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Masterpieces by abstract expressionist to go on display

Twenty-seven representative works by leading abstract expressionist Mark Rothko will be on display at the Hong Kong Museum of Art from tomorrow (March 31) to June 4.

"The Art of Mark Rothko: Selections from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC" is organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in collaboration with the US Department of State. The exhibition in Hong Kong is presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

This is the first time the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, has sent an exhibition to Hong Kong and also the first time the works of Mark Rothko have travelled to Asia.

Mark Rothko has long been recognised as one of America's foremost artists. Having completely broken off from the tradition of figurative representation, his signature works comprise large rectangles of colour floating on the canvas, creating poetic spaces for man to explore his inner self.

On display are drawings, watercolours, gouaches, and paintings on canvas and paper in oil and acrylic, that date from the late 1920s to 1970, offering an overview of Rothko's artistic evolution over five decades: early representational images of figures, landscapes, and cityscapes, and works from the transitional decade of the 1940s, and his signature late abstraction as well. The works selected reveal Rothko's embrace of key modernist concerns.

The exhibition was opened today (March 30). Officiating guests included the Director of Leisure and Cultural Services, Ms Anissa Wong Sean-yee, the US Consul General for Hong Kong and Macau, Mr James B Cunningham, the Senior Conservator of Modern Paintings, the National Gallery of Art, Mr Jay Krueger, and the Chairman of Friends of the Museum of Art, Mrs Nancy Lee.

Rothko (1903-1970) was a Jew who emigrated to America from Russia with his family in 1913. Apart from attending classes at the legendary Art Students League in New York from 1925 to 1026, he was self-trained. An important mentor was the painter Milton Avery, whose spare forms and subtle colours profoundly influenced the young artist's direction. Building on his youthful interest in drama, Rothko read widely in mythology and psychoanalysis, and was influenced by the paintings of Rembrandt, the music of Mozart, and the philosophy of Nietzsche.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Rothko produced hundreds of works on paper and on canvas, depicting nudes, portraits, interiors with figures, cityscapes, and landscapes. His deliberate distortion of form and rigorous application of paint are characteristics shared by some non-Western visual traditions, such as African and Oceanic art, and children's art, which Rothko admired. His early experimental approach to the materials and tools of drawing and painting is demonstrated in a variety of media, including graphite, ink, and transparent and opaque watercolours.

The 1940s is a transitional period in Rothko's creation. He had been eager to express the tragedy of the human condition. "A time came," he said, "when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it." Around 1940 the artist began to explore Graeco-Roman myths in a series of paintings characterised by the radical fragmentation of the human figure, with multiple repetition of forms set within segmented areas of the plane. As the decade progressed, his imagery became increasingly symbolic and moved further toward abstraction.

By 1947, Rothko had virtually eliminated all representational imagery in his paintings, and non-objective compositions of loosely defined colour-shapes, called "multiforms", emerged. By 1950 Rothko had arrived at his signature style, achieving his ideal of "the simple expression of the complex thought". This most often took the form of compositions of two to four rectangular forms, aligned vertically against a colour ground. Within this format, Rothko used a broad spectrum of colours and tones and a variety of formal relationships to create moods and atmospheric effects ranging from sober to lyric.

Rothko's work darkened significantly during the 1950s. By 1958 he often abandoned radiant colours in favour of a darker palette of red, maroon, brown, and black, especially in a series of public mural projects. Following an aneurysm in 1968, Rothko relinquished his work on large canvases and concentrated on works on paper. Many of these were mounted on panel or fabric, giving them the appearance of unframed canvases. Rothko further condensed his composition to a fundamental contrast of colours, tones, and surfaces in his works.

Ms Roth Fine, the Curator, Special Project in Modern Arts, National Gallery of Art, noted that the feelings one experienced when confronting Rothko’s paintings were profoundly difficult to translate into words, and it was important to him that viewers be permitted to interact with and respond to his art in a personal way. When a group of the artist's paintings was about to be installed in the Art Institute of Chicago, and he was concerned about the production of any text that would tell, as he put it, "the public how the pictures should be looked at and what to look for. While on the surface this may seem an obliging and helpful thing to do, the real result is paralysis of the mind and imagination ... If I must place my trust somewhere, I would invest it in the psyche of sensitive observers who are free of the conventions of understanding. I would have no apprehensions about the use they would make of these pictures for the needs of their own spirits. For if there is both need and spirit, there is bound to be a real transaction."

The National Gallery of Art houses one of the finest art collections in the world, illustrating major achievements in painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and works on paper from the Middle Ages to the present day. In 1985 and 1986, the National Gallery of Art received a generous donation from The Mark Rothko Foundation -- a gift that included nearly 1,000 paintings by the master. This made the National Gallery of Art the most important repository and study centre of Rothko's work.

To tie in with the exhibition, the Museum of Art will launch a series of talks and video programmes. For details, please call 2734 2156 or 2734 2157. Meanwhile, an audio-guide to the exhibition is also available in the gallery.

The Museum of Art is located at 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm daily and is closed on Thursdays (except those falling on public holidays). Admission is $10 and a half-price concession is available to full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Admission is free on Wednesdays.

For enquiries, call 2721 0116 or visit the Museum of Art's website at .

Ends/Thursday, March 30, 2006

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