Mark Rothko’s Hierarchical Birds, 1944.

COLUMBUS - Traveling the country as we speak is an exhibition that has been overlooked by some, since it is not stopping in New York: “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade, 1940-50.” Right now it’s at Ohio’s Columbus Museum of Art until May 26, and then it heads to the Denver Art Museum over the summer. Catch this show if you can.

Although it only has about 37 works, it is truly weighty. It traces the development of one of the 20th century’s most revered painters, largely with pieces on loan from the National Gallery of Art. As I wrote in this article for the New York Times, the exhibition shows us how Rothko became Rothko. The great painter, born in Latvia in 1903, didn’t start out in full command of those hazy bands of color—he started out employing signs and symbols that resembled those of his peers, Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, doing figural works that got more and more abstract over time.

Mark Rothko’s Untitled, 1944.

The curators of the show have done a great job, but someone else deserves credit too: Christopher Rothko, the painter’s son. Along with his sister, Kate Rothko Prizel, he has been quietly tending to his late father’s legacy. “We work very closely together, though I have the most active role now,” Christopher told me recently. He has even curated shows of his father’s work; for The Decisive Decade he wrote a very concise and powerful essay, and recorded the acoustiguide tour for exhibition.

“It’s a really important show, and frankly I cant believe it hasn't happened before,” Christopher told me. “The 1940s is the decade where everything happens for my father. He enters the decade one way and he comes out the other end as the Rothko we know.”

Mark Rothko’s No. 8, 1949.

The exhibition makes very clear how the canvases evolved, but Christopher of course also knows the behind-the-scenes personal story, which did not lack for drama. Rothko committed suicide in 1970, but the 1940s were a time of progress and hope. “His turbulent first marriage came to a conclusion, and he meets his second wife, my mother,” Christopher said. “His personal life was upended, and then righted again.”

I think the most interesting thing that Christopher related to me was the fact that Rothko, such a master of paint, could have given his life to another medium. “He was a great music lover,” he said. “Painting was the most effective way for him to communicate his ideas, but if he could have done it in music or writing he would have done that, too. Whatever got his ideas out into the world.”

Rothko the composer? Given the stately, haunting vibrations that emanate from his signature late abstractions, it’s a provocative idea that lingers in the mind.

Photos Courtesy of The Columbia Museum of Art