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Ohio’s first Rothko exhibit comes to Columbus

We talk with curator, who has ties to Dayton region, to learn more about important artist, artwork

Art lovers in our region have come to know Dominique Vasseur as a talented curator and a great teacher. During the past 30 years, he’s been connected with the Dayton Art Institute, the Springfield Museum of Art and the Columbus Museum of Art.

At the moment, Vasseur is educating folks about one of the most influential expressionist-surrealist painters of the 20th century — Mark Rothko. Vasseur is the in-house curator for Ohio’s first exhibit of Rothko’s work at the Columbus art museum:“Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade” on view at the Columbus art museum through May 26.

The show, significant because it’s the first devoted to Rothko’s work in the 1940s, features 29 pieces of art, including a painting on loan from the Dayton Art Institute.

“Mark Rothko is one of — if not the — best loved of the Abstract Expressionists,” said Vasseur, adding that the artist himself didn’t like the term because it implied that his art didn’t have meaning.

“It had great meaning for him,” Vasseur said.

Seeing ‘Red’

Theater buffs in Southwest Ohio have gotten to know Rothko in recent years through the play “Red.” The Broadway show, which takes place in Rothko’s studio as he’s painting murals for New York’s famous Four Seasons restaurant, was the 2010 Tony-award winner for Best Play.

The show was presented by the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton during its 2011-12 season, was on stage at the The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in the fall of 2011, and was recently produced in Columbus by CATCO. In the dramatic two-person script, which focuses on the relationship between the artist and his assistant, paints are actually mixed on stage and vivid paintings created.

Rothko’s Journey

When we think of Rothko, most of us picture the color-field paintings for which he’s best known. What’s fascinating about this exhibit is that it allows us to see how Rothko’s work evolved over the years.

“It’s fascinating to be on the journey with Rothko to see how he got there,” said Vasseur, explaining that the artist’s early work in the 1940s reflected the influence of his teachers Max Weber and Milton Avery and incorporated figures. Later his painting became more symbolic and dream-like. Eventually, he came up with a new way of painting using blocks of color.

“This exhibition helps you understand the situation in the 1940s, not only for Rothko but for his colleagues,” Vasseur said. Other artists represented in the Columbus exhibition are Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still.

“If you say Mark Rothko, it’s about big paintings with color floating above the surface,” Vasseur said. “That’s Mark Rothko as opposed to Jackson Pollock, who used drips of paint, or Robert Motherwell, who used black. Each one came up with a classic solution they’re now known for.”

The role of art

Vasseur said Rothko saw art as something that should be larger than America and should be about all humanity.

“He saw the Herculean role of art that transcends race and nationality,” he said. “He didn’t want to buy into the illusion that you’re looking into another reality. He wants it to be an immediate experience. He did not want any paintings framed, and he stopped signing his work — anything that got in the way of a direct experience.”

Vasseur said Rothko was always interested in color and believed his paintings would look best on a wall that was a tint — white mixed with umber and red. That’s the “welcoming, warm color” Vasseur has chosen for the gallery walls in Columbus.

Rothko himself believed his work conveyed the real universal human experience of “tragedy, ecstasy and doom.”

“He takes away more and more visual information requiring us to spend more time looking at the subtleties,” explained Vasseur, who describes Rothko’s famous “multiforms” as “beautiful, evocative, lyrical.”

“He clearly loves color; he knows color is evocative,” Vasseur said. “He knows red and orange are especially evocative — they look like the sun, like blood.”

Eventually, Rothko began wrapping paint around the canvas and creating the paintings for which he is so famous.

“It’s not just a block of color… it’s blocks of color he has overlaid and painted white over — it starts to vibrate,” Vasseur said. “People find the pulse of life in Mark Rothko’s paintings.

Rothko, born in Russia, had a colorful life as well — he spoke four languages, was a Yale dropout and had a brief stint as an actor. He loved classical music, opera, Shakespeare, Nietzsche and the sea, and often referenced myths and stories in his work.

Be sure and take the time to read the text panels in the Columbus exhibit — you’ll gain a lot of fascinating information about Rothko and his art, much of it written by Vasseur.

“He wants us to be able to sit and commune with his paintings,” Vasseur said. “You can’t walk by a Rothko and see it in three seconds; you need to take time with it. You have to approach Rothko in the way that’s best for you.”

More about Vasseur

Vasseur first came to the Dayton Art Institute in 1979 as assistant curator of European Art and Registrar. He later became curator of European Art and Prints, Drawings, and Photographs and in 1994 was promoted to the position of senior curator, responsible for all activities of the DAI’s curatorial department.

During his 20 years in Dayton, Vasseur wrote extensively on the DAI’s collections and lectured at local arts and educational institutions. He organized and installed a number of important exhibitions — in 1994 he served as curator for the major nationally touring exhibition “EDGAR DEGAS: The Many Dimensions of a Master French Impressionist.”

In January 2000, Vasseur became deputy director and museum curator of the Springfield Museum of Art, and in 2005 became Director of curatorial administration and curator of European Art at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Rothko’s Columbus connection

In town for the opening of the Rothko show was the artist’s son Christopher, the head of the Rothko Foundation, who lived with his mother’s aunt in Columbus for seven years following the death of his parents. Mark Rothko committed suicide in 1970 when his son was only six years of age.

“Black is always there, but there is more and more black (in his paintings) as he gets closer to suicide,” Vasseur explained.

Organized by the Columbus museum along with the Arkansas Art Center, the Columbia Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum, the Rothko show was produced in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which owns the core of Rothko’s art collection.

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