'Paintings on Paper': An intimate new Rothko exhibition opens at Oslo's National Museum

Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper
Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper Copyright Børre Høstland / Nasjonalmuseet
Copyright Børre Høstland / Nasjonalmuseet
By Amber Louise Bryce
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While best known for his large-scale rectangular colour fields, a new exhibition in Oslo highlights Rothko's more than 1,000 paintings on paper.


In troubled times, there's something about Mark Rothko's art that provides respite. 

His iconic rectangular colour fields - vibrant empty spaces, layered with texture - absorb our focus and allow our feelings to meander in oddly reassuring ways. Perhaps this is why Rothko is having such a resurgence in Europe right now. 

Last year, the Louis Vuitton Foundation presented the first retrospective in France dedicated to his works since 1999. 

Now, it's Norway's turn: a fascinating new exhibition dedicated to the 20th century abstract artist's lesser-known works on paper opens at the National Museum in Oslo on 16 May. 

Mark Rothko
Mark RothkoBridgeman Images/PVDE

Delicately dallying from his earliest works through to his prolific final years, it lifts away the fuzzy-edged layers on one of the world's most famous artists to provide a more intimate picture of the artist himself. 

"Rothko was from a Jewish family and experienced persecution early in life and later alienation when his family emigrated from present-day Latvia to the United States. From a distance he witnessed the Holocaust," says Øystein Ustvedt, Curator at the National Museum.

"What emerged from this background were abstract paintings charged with feeling, atmosphere and emotional states including grief and tragedy. This is what makes his paintings expressive in an indescribably beautiful way."

A prolific paper trail

Best known for his large-scale canvases; Rothko's rectangles represent some of the most significant examples of post-war art. 

Throughout his life, however, Rothko also made nearly a thousand paintings on paper. These are smaller and more intimate in feeling; richly expressive with emotion and ambience. 

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the National Museum is putting a spotlight on this paper trail, many of which were completed after the artist suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1968. 

Following his doctors orders to reduce stress (and not paint anything over forty inches in height), Rothko turned to paper as a way to express himself, without the physical and mental demands of his usual highly-ambitious artistic style. 

So began one of the most productive periods of the artist's life, with the versatility and smaller surface area of the material allowing him to work at a much quicker pace. 

By the end of 1968, he had completed nearly 120 paintings on paper. 

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969, National Gallery of Art, Washington© 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / BONO

Deep, dark hues of brown and grey swallow cosmic purple and blues that leak against a white border - the defining feature of these later works. 

Such melancholic tones have led many to speculate they are a reflection of Rothko's declining mental health at the time, his suicide in 1970 a spectre that casts a long shadow over any search for meaning. 

It is, of course, too simplistic to stare into a large abyss of gloomy or gory colour and attach depression. Instead, this exhibition provides a sense of balance and nuance to Rothko's emotions by showcasing other, lighter works he painted around this time - in particular, his pastels.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969, Collection of Christopher Rothko.
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969, Collection of Christopher Rothko.© 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / BONO

Soft, cotton candy pinks and smudgy sky blues lapped by frothy grey-white; these act as a reminder of the complex colour palette that makes up human emotion. 

The true power of Rothko's art lies in deciphering what goes through our own minds when seeing it. This is an artist that was never trying to tell us how to feel, but instead hoping to create spaces for our personal emotions to drift and dance, and find a sense of connection. 


"Rothko wanted to be intimate and human and to communicate directly with the viewer," says Karianne Ommundsen, Curator Education at the National Museum.  

"In the encounter with his paintings, you have to spend some time in front of them in order to feel their full effect. These are works that have a unique ability to evoke powerful emotions and affinity."

Watercolour beginnings

Mark Rothko, The Bathers, 1934, National Gallery of Art
Mark Rothko, The Bathers, 1934, National Gallery of Art© 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / BONO

Paper was not only integral to Rothko's later years, but also how he began his career - mostly through private, figurative watercolours that offer a uniquely personal perspective on the artist, his processes and creative evolution. 

From the blurred curves of naked ladies, to bodies on a beach, their details muddied with paint, these early experimental pieces were never intended to be shown to the public, but were clearly precious to Rothko due to never being thrown away. 

Sometimes simplistic, sometimes surreal, each one gives insight into an artist attempting to find his place in a burgeoning New York art scene. 

Mark Rothko, Untitled (seated figure in interior), c. 1938, National Gallery of Art
Mark Rothko, Untitled (seated figure in interior), c. 1938, National Gallery of Art© 2023 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / BONO

Notably, a 1938 watercolour depicts a person transfixed by a portrait of a blue-skinned, pink-haired being. The bright, poppy palette of the painting within a painting seems to illuminate the earthy tones of its surroundings, bringing everything to life; a possible commentary on the transformative relationship between art and viewer. 

"A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience," Rothko famously said in a 1959 interview with LIFE magazine.

That experience is greatly enhanced here through the personal elements of Rothko's paper works, a revelation that traces a timeline through his career and does not detract from the core, context-free goals of his most famous pieces. 

Standing in front of two blazing red rectangles on a tray of orange, the senses are momentarily engulfed - and Rothko reminds us, once again, of the power to be found in simply feeling something. 

'Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper' runs at the National Museum in Oslo, Norway from 16 May — 22 September 2024.

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