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Light and Darkness

Aaron Parazette matures, while Mark Rothko endures

The exhibit is "Rothko: The Chapel Commission," and there has never been a Rothko show like it. And given the problems of assembling the pieces included -- many of the paintings were tied up in the lawsuit that followed Rothko's death and haven't been widely displayed, while some are so fragile that their owners have a no-loan policy on them that was broken only because of the Menil's saintly reputation -- there probably never will be again.

The show was put together in honor of the Chapel's 25th anniversary (another incentive for loan-shy Rothko owners to make their paintings available). The Chapel's Rothkos are what most Houstonians know of the artist, but over years of exposure to Houston's humidity, the Chapel paintings have not fared well. Ghostly white marks -- proteins from the egg-oil paint emulsion Rothko used -- began to appear on the artworks. For seven years, conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro labored to deal with these intrusions, until with the help of a Shell Oil lab she came up with a solvent that would remove the protein without damaging the paintings. But that wasn't the only difficulty. The Menil is still trying to remedy the Chapel's uneven lighting, which, thanks to Rothko's rejection of architect Philip Johnson's original design, has never been adequate.

Because of its problems, some have walked into the Rothko Chapel and wondered just what the big deal was about this Rothko guy. If you were among those, now is your chance to find out. Seen in the modulated natural light of the Menil Collection, Rothko's late paintings -- including a large-scale set once intended for the Chapel -- glow with astounding intensity, the way thick cloud cover does at high noon.

Unfortunately, the museum does nothing to elucidate the organization of its exhibit, but as you pass through the six rooms of Rothko's art you can easily follow the development that led to the Chapel's works. The first room of paintings were done in 1963, the year before the Chapel was commissioned. By then, Rothko had already darkened his palette to gold, brown, maroon and black, though with flashes of vaporized color and light. Walking into the next room, you're confronted by several, even darker paintings done the year of the Chapel commission. It was in these rooms that I learned the first lesson the show is meant to teach us -- that dark, for Rothko, does not necessarily mean somber. Instead, it's a means of calibrating the viewer's perception to subtleties that aren't always apparent in his bright paintings.

The following room contains most of a numbered series known as the Black Form paintings. By painting black on black, Rothko was dealing almost entirely with the subtleties of surface, from chamois matte to light sheen. He used, as he did later in the Chapel, different media that produce different degrees of reflectivity. "Preparatory Works," which comes up next, includes two large studies that are a palimpsest of Rothko's search for the perfect figure-ground relationship. These lead into the "spares," a misleadingly offhand term used for three pair of mural-size vertical paintings originally created for the Chapel. Each of these austere paintings has a black square on mahogany brown, or brown square on black. They argue well that no painter in history has succeeded as well as Rothko did in creating works that beg to be experienced as environments -- yet they are still not as attenuated as the black paintings Rothko eventually chose for his Chapel.

In the final room, filled with paintings done in the years following the Chapel commission, color begins to creep back into Rothko's work. The intense effort of the Chapel paintings is finished, and color -- not necessarily happier, but more mundane -- returns. Like many journeys, Rothko's spiraled to bring him back where he began. But not before it took him into a deep and rarefied territory of darkness, one that was not Rothko's abyss, but rather his route to the sublime.

"Pleasure Provision" is on view through March 29 at Texas Gallery, 2012 Peden, 524-1593.

"Mark Rothko: The Chapel Commission" is on view through March 29 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400.

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