As a coda to an oeuvre premised on the "tragic and timeless" nature of man's fate, Rothko's Black on Gray paintings are ultimate vessels of the artist's intentions. Executed in the final years of his life, 1969 and 1970, this exclusive group of works epitomizes the artist's career-long quest to express the heart of the human condition, the eternal wretchedness of its hopeful beginnings and blighted ends. Pitting formal opposites of light and dark in tense equilibrium, these large-scale paintings stage epic life and death battles. They are the purest and clearest embodiments of Rothko's vision.
Viewed along the trajectory of the artist's prolific output, the Black on Gray paintings are fitting final acts and are, in fact, uncanny materializations of a statement that he made twenty years prior to creating them. "The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be towards clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer" (M. Rothko, quoted in Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, 65). The radical simplification of the Black on Gray paintings -- revealed in the neutral and contrasting shades of the present work and in its austere demarcation into two rectangular zones -- distills Rothko's means to an unprecedented minimum of color and form, and in so doing, refines and highlights the central "idea" of his work. As light and darkness, creation and destruction, form and formlessness, calmness and wildness come into play in this painting's rigorous oppositional setup, the universal dualities of existence take form. For Rothko, whose mythical leanings and fondness for Nietzsche had led to a particular interest in the classifications of the Apollonian and Dionysian, the Black on Gray paintings lucidly articulate these binaries.
Indeed, the Black on Gray paintings register today as true and logical extensions of Rothko's oeuvre. At the time of their creation, however, they were perceived with apprehension. To be certain, these works departed from the classic format that Rothko arrived upon in 1950; for instance, the artist eschewed the field upon which he had previously suspended his rectangular forms and, instead, spread them to the edge of the canvas. He also reduced the number of elements to two, each divided between the top and bottom of the canvas in altering ratios of light and dark. As opaque blocks of color, typically executed in acrylic rather than in the thinned, multiple layers of shimmering oil paint, they create a stark and impenetrable presence, but are not without the nuance and sensuality of the earlier classic abstractions. For instance, the collision of light and dark comprise the most delicate and feathery boundaries, and the zones of color themselves revel in rich brushwork (especially in the light areas where they are more evident).
Most of all, the Black on Gray paintings -- in their somber and austere mood -- share an important affinity with Rothko's Chapel paintings of 1964-67 from which they descend. In fact, when Rothko asked Dore Ashton, one of the few critics he respected, whether these works surprised him, Ashton responded that he saw them as "consequent to the murals" (cited in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 505). For the most part however, the Black on Gray paintings were regarded as disenchantments of a depressed soul and as premonitions of the artist's suicide. Some factions even thought of these works as lunar landscapes (modeled after several newspaper photographs that appeared in the summer of 1969 picturing a pumiced moonscape under an ebony sky).
To be certain, Rothko experienced several setbacks in the late sixties. He suffered a massive aneurysm of the aorta and was advised never to work on the large scale to which he had become accustomed. Circumscribed in his physical exertions, put on a strict diet and forbidden to indulge in the alcohol and cigarettes on which he had grown dependent, he grew increasingly despondent, and later that year separated from his wife and children. Moving into his studio in 1969, he withdrew from the world at large and became almost entirely preoccupied with the works that followed. In light of these events, it was indeed romantic to regard the Black on Gray paintings as expressions of a sinking heart, and yet, such judgments are facile in hindsight and in relation to some of the most complex and rigorous works of Rothko's oeuvre. Realistically, the Black on Gray paintings are akin to final inquisitions -- tentative denouements -- of a willfully questioning and boldly unafraid heart.
It should be added that if at all the Black and White paintings align with landscapes (lunar or otherwise), they do so not in the literal way posited by critics at the time. Rather, they share in the sublime evocations of J. M. W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich in their ability to evoke similar feelings of transcendence. Indeed, the present work shares not only in the distinguished lineage of Rothko's own long and productive career but also in that of a grand heritage of its nineteenth-century precedents.