It’s not every day that National Gallery of Art director Earl Powell III strolls through the Columbia Museum of Art. Then again, it’s not often that a South Carolina museum mounts a major Mark Rothko exhibition.

Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950 was created by the Columbia Museum with 30 Rothko works belonging to the National Gallery of Art. “This is the largest Rothko loan in the history of the National Gallery,” says Powell, while walking through the exhibition before it opened last Thursday. “You need a good partner to make something like this happen.”

This is the most significant exhibition of this period of Rothko’s life. It is also a monumental undertaking for the Columbia Museum; it is probably the most important exhibition the museum has organized in its 60-year-history and includes a catalog published by Skira Rizzoli. The museum hosts many big shows, but nearly all come from other institutions.

The artist is best-known for his large works which stacked fields of colors. The Decisive Decade contains a few of these, but is primarily made up of art that reveal his 10-year journey getting there.

“This is the first time anyone has taken such an in-depth look at this work,” says Harry Cooper, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery. “It really breaks new ground.”

Powell points out three paintings on one wall which could be viewed as the decisive moment in Decisive Decade. On the right is a 1940 painting of two women and a man standing in a garden, each one shown in profile, their heads simplified and blocky. In the other two, painted around a year or so later, the three figures have become one, the heads merged into one, the torso and legs simplified.

“That’s a fascinating wall,” Powell says. “He’s breaking the image into three bands that would show up in the abstract paintings.”

The exhibition allows the viewers to see first-hand how Rothko came to his mature style moving from the stylized figures to more calligraphic and organic shapes akin to works by the surrealists. He and other artists became deeply interested in the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung as well as dreams and mythology. Over time, Rothko began using more colors and softer shapes.

“It’s fascinating to watch these small advances and retreats and the struggle that led to this quantum leap,” says Will South, chief curator of the Columbia Museum.

Rothko for his part denied that he cared about color or that he was even doing abstract paintings. The artist’s most famous statement about his work was, “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.”

“He said he was a realist,” South says. “He was doing art about emotions and emotions are real.”

The exhibition was first proposed about three years ago by Todd Herman, who was chief curator at the Columbia Museum. When Herman left last year to direct the Arkansas Arts Center, completing the show fell to new curator South. The exhibition will travel to the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, and finish at the Arkansas Arts Center.

“I hope people notice that we’ve long been sharing the collection,” says Powell. “It’s part of our mission to move the collections outside Washington and to share our resources. This is the kind of project we really like to do.”