The Mark Rothko show at the DAM explores a pivotal decade of American art

The Mark Rothko show at the DAM explores a pivotal decade of American art

Ever since the Hamilton Building came on line, the Denver Art Museum has been mounting shows at a breakneck pace, with this summer's fiber extravaganza, Spun, and its dozen-plus separate shows proving the point. But there's plenty of room for more at the DAM, including Figure to Field: Mark Rothko in the 1940s, now on view in the Gallagher Family Gallery; the traveling show examines a pivotal decade in the development of art in America as seen through the lens of this single artist.

The 1940s is when Rothko — and others — developed abstract expressionism out of abstract surrealism. This was done against the backdrop of World War II, when many modern artists from Europe fled the Nazis for the United States. Their work was exhibited and they became widely known here, sparking American artists, like Rothko, to embrace abstraction.

Viewers of Figure to Field can follow Rothko's stylistic development from abstracted figures into both dream-based and automatist-surrealist-inspired pieces. These compositions morph into what have been dubbed his "multiforms," and culminate in his classic color-field abstractions. (This last group is made up of the kinds of paintings most often associated with Rothko.) There is also a section devoted to his mentors and his contemporaries, including Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock.

The show was headed up by Todd Herman, with the DAM's Gwen Chanzit acting as resident curator. Chanzit points out that even in his earliest pieces, Rothko was already dividing his canvases into distinct stacked areas and leaving margins at the edges that reinforce the rectangular shapes of the picture planes.

I'd add that his refined sensibility for color combinations is also evident in the earliest works. But clearly the breakthrough starts with the automatist-surrealist works, like the out-of-this-world "Sea Fantasy" (pictured), and he really gets on the right track with the multiforms, including the spectacular "No. 9." Of course, the greatest pieces are the classic ones, notably "Untitled," in which wide horizontal bars float on a field of sunny yellow.

Through September 29 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org.

 
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