In 1950 Mark Rothko's Multiforms morphed into the floating clouds of color that have come to define his finest work. By the early 1960s, Rothko was at the height of his powers as exemplified by Untitled, 1960. Though Rothko's journey to his mature period was long, his convictions and motivations were consistent. Rothko sought to "See the world as if for the first time." He struggled to find a vocabulary to express the existential crisis of man. From early on Rothko was fascinated by myth and it functioned as his primary inspiration. His early works were surrealist translations of these myths. In his mature work like Untitled, he forsook literal and pictorial equivalents. Untitled is an antediluvian exploration- a primordial creation myth. Dore Ashton writes, "His appropriation of myth sometime in the late 1930s derived from a need identical with Eliot's and Joyce's. He found in myth what Ernst Cassirer described as 'a dramatic world of actions, of forces, of conflicting powers.' In every phenomenon of nature, Cassirer writes, the mythic world, 'sees the collision of these powers. Mythical perception is always impregnated with these emotional qualities. Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere--an atmosphere of joy or grief, of anguish, of excitement, of exultation or depression'" (D. Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 41).
In Rothko's explorations of humanity, he repeatedly mused on the "tragic." This is not though the pessimism of a depressive, but rather a larger existential question. Ashton observes, "When Rothko spoke about the 'tragic' it was not the pathos of tragedy that underlay his thought, but rather, the grand and noble attributes that he had once found in Aeschylus and Shakespeare. It was the tragedy of man's destiny--to be forever caught between birth and death--and aware of the strange disparity between the great space of the imagination and the material human fate. Rothko was always aware that his means fell short of his vision because his means were material. The "tragic" was a life-long obsession of Rothko's. It influenced his work from the earliest stages.
Rothko, with his lofty goals, created work that was unlike any seen before. Spare in form, he sought to use light, and through it color, to touch on the deepest mysteries of man's soul. Robert Motherwell wrote, "Rothko's mixture resulted in a series of glowing color structures that have no exact parallel in modern art, that in the profoundest sense of Baudelaire's invocation to modern artists, are new. So new that if Rothko had not existed, we would not even know of certain color possibilities in modern art. This is a technical accomplishment of magnitude. But Rothko's real genius was that out of color he had created a language of feeling" (quoted from Homage prepared to be read to members of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, January 1971). Though revolutionary, Rothko learned from and relied on the example of his forebears among them James Abbot McNeill Whistler, William Turner, Paul Cézanne and most importantly Fra Angelico.
The success of Rothko's paintings is directly related to his intense study and mastery of light. He imbued his paintings with a preternatural luminosity. In this pursuit, he was particularly influenced by Fra Angelico whose frescoes he often admired on his sojourns to Italy. "When Fra Angelico painted his scenes of Edenic beauty, he was true to the Thomist vision of Beauty as 'that in which the eye delights,' but he acknowledged the Thomist principle that painting is knowledge as 'it satisfies our desire to understand and know.' For the Thomists, the world and its beauties could be depicted only as effects for which there could be only one cause. God would be the source of all visual pleasure, and the light that would grace the world of nature would always flow from Him. Therefore, in Fra Angelico's exemplary panels, the light is evenly distributed, not modified" (D. Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 148) Untitled shares this unified luminosity. It does not though speak of God's divinity but instead endeavors to illuminate the secular mystery of man's psyche.
Rendered on paper, Untitled emanates energy. "Rothko succumbed to the lure of light, light that, as the Byzantine inscriptionists said, can be contained but never captured really; light that envelops us and is all things that we are not. In moving toward this ineffable beacon it was natural enough that Rothko should find his way in the light of paper, that most subtle of light-reflecting bearers, and that his works on paper should be as integral a part of his total vision as his easel paintings and murals. It was almost certainly his experience with the paradoxical nature of paper--absorbing and reflecting at the same time--that set him on his course to the great clearing away that his life's work represents" (D. Ashton, "Forward," in B. Clearwater, Mark Rothko Works on Paper, exh. cat., New York, 1984, p. 9). Ablaze with color, Untitled is trancendental. It flirts with Rothko's greatest aspirations.