On February 21, Crystal Bridges will open an exciting new exhibition: Van Gogh to Rothko: Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Crystal Bridges is one of only four venues for this exhibition, which features the impressive results of 150 years of visionary collecting. Among the 76 artworks by 73 artists are iconic works by some of the most prominent names in art history. The Albright-Knox was one of the first museums in the country to collect European and American Modernism, as well as works by emerging artists in the mid- to late twentieth century. Today the museum has one of the most remarkable collections of modern art in the United States, including stellar examples Abstract Expressionism. Van Gogh to Rothko explores the development of major art movements that shaped the course of modern art from the late nineteenth century to the present Most artworks are arranged by art movements in chronological groupings, which will enable viewers to trace the journey of modern art. The earliest works are masterpieces by Post-Impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh, Fauvists like Henri Matisse, and Cubists like Juan Gris, which demonstrate the influence these avant-garde artists had on generations of European and American painters and sculptors.
Among the many highlights in this exhibition is Vincent van Gogh’s landscape La Maison de la Crau (popularly known as The Old Mill), 1888. Van Gogh’s liberal use of color and expressive brushwork became a major influence on the development of modern art. Instead of painting objects in their natural color, van Gogh selected hues to express his emotions about those objects. The feeling represented in The Old Mill is joy, evoked by a bright, colorful palette. In 1888, van Gogh left the cold and gray winters of Paris and moved to Arles in south France, where he felt the people lived a simple life in harmony with nature. He painted numerous landscapes in and around Arles, and The Old Mill clearly shows how the region’s bright sky, intense sun, and strong colors inspired him. Interestingly, he changed the perspective and structure of the building and its surroundings to become one with his expressive composition: the angles of the grassy slope in the foreground, stairs, and thatched roof are exaggerated, forming a diagonal movement from lower left to upper right. Van Gogh also used different types of paint-loaded brushstrokes for different parts of the painting: the bushes are rendered in short multi-directional strokes, the fence in long, vertical strokes; and the sky in smooth, curved ones, adding to the lively joyous atmosphere of the painting.
Van Gogh to Rothko also features a magnificent work by probably one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Vassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky’s major contribution to modern art was the introduction of purely non-representational or non-objective art. He was inspired by the Fauvists’ emphasis on the emotional qualities of color. His painting Fragment 2 for Composition VII, 1913 is part of his group of works he called Compositions. These works are, according to Kandinsky, “an expression of a slowly formed inner feeling, tested and worked over repeatedly …” In paintings like Fragment 2 for Composition VII he sought a spiritual plane above surface appearances, and he frequently turned to the Book of Revelation with its mystical visions of a new era for inspiration. Earlier, more figurative, studies for this work include an oil sketch similar to his glass painting Last Judgment (1911-12) and an abstract watercolor that is based on his early representational depictions of apocalyptic horsemen, angels, and human figures. Elements in the center of the painting remain personal and enigmatic.
While walking through the galleries, guests will notice how the Fauvists’ intense, vivid palette and simplification of forms, as well as Kandinsky’s expressive non-figurative abstractions, helped to shape modern art, including Abstract Expressionism, the largest group of works in this exhibition.
When Mark Rothko created his Orange and Yellow in 1956 he had already developed his signature style in which two or three rectangles are painted against a larger, different-colored background. Orange and Yellow was considered quite large in the 1950s. Rothko asked viewers to stand close to his monumental works, in order to be visually surrounded or “enveloped“ by the colors. His goal was for color to “express . . . basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” He applied paint to an unprepared canvas in thin washes, often composed of both oil and egg-based media, with a brush or rug which absorbed the colors into its fabric. The many thin washes help to give his paintings a lightness and brightness, as if they glow from within.
He also used this technique to avoid any traces of the brush and to have smooth transitions between rectangles and various color zones. Since the edges of the rectangles are never distinct, the viewer’s eyes can move quietly from one area to another in a contemplative way. The imposing size and glowing colors provide the viewer with a sensory expeence and invite a meditative state of mind.
Color was extremely important to Rothko, who did not want viewers to come to his paintings with preconceived ideas about colors and their associated moods. In his mind, a dark painting could be as cheerful as a vividly colored one. Through different colors and compositions, Rothko achieved different emotional effects: while Orange and Yellow evokes feelings of joy and happiness, Crystal Bridges’ No.210/No.211seems more dramatic and mysterious. Rothko’s work began to darken dramatically during the late 1950s.
Van Gogh to Rothko invites guests to discover connections and relationships between the Albright-Knox’s artworks and works from the Crystal Bridges’ collection. Both museums feature art collections based on a visionary acquisition philosophy coupled with a willingness to embrace experimentation.
To enhance the art experience and to provide opportunities for guests to engage with the artworks in meaningful and interesting ways, Crystal Bridges’ education department will provide exciting interactive and hands-on programs both in the gallery and in the reflection area outside the galleries. This is the first time the Museum offers these kinds of interactive programs in a gallery space. It is a great opportunity for guests to learn more about the artworks on view while experiencing the art in new creative ways. I can’t wait to try out some of these activities myself!