The Art Institute of Chicago has the unprecedented opportunity to present five works by the American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), two of which are on loan and three works from the museum’s collection. These extraordinary works, ranging from 1949 to 1954, show the artist at the height of his ability to create deeply experiential paintings that radiate light as though through an inner source. Rothko’s five paintings join together “Untitled” (1989) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996), a flagship work of this pioneering conceptual artist in the collection of the Art Institute.
Rothko was a major proponent of Color Field painting, a type of non-gestural abstract expressionism that involved large-scale canvases distinguished by monumental expanses of form and tone. In 1947, Rothko completely abandoned figurative imagery and began to work with color, light and space as fundamental elements of his compositions. Over the next few years, he continued to emphasize color as a defining force, moving to the mature Color Field paintings now on display at the Art Institute. Rothko wanted to offer painting as a gateway to purely spiritual realms, in order to directly communicate the most essential and raw forms of human emotion. From a material standpoint, he achieves this by directly staining the canvas fabric with numerous washes of pigment and paying special attention to the edges where the fields interact. The effect is remarkable and deeply moving: the light seems to radiate from the image itself, projecting vibrant colors into space and suspending the rectangular shapes in time.
These luminescent works are installed in the gallery with the works of Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled”—A self-portrait represented as a running text comprising historical events and personal milestones. The work was first produced in 1989 and enlarged and scaled down with subsequent installations until the artist’s untimely death in 1996. By the instructions of Gonzalez-Torres, the work may continue to evolve in ongoing events, anchored in its own history but also in perpetual evolution. Located at the top of the walls near their intersection with the ceiling, “Untitled” occupies space like a frieze. By placing the events of his own life on a par with the events that have shaped our entire lives, Gonzalez-Torres merges private stories with collective memory in this distinct architectural and commemorative form. Rendered in silver paint, the work appears and disappears in its reaction to light, once again reminding us of the ephemeral and changing nature of human existence.
Both autonomous and complementary, the works of Rothko and Gonzalez-Torres create a contemplative space – to pause and reflect on what constitutes our experiences, our identities and our lives.