mark rothko

Photo: Courtesy Portland Art Museum.

Mark Rothko c. 1950

AFTER WEEKS TRAVELING from the Baltic Sea on the steamer SS Czar and from New York City on a train, a boy who would become one of most America’s most revolutionary artists arrived at Portland’s Union Station in September 1913. Then known as Marcus Rothkowitz, the 10-year-old spoke Russian, and probably some Yiddish. He, along with two brothers and a sister, joined the bustling immigrant community of Jews and Italians south of what is today SW Market Street.

Decades later (and far from Portland), the erstwhile favorite son would join with a small cluster of painters dubbed the “New York School” to pioneer bold, new forms of abstract painting. With his name shortened to Mark Rothko, he would defy the very notion of a “painting” with earthy fields of atmospheric color and embody the volatile unease of an age of heroically tormented artists (Jackson Pollock was a contemporary) before ending his own life in 1970 with barbituates and slashes through arteries on both arms.

On February 18, the Portland Art Museum will open the first-ever local exhibition of Rothko—at least the Rothko now known throughout the world. (PAM actually hosted his first one-person show in 1933, when he was still Rothkowitz and was painting more traditional pictures.) Chief curator Bruce Guenther has assembled a 45-picture, dot-connecting look at the famed painter, from a Cezannesque 1926 still life and a 1932 portrait of his mother to his early-’40s experiments with surrealism to the ’50s and ’60s explorations of color and perception that won him his final place in history.

The retrospective offers Portland a rare chance to contemplate a luminous talent, at once homegrown and problematic for a city that loves to stake its parochial claim on every creative talent who passes through. (See: John Reed, Minor White.) “Will you find a sun rising behind Mount Hood in his layering of color?” snorts Guenther. “I don’t think so.” Some paintings and drawings of Portland exist, but Guenther chose not to venture that deep into the archives, rather borrowing from the National Gallery, top Seattle collectors, and Rothko’s daughter and son, the latter of whom—hint, hint—might be so generous as to leave one or two paintings behind.

Several pieces in the exhibition easily stand among the most valuable 20th-century works ever to be shown in the city. Small wonder why. As Guenther wryly points out, a Rothko—in poster form—“has lived on every dorm room wall.” He is a male equivalent of Georgia O’Keeffe for how seductively his color fields radiate when reduced in reproduction. Though critics were mixed on his work at the time of its making (Clement Greenberg dismissed him as “indebted” to contemporaries like Clyfford Still), to see Rothko’s paintings now is to discover another in a long lineage of old masters. Look closely at his misty fields and glowing bands of pigment (or even his late, gray work), and the brushstrokes defining each square inch can rival those of Rembrandt or Turner.