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An ‘immediate radiance’: Mark Rothko’s Saffron

One of the 20th century’s most venerated colourists, Rothko always insisted there was more to his paintings than their palettes. Here, we look at a key work from an important moment in his career — offered on 15 November in New York

Mark Rothko (1903–1970) said he never wanted his paintings to be representations of an experience — he wanted them to be  the experience. Executed in 1957, Saffron  dates from an important moment in the artist’s career, in which he was for the first time able to live off the proceeds of his art. 

Offered on 15 November in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale  at Christie’s in New York, the work belongs to a select group of brightly coloured canvases Rothko produced in the mid-1950s, just a few months before his oeuvre shifted to a more sombre palette.

French painter Henri Matisse was one of the greatest influences on Rothko’s understanding and use of colour. In 1949, Matisse’s Red Studio  (1911) was permanently installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Rothko spent what he described as ‘hours and hours’ sitting in front of it. ‘When you looked at that painting,’ he said, ‘you became colour, you became totally saturated with it.’ It was works such as Red Studio  that gave Rothko the courage, that same year, to pursue his great breakthrough, with representational forms giving way to his now-familiar bands of pure colour.

By the mid-1950s, as art critic Hubert Crehan described at the time, Rothko’s work had acquired an ‘immediate radiance’. The ‘tension of the colour-relationships of some of the Rothko paintings I have seen has been raised to such a shrill pitch that one begins to feel that they might detonate,’ Crehan wrote in 1954.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Saffron, 1957. 69½ x 53¾  in (175.6 x 136.5  cm). Estimate $25-35 million. This lot is offered in the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2017  at Christie’s in New York

Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Saffron, 1957. 69½ x 53¾ in (175.6 x 136.5 cm). Estimate: $25-35 million. This lot is offered in the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York

In 1957, the year Saffron  was painted, Rothko was able to enjoy his commercial success for the first time. He spent the beginning of the year in New Orleans as artist-in-residence at the Newcombe School of Art. In a letter written during his stay, he was upbeat: ‘There have been a number of benign days of early summer, sun, warmth… [away from] all problems and irritations’. These, he anticipated, would no doubt ‘reappear in full force’ when he returned to New York.

In Saffron, bands of high-keyed pigment appear to hover above the surface of the canvas. If at first glance the painting’s uppermost area seems free of intense colour, closer inspection reveals almost imperceptible chromatic variations.

Indeed, if it is the concentrated colour blocks that visually dominate Rothko’s later canvases, he insisted that the real painterly action took place at their edges. To achieve this, Rothko made use of a wide variety of techniques when applying paint, from broad sweeps of pigment in the concentrated areas to the use of a dry brush to facilitate the feathering around the edges. ‘Colours push outward in all directions,’ the artist said in 1953, or ‘contract and rush inward. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say.’

‘I am only interested in expressing the basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on’ — Mark Rothko

Combining the expansive, horizon-like vistas of his colour-drenched rectangles with a strict, vertical progression of form, the dynamism of confrontation is all-important in these works. ‘In a way my paintings are very exact,’ Rothko explained in 1958, ‘but in that exactitude there is a shimmer, a play.’

Although celebrated by many as one of the 20th century’s most skilful colourists, Rothko always insisted that there was more to his paintings than their chromatic palettes. Colour, for Rothko, was a vehicle for accommodating the movement that he felt was inherent in his work. ‘I think of my pictures as dramas,’ he once said, ‘the shapes in the pictures are the performers.’

Rothko was always at pains to emphasise the experiential nature of his art. In 1956 he wrote, ‘I am only interested in expressing the basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate  those basic human emotions.’