Mark Rothko (1903-1970) desired for painting what priests want for religion: transcendence of material fact into a realm of luminous deliverance. If you’ve ever spent time in a gallery surrounded by Rothko’s mature canvases, with their blurry bands of sensitively tuned color layered in atmospheric washes of oil paint, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s done the much better job of it.
A clearer appreciation for how those truly affecting entities came into being can be gained through this exhibition of watercolors, which the Russian immigrant painted in the years leading up to his breakthrough work of the late 1940s and early ’50s. In a 1943 letter to an art critic, Rothko and a colleague, Adolph Gottlieb, asserted, “To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.” In the sandy-hued horizon lines and biomorphic figures of some of these works from 1942 to ’46, you can see Rothko fighting through the influence of Picasso — who, we sometimes forget, was a living, producing, protean presence looming over the Abstract Expressionist generation. But while these are engaging pictures on their own, Rothko’s searching forms have little of the panache of born draftsmen like the Spaniard or de Kooning.
Then, in 1946 and ’47, Rothko insightfully began dispensing with drawing, and his shapes started to disintegrate: A 30-inch-wide vision throbs with the Stygian dynamism of a subway to Dante’s inferno; a tall figure (the ghost, perhaps, of a Greek statue) dissolves into three horizontal blurs. In these advances, we feel the classics-besotted Rothko, who ultimately viewed himself as a painter of ideas rather than of things, embarking toward that unknown world he would soon make all his own.