The Art Institute of Chicago has the unprecedented opportunity to present five works by the American painter Mark Rothko (1903–1970), including two loans and three works from the museum’s collection. These extraordinary works, ranging from 1949 until 1954, show the artist at the height of his ability to create deeply experiential paintings that radiate light as if through an inner source. Rothko’s five paintings join “Untitled” (1989) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996), a key work by this pioneering conceptual artist in the Art Institute’s collection.
Rothko was one of the leading proponents of Color Field painting, a type of non-gestural Abstract Expressionism that entailed large-scale canvases distinguished by monumental expanses of form and tone. By 1947, Rothko had abandoned representational imagery altogether and began working with color, light, and space as the fundamental elements in his compositions. In the following years, he continued to emphasize color as the defining force, transitioning to the mature, Color Field paintings now on display at the Art Institute. Rothko wanted to offer painting as a doorway into purely spiritual realms, in order to communicate directly the most essential, rawest forms of human emotion. Materially speaking, he achieved this by directly staining the fabric of the canvas with many thin washes of pigment and by paying particular attention to the edges where the fields interact. The effect is remarkable and profoundly moving: the light seems to radiate from the image itself, projecting vibrant colors into space and suspending the rectangular forms in time.
These luminescent works are installed in the gallery with Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled”—a self-portrait represented as a running text comprising historic events and personal milestones. The work was first realized in 1989 and expanded and contracted with subsequent installations until the artist’s premature death in 1996. By Gonzalez-Torres’s instruction, the work can continue to shift in ongoing manifestations, anchored in its own history yet also perpetually changing. Located at the top of the walls close to their intersection with the ceiling, “Untitled” occupies the space like a frieze. By placing events from his own life on equal terms with events that have shaped all our lives, Gonzalez-Torres merges private histories with collective memory in this distinct architectural and commemorative form. Rendered with silver paint, the work appears and disappears in its reaction to light, once again reminding us of the fleeting and changeable nature of human existence.
Simultaneously self-contained and complementary, the works of Rothko and Gonzalez-Torres create a contemplative space—to pause and to reflect on what constitutes our experiences, identities, and lives.