Trembling Before White: Review of Mark Rothko Dark Palette Exhibition at the Pace Gallery

Celeste Marcus, University of Pennsylvania

A Rothko gallery is a religious space. When expending the appropriate time and patience, visitors are pulled deep into the paintings and themselves. The layers work on you. Like prayer, they demand complete concentration and will reward with a rare sense of innerness. The descent into layers of consciousness looks different for every soul. Some psyches are brighter than others.

Imagine you could see souls. Most would be amalgams of lights and darks, some more layered and complex than others. You know the sorts of people who would look like shocks of yellows and reds – the bright eyed, gorgeous sort. The sunny ones.

The Rothko show at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea is called Dark Palette. Imagine a room of deceptively placid, complex and tormented souls. Imagine you could see them. Imagine you could fall into each one, slowly and with pain and patience.

Each palette is heavy. Each is oppressive. The stretches of darker beneath dark speak.

Mark Rothko is by all accounts one of the most important painters of the 20th century. Born in Latvia, in 1903, Rothko emigrated to America. He was accepted to Yale University but abandoned his education prematurely and went to New york, “to bum about and starve a bit.” There he worked odd jobs and studied under Max Weber at the Arts Students League. His early work reflects Weber’s influence. Rothko’s artwork evolved much. He didn’t begin creating the color fields for which he is now known till the 1950s.

Abstract Expressionism is not an easy form of art. It demands much of the viewer. Rothko, influenced by philosophy, mythology, his own Russian Jewish heritage and  plagued by an almost acerbic, grim and occasionally crippling depth, insisted that his works were full of meaning.  He meant to challenge Americans through his art which was created in a social and political furnace. He meant it to burn. “Tragedy” Rothko said, “is the only theme noble enough for art.” He killed himself in 1970.

The ignorant often mistake the work he left us for easy paintings because most Rothko works are bright. The following exchange is printed in enormous letters on the first wall of the Pace Gallery exhibition:


Dark Pallette is the first full scale exhibition of Rothko’s dark canvases. All the paintings play with dark reds, charcoals, blues and blacks.  Darkness does not always deal with pain. This is important, Rothko’s darkness does not solely deal with morbidity or anguish. They are first and always works of serious, noble and occasionally crippling depth. Gravity is heavy but it is also necessary for people who take life seriously. Rothko’s darkness is more complex and gorgeous than sheer pain.

One of these dark canvasses sucked me in deepest. It houses three enormous black swaths over a sheet of boiling red, bordered on all sides by white canvas. It is the white, littered with towers and drizzles of blood red and black, that makes this piece shocking.

When we experience sensory extremes continuously, eventually we stop distinguishing between the levels of extremity. LOUD and SLIGHTLY LOUDER sound similar. Dark and slightly darker look almost identical. Most of the paintings in the gallery are entirely layer upon layer of dark colors. No white. The darkness stops being shocking.

Depth is an extremity that operates the same as all others. When a soul falls deeper and deeper into itself, farther away from peace and clarity, it stops sensing the depth. It stops remembering what lightness felt like – and so it stops missing it. Constants become comfortable – we prefer what we know. For some, depression (note the technical definition of that word) is its own respite.

However, a woman who sways on the tight rope between light and swirling blackness misses the light. She hasn’t forgotten it. When the blackness pulls her under, she knows to long for white. This painting teeters on that tightrope. Its stained white border is an articulation of the sharp mental anguish of limbo between functional and drowning.

One’s legs shake while praying before this piece. The weight is a blessing.

Dark Palette, Pace Gallery, Nov 04, 2016 – Jan 07, 2017