The second in a series of "contemporary" exhibits in the Tower Gallery of the National Gallery of Art features 7 large Rothko paintings from 1964. Since I took the elevator up, I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of earlier Rothko paintings in the smaller area before the main tower gallery. The earliest works are smaller paintings that are somewhat rough around the edges. I don't know Rothko's biography well enough to make definitive statements but I would guess these did not meet with a lot of success. They are interesting simply for how they may help in understanding of his development. The works from the forties are more accomplished, with surrealist tendencies which Rothko and other New York School painters were employing at the time.
Unlike the first new tower show which presented Philip Guston's work in a straight up manner, the NGA has chosen to try to tie all of these works together in the context of Rothko's use of black. I personally find it a bit of a stretch. What becomes clear as one enters the main gallery is that these 7 paintings are not black. They are certainly dark but I was seeing purples, reds and blues. The essay material suggests that by sitting and looking at these paintings for an extended period of time you will notice subtle colors peaking out. Well, maybe I'm just super-observant(not likely), but this was simply obvious.
To make another connection,they chose to play Morton Feldman's chamber piece "Rothko Chapel" every half hour. It is a wonderful, contemplative piece which was first performed in the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Yes, these paintings were precursors to the cycle in the chapel but did its inclusion here really make sense. I happen to like Feldman, and this piece in particular, so I found it a nice touch.
So this is must see show, not necessarily to come to any conclusions about Rothko's use of black but for a chance to see a number of great, related paintings along with some earlier paintings that are not seen all that often.