Getting abstract: Early pieces offer fuller view of Rothko and Kline

In an interview, the Yale Art Gallery's Keely Orgeman discusses new works gifted to Yale and what they reveal about two important abstract artists.
Keely Orgeman

Keely Orgeman

The Yale University Art Gallery recently received a gift from the Friday Foundation of six paintings and drawings by Mark Rothko and Franz Kline — artists who profoundly influenced 20th-century American art and the work of future generations. 

The gift honors the legacy of the late Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang, Seattle-based philanthropists who built one of the country’s most important private collections of 20th-century art. An installation exhibiting the six works — four by Kline and two by Rothko — will be on view once the Gallery reopens. A larger exhibition, planned for February 2022, will present the works with paintings, drawings, and sculpture from the gallery’s extensive collection of mid-20th-century art.

Keely Orgeman, the Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Lisa Hodermarsky, the Sutphin Family Curator of Prints and Drawings, are organizing the two shows with the help of Gregor Quack, a doctoral student in the Department of the History of Art.

Orgeman spoke to YaleNews about the gift and what these new works reveal about these important abstract artists. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What can we learn about Kline and Rothko through these six works?

Keely Orgeman: Part of the Gallery’s mission is to present the creative production of artists in multi-faceted ways, whether by collecting works of art from different stages of their careers or in the varied media they used. Both Rothko and Kline are already represented in our collection. We had nine works by Rothko and six by Kline, including paintings and works on paper by each, though primarily from their mature periods. So, in addition to bringing increased focus onto these two significant artists, the gift provides a fuller view of their earlier interests and styles.

These six works demonstrate that Kline’s artistic output and Rothko’s output are more nuanced than you might think. We tend to identify them with their signature-style paintings, which were abstract. They independently arrived at full abstraction around 1950, and these works show how they came to this point gradually from different angles.

Where did Kline’s path to abstraction originate?

Franz Kline's 'Untitled" (1961)

Orgeman: Kline’s starting point was the figurative tradition. He made paintings and drawings of human figures beginning in the 1930s through the 1940s. You see an example of this in the earliest work by Kline included in the gift, “Portrait of Nijinsky,” from 1942, which depicts the celebrated Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. The portrait is one of several versions of this subject that Kline made, and the entire series became a touchstone for his transition from representation to abstraction.

We often associate Kline with his large, black-and-white paintings, but the style of these only represented the last 12 or so years of his career. For the first two decades, he largely worked in a realist, representational mode. I like that this portrait [of Nijinsky] points to that early and middle period, and it does so through an iconic character Kline returned to repeatedly. One of the works on paper we acquired through the gift is a study that served as the basis for a black-and-white painting called “Nijinsky,” which Kline showed in a very important 1950 exhibition of his new abstractions and now belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art [in Manhattan].

The gift includes an untitled painting by Rothko from 1941-1942 that predates his transition to an abstract style. What does it reveal about his early career?

Orgeman: Prior to pursuing an artistic education, Rothko briefly attended Yale in the early 1920s but left before graduating to move to New York, where he studied at the Art Students League. He then became immersed in painting mythological subjects for most of the 1940s, as seen in this untitled painting, and eventually transitioned to abstraction from there.

In the untitled painting, he divided its composition into three registers, each depicting different references to ancient mythology. The top register has a series of interlocking faces. The middle register has a kind of ornamental banding. The bottom layer features human or animal limbs. You see this three-tiered arrangement repeated in several of his works from this period. He’s drawing themes from the New Testament, such as the Crucifixion and the Last Supper, as well as from “Antigone” and other classical tragedies.

Rothko’s attraction to myth and theater was inspired by his interpretation of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” which was published in 1872 and explores the origins of Greek drama. Rothko’s belief upon reading this text was, essentially, that mythology was necessary for revealing to humankind the power of faith in the supernatural.

How does this earlier work compare to the later Rothko painting included in the gift?

No. 11 Yellow Green and Black
Mark Rothko's “No. 11 (Yellow, Green, and Black)”

Orgeman: It’s possible to recognize elements of the earlier work abstracted in this later painting, “No. 11 (Yellow, Green, and Black),” from 1950. This was one of Rothko’s first canvases to feature the color-field style that he explored for the rest of his life. It maintains a continuity with the representational paintings from the early 1940s, primarily in the tripartite format.

Imagine seeing these two paintings side by side. We hope our upcoming installation will allow people to make these kinds of connections between them.

How does “No. 11 (Yellow, Green, and Black)” compare to later works in the color-field style already in the Gallery’s collection?

Orgeman: “No. 11 (Yellow, Green, and Black)” is the earliest of Rothko’s signature-style paintings to enter the Gallery’s collection, and the big black rectangle painted in the center of the composition distinguishes it from our later examples. The black cloud has a particular effect on how we perceive space in the picture. In contrast to the surrounding warm colors (with the exception of the cool, green line), black appears to recede from the viewer. But, in other color-field paintings in our collection, a brighter palette of orange, yellow, and red dominates the entire visual field, creating a more immersive viewing experience.

It is important to remember that Rothko resisted readings of his works as fully abstract. Even with these mature abstractions, he is trying to express and draw out basic human emotions, just as he was doing in the earlier untitled work.

How will the gift serve the Gallery’s teaching mission?

Orgeman: The gift enhances the Gallery’s position as a center for innovative teaching with art. The works are now part of our permanent collection and available for students, faculty, and the public to enjoy. We’re excited for the opportunity to present these newly acquired paintings and drawings in the installation as soon as the museum reopens.

The individual works could be relevant to any course that covers mid-20th century art and that teaches about the relationship between representation and abstraction during that period. They not only offer insight into Kline and Rothko’s artistic development but can also lead to discoveries of other artists who were similarly emerging from the figurative tradition and occasionally returning to it in their abstract styles, even in subtle ways. This is the kind of context we hope to build around the works by Kline and Rothko in the more expansive exhibition that we’re planning for the winter of 2022.

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