Mark Rothko at the Columbus Museum of Art

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From the January 31, 2013 edition

A 1940 oil and graphite painting by Mark Rothko depicts a man and two women lounging in a bucolic setting. The scene certainly doesn’t call to mind the man whose name is synonymous with blocks of color painted atop each other, which he started painting on the other end of that decade.

The Columbus Museum of Art is the latest temporary home for the exhibit “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950,” which traces the painter’s progression from one style to the other, surrealist automatist to abstract expressionist.

The chronological display starts with paintings in which Rothko references human and mythical symbols, much inspired by his readings of Nietzsche and Greek myth, and ends with his multiform paintings adored for their ability to organize color in a simple way that provokes complex thought and memory.

Along the way, viewers will see firsthand the visual landscape Rothko pioneered in the ’40s and the routes he took to do it.

“Mark Rothko felt that he was creating an art that could stand up to the Italian Renaissance or Baroque masters,” said CMA curator Dominique Vasseur of Rothko’s later work. “There were no human figures interacting a drama, but the colors, the way he painted them, that was the drama, the tragedy, the ecstasies that you hope to find in great art.”

Rothko and his contemporaries started exploring ways to express human identity because the literal translation of the human figure no longer felt meaningful.

“They felt the human figure had lost its power as a way to effectively convey great heroic ideas of life,” Vasseur said.

Relying on only color and its application to make a statement, Rothko required the viewer to commune with the painting.

“His multiforms are some of the most beautiful works of the show,” Vasseur said. “They’re rare. To have that experience to be able to be with them, to sit with them, to look at them and really experience the effect they have. To really see the nuances of the brushstrokes and the way he’s overlaid the color and what that does to the way you see it. It’s an honor to have this show come here.”

Complementing the exhibition is a gallery of 10 works by Rothko’s colleagues, including Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb, created in the same time period.

“They’re great because they help to really show how these artists were able to get rid of the human figure,” Vasseur said, “and create a strong personal statement in a work of art and not include references to tangible reality.”