The Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien recently presented the works of one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century – Mark Rothko. The audience got a chance to see an overview of the American painter’s important stylistic developments, with over 40 works displayed – some loaned from the Rothko family, while others were borrowed from prestigious institutions like the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

This exhibition not only showed his signature paintings of Abstract Expressionism, but an insight into his Rothko’s artistic career – from his figural paintings of the 1930s, through the works of the 1940s, and to his classical abstract paintings of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Who was Mark Rothko?

Born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903, Mark Rothko was an American Abstract artist that lived during the 20th century. He was a well-educated man who spoke four languages, but had no formal training in painting. Nonetheless, he was still able to produce famous works of art. He believed that art was truly an expression of emotion and social circumstance, and his only concern was that people wouldn’t understand his art. He even refused to sell his paintings to people who “did not react correctly” when viewing them.

The Exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum

At first look, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna doesn’t seem like a place for more modern/contemporary artists like Mark Rothko. The museum is largely known for its old masters’ paintings and antiquities, but that’s exactly why the exhibition actually makes sense. Even though he used contemporary approaches that were innovative or abstract, Rothko drew a lot of inspiration from the art and artists that are located in the core of the museum’s collections. His art developed in comprehension of what came before. Rothko never visited Austria, but it is most likely that he saw the collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum during their display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950. 

This exhibition was curated by Jasper Sharp in cooperation with the close support and advice of  Mark Rothko‘s son Christopher. For viewers, it gives an overview of Rothko’s most important stylistic developments, but at the same time, it creates an exciting dialogue with the Museum’s collections. The displayed works underlined the artist’s interest in historical art, including the Europe trips that provided deep explorations of painting collections, architecture, and old chapels.

The viewers got the opportunity to witness a chronological display of Rothko’s artistic development. From the figurative elements that gradually turn into mythological figures and later give way to organic shapes, visitors were able to see the evolution of Rothko’s painting career. At the very end of the exhibition, you could see paintings with Rothko’s signature style that showed large blocks of rectangles with subtle use of color that plays with the visitor’s emotions, memories and thoughts. The aim was to explore the concepts of spiritual, sacred, tragic and timeless, and his paintings can be interpreted as a unique portal for both contemplation and potential (self-)transformation.

The exhibition started with a group of early figurative works that reference Christian, Greek, Roman and Jewish iconography. The central part of the entire exhibition was large-scaled murals made in 1958-59 for the Seagram Building in New York. The final part shows works made before his suicide that reflect his depression that led his death with a darker palette of blacks, purples, burgundy, and deep greens, but also a lighter one of baby blue, baby pink, terracotta, and lilac.