Mark Rothko, “Self-Portrait” (1936), © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Bildrecht Wien, 2019 (all images via

VIENNA — Mark Rothko is hardly an unknown artist. Awarded with major American museum retrospectives during his lifetime, he has been the subject of a full-scale biography by James Breslin as well as massive recent revisionist discussions. There are various commentaries on his chapel in Houston, the most important such project by any American painter. And thanks to his son Christopher, Rothko’s book-length essay on aesthetic theory, The Painter’s Reality, was published posthumously in 2004.

And so before seeing the exhibition Mark Rothko at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, I believed that the general story of his career was relatively clear. Like the other American Abstract Expressionists, Rothko made figurative works in the 1930s, modestly successful art that is now exhibited and closely studied only because, circa 1948, he made his radical breakthrough, and so became justly famous. He then worked abstractly for several decades. And after his suicide in 1970, a lawsuit, which has been documented in books and film, returned the many paintings in the estate from an untrustworthy art dealer to his young heirs, his two children, Christopher and his older sister, Kate.

The works in this large retrospective, the first devoted to Rothko in Austria, provide a generously full presentation of his career. Almost half of the paintings come from before 1948. “Self-Portrait” (1936) shows his fascination with Rembrandt. “Underground Fantasy” (1940) depicts a group of Giacometti-esque stick figures in the subway. And “Hierarchical Birds” (1944) demonstrates how Rothko used Surrealist-like symbolism to move towards the full-blown abstraction of “No. 7/No. 11” (1949). Then the seven sketches for the Seagram Murals from 1958 and the following year develop a different format, with open ‘T’ shapes against a luminous background.

Mark Rothko, “Underground Fantasy (c.1940), © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Bildrecht Wien, 2019, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Finally, in his late abstractions the color field structures sometimes darken, sometimes, as in “No. 3” (1967), almost becoming monochromes. Looking at this body of work, it’s a mystery how, and why, Rothko made his dramatic breakthrough into abstraction. It is also difficult to understand why he often abandoned the glowing colors of his earlier abstract pictures for the much more austere, visually simplified late structures.

Presented in dimly lit rooms, as Rothko desired, with fabric-covered walls, within the brightly lit Kunsthistorisches Museum galleries devoted to its Old Master collection, this exhibition thus offers a compact summary of his career. In this space, it wasn’t possible to enforce Rothko’s other desire, that viewers be forced to get very close to his paintings. Of the 48 works in exhibition, 17 are the property of Christopher, who contributes the leading catalogue essay, a good but not especially evocative account, or of his sister (and her husband), Kate Rothko Prizel. And many more are from the public institutions gifted by the heirs. I note this perhaps odd situation, without having any way of understanding its significance.

At retrospectives of much-discussed artists, I have learnt not to attend too closely to the essays in the inevitable catalogue. Look for yourself and focus on the art, my editors advise me, and don’t get distracted by all that writing. And, indeed it’s good advice, for usually these commentaries only go over clichéd issues.

Mark Rothko, “Untitled” (1948), © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Bildrecht Wien, 2019

Here in Vienna, however, something most unexpected happened. I saw the show, took the catalogue to a café and then after reading the luminous essay by Thomas Crow, came back the next day and saw a very different show. If his well-motivated, radically revisionist commentary is correct, then the received accounts of Rothko are wrong.

Where previous commentaries tended, as I noted, to divide Rothko’s career into two, separating the figurative and Surrealist works from the signature-style abstractions, Crow argues that this body of work has a real stylistic continuity.

Influenced by his lifelong interest in acting, which affected how he chose to present his art in galleries, Rothko reversed his prior figure-ground distinctions when he made his abstractions, bringing forward the geometric backgrounds — the stage setting — while pushing backwards the figures — his actors, — in a way that requires “confounding their normal cognitive functions.”

Mark Rothko, “Untitled (Seagram Mural Sketch)” (1959), © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Bildrecht Wien, 2019, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Rothko always claimed that his painting, which was frequently said to be decorative, was about the violence inherent in everyday experience. He was right, Crow claims. And then carrying this analysis a step further, with references to the staged photographs of Rothko’s studio by Hans Namuth and Alexander Lieberman, and a photograph of the Houston Chapel by Thomas Struth, Crow argues that the late monumental monochromes develop this basic concern, when their surfaces “begin to seethe with incident, cloudy forms blooming, shifting, and receding again in a protean profusion of wave- or cloud-like patterns [. ..] .“ Restoring the unity of Rothko’s career, Crow argues that in order to fully understand his abstractions we need also to consider his early figurative works. The paintings made before 1948 look minor, but in fact, if Crow is correct, they are essential to understanding Rothko’s mature works.

Only the first part of Crow’s account is really visually testable within this exhibition, which doesn’t contain many of the large dark late paintings. In “Untitled (Two Women at the Window)” (1937), the women stand within a frame. And in “Contemplation” (1937/8) a single figure looks off to the side as if in contemplation, much as, in one studio photograph, Rothko contemplates his abstract paintings.

Then “Untitled” (1946), a big painting, with its yellow and red form, makes the transition into abstraction. This intermediate work looks formless, but when we get to “Untitled” (1948), Rothko uses green, blue, and orange forms to more successfully sort out the relationship between “acting” forms and background stage settings. And later that year, when we get to “Untitled (Multiform)” (1948), which floats monochromatic rectangles on a background, we come to a signature-style Rothko.

Mark Rothko, “No. 3 (Plum and Black)” (1964), © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Bildrecht Wien, 2019, © Matthew Hollow Photography

As it stands, Crow’s analysis is perhaps incomplete. It doesn’t explain why Rothko made his first transition from naturalistic images to pictures with surrealistic content. Nor does it demonstrate how to relate Rothko’s work to that of the other Abstract Expressionists. Perhaps this is the point — Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock can be closely associated with Rothko only if we accept Clement Greenberg’s formalist analysis, which Crow denies, regarding the flatness of the picture plane.

Christopher Rothko’s essay and also the account by Jasper Sharp, a curator of this exhibition, focus on what Mark Rothko learnt from seeing Old Master European art. Crow takes this discussion in a very different, truly unexpected direction. Is his account of Rothko basing his abstractions on the theater plausible? There is only way that you can answer that question — test it for yourself!

Note: The catalogue Mark Rothko is edited by Sabine Haag and Jasper Sharp. Crow’s account was developed in part in his book with Glenn Phillips, Seeing Rothko: Issues and Debates (2005).

Mark Rothko continues at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Maria-Theresien-Platz, Vienna, Austria) through June 30. The exhibition is curated by Jasper Sharp.

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s Shadow:...