like getting the inside scoop. For the first time you can see how Rothko became Rothko.”
South said that viewers might be most surprised to learn that Rothko began his career depicting people and birds, among other figures.
''You watch how these figures disappear and the bands emerge,” he said. “Once everything is stripped away, all you're left with is emotion.”
''He didn't know where he was going,” South added. “He had to destroy the figure to beat it. It was a battle.”
The show started out as an even smaller exhibition in the mind of Todd Herman, who is now the executive director of the Arkansas Arts Center and was a curator at the Columbia Museum when he initiated it.
''I was thinking 10 to 12 works on paper and two paintings,” Herman said.
His interest in what he called “this little crucible of a decade” led him to Washington to meet with Harry Cooper, the National Gallery's chief modern art curator. The National Gallery holds the largest repository of the artist's work because of two large bequests from the Mark Rothko Foundation.
''I knew they had hundreds of works, especially ones on paper, and that they hadn't shown many of them,” Herman said.
The response was more favorable than he expected.
''Harry asked me, ‘Do you really think you can tell this story in 12 works?'” Herman recalled. “And I said, ‘Well I didn't think you'd give me any more than that.’”
Cooper came through with quite a bit more.
''Once we broke through the glass ceiling of lending limits, it was wide open,” Herman said. “I saw what the potential of this show could become, I saw that it could go much further.”
To illuminate the progression of Rothko's work, the exhibition describes the prevailing artistic modes of the 1940s — heavily influenced by Jungian myth theory — and the work of the other painters on the New York scene.
''What I find fascinating about the 1940s is that, as much as we recognize the mature styles of painters like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and Rothko, back then they are all working in the same mode,” Herman said.
''They were playing with the surrealist mode coming out of Europe and influenced by people like Arshile Gorky in their use of organic shapes. But at the end of the road, they all ended up in a different place.”
The painter's son said that even though Rothko's style changed radically, his ideas were consistent.
''He's asking the big questions: Why are we here and what does it mean to be alive?” said Rothko, who works with his sister, Kate Rothko Prizel, to further their father's legacy.
He also contributed an essay to the “Decisive Decade” catalog.
''Painting was the most effective way for him to communicate those ideas, but if he could have done it in music or writing he would have done that too,” Christopher Rothko said.
The small and medium-size museums that collaborated on the exhibition had to employ some creativity of their own to make the tour happen, spreading the organizing duties among the four institutions.
Columbia was in charge of the catalog, while Arkansas dealt with loan paperwork and shipping. Denver handled the painstaking process of indemnifying the artworks, and Columbus took on the budget and expenses.
''This came together fairly quickly, and the divvying up made it quick and efficient,” Herman said. “More and more museums are seeing this is a cost-effective way to work.”
The acoustic guide was the easiest element to coordinate, as the organizers went straight to someone with intimate knowledge of the painter's work.
''It's a first for me,” said Rothko, who went into a recording studio to narrate the acoustic tour. “It's a level of technology I hadn't encountered.”