The work is being considered for possible inclusion in the forthcoming Mark Rothko catalogue raisonné of works on paper, compiled by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Mark Rothko considered his paintings to be experiences that should engross the viewer, rather than simply objects. The vivid palette of Composition of 1958 radiates with a truly visceral heat and intensity. This flame-hued work in oil on paper succeeds in Rothko's avowed goal of creating compositions of such power that "when you turned your back to the painting, you would feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back" (M. Rothko, quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 275). Composition blazes with light, optimism and vitality representing one extreme of Rothko's emotional spectrum, a far cry from his more melancholic and subdued compositions. Rothko aptly described his paintings as being both "intimate and intense" (M. Rothko, quoted in Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 99). The present work beautifully demonstrates this in its joyful and radiant hues that envelop the viewer.
Rothko struck upon his classic compositional format in 1949. It consisted of two or three rounded rectangular forms floating upon a field of color that bleeds to the edge. This extremely pared-down arrangement allowed the chromatic fields to carry the full weight of expression, allowing Rothko to articulate an astonishing range of intense emotional states through sensitive arrangements of color. Dating from Rothko's classic period, Composition is a particularly effulgent example of the artist's abstractions of pure color, conveying a buoyant, energetic mood in its harmonies of warm tones. By layering these veils of paint, Rothko imparted depth to his compositions, and captured duration and revelation within his purely abstract visual language. Here, the lighter ground of bright yellow pigment has an irrepressible luminosity that glows through the rectangular fields of red paint. A beautiful rhythm appears in the hazy veils of scarlet and sunny yellow paint, where Rothko's wide brush caressed the surface in an undulating pattern. The composition also defies gravity: the large red rectangle seems to float despite its visual weight. Rothko's expressive brushstrokes greatly enliven the edges of the colored fields, and the way they flicker upward also defies any gravitational pull, like rising flames.
Rothko considered these floating geometric forms arranged on the picture plane to be actual objects and not abstract. He believed that everything had its own reality: "My new areas of color are things, I put them on the surface. They do not run to the edge, they stop before the edge... Abstract art never interested me; I have always painted realistically. My present paintings are realistic. When I thought symbols were the best means of conveying my meaning I used them. When I felt figures were, I used them" (M. Rothko, quoted in Mark Rothko, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1987, p.73).
Mark Rothko's works on paper served as important laboratories where he experimented with color, from the mid-1940s until the end of his life. He often felt that his works on paper captured the freshness and immediacy that he was looking for, considering them as fully conceived works in their own right. To this end, he had most of his fully realized works on paper mounted onto three-dimensional supports.
The present work's rich red hue echoes the intense coloration of Matisse, an artist who greatly inspired Rothko. In 1954, the year of Matisse's death, Rothko celebrated the legendary painter by creating the large-scale canvas Homage to Matisse. He particularly shared an affinity with Matisse's high-keyed colors, and spent many hours before The Red Studio once it was permanently installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1949. The rich red on which Matisse centered the composition entranced Rothko; he commented "When you look at that painting, you become that color, you become totally saturated with it" (M. Rothko, quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 283). Rothko pursued exactly this goal in his works on paper, exemplified in how the present work suffuses the viewer with rich warm tones that seem to radiate from within.