This painting is being considered for inclusion in an addendum to the 1998 catalogue raisonné of works on canvas by Mark Rothko, to be published in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of works on paper, currently being compiled by the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The addendum will document those works which had not been located at the time of the 1998 publication.
Absence and Presence. By David Anfam, author of Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas -- A Catalogue Raisonné.
There was once a time when the sprawling nexus of artists, works and ideas usually known by the neat, if inevitably inadequate, label of "Abstract Expressionism" was regarded as a relatively straightforward phenomenon. Following the lead of the pioneering museum director Alfred H. Barr Jr. and subsequent writers who sought to establish a genealogy for modern art in the United States and beyond, successive movements from the late 19th Century onwards were, in effect, charted like the branches of a family, each with its own network of forebears, descendants, and sundry relatives (See A. Schmidt-Burkhardt, "Shaping Modernism: Alfred Barr's Genealogy of Art", Word & Image, October-December 2000). According to this road map, Abstract Expressionism was in essence the offspring of Cubism and Surrealism, albeit with some further bloodlines, for instance "primitivism" or Fauvism, in its veins. Likewise, it was trumpeted as a triumph of the new "American-Type" painting (to borrow the title of Clement Greenberg's seminal essay published in 1955) over the European past. The makers themselves were aware of these sentiments and/or actually voiced them: witness Ad Reinhardt's satirical 1946 cartoon, titled "How to look at modern art in America", picturing an evolutionary aesthetic tree laden with labels and names, or the strident anti-Old World rhetoric espoused by Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. However, today the informed purview of Abstract Expressionism tends to understand it as much more than a mere scion of avant-garde modernism. On the contrary, the movement's primary roots lay in older eras and exemplars, especially those of the Old Masters. From this revisionist perspective, Mark Rothko assumes an even more central position than the one he already occupied in earlier notions of Abstract Expressionism. Here, Rothko's oft-quoted declaration in 1943 that art is "the simple expression of the complex thought" suggests, in microcosm, the larger trajectory of his long pictorial odyssey (M. Rothko, quoted in M. López-Remiro (ed.), Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven & London, 2006, p. 36).
In one of the most prescient of Rothko's early efforts, the little panel titled Thru the Window, the three ingredients of his universe coalesced. So much that ensued later is presaged here. Firstly, the strange proportions of the actors in relation to the setting - filling it like over-size mannequins or, vice-versa, compressed by their close quarters - predict Rothko's acute concern with scale in his abstractions from 1950 onwards. Secondly, note the leitmotif of an enclosed site with an apperture that seems comprised of frameworks, including the strikingly Rothkoesque, because tiered, blank panel design behind the fanciful self-portrait. What does a room do if not frame its occupants? Thirdly, Thru the Window battens upon the moment of visualization, as the artist-in-the-frame turns between the easel and his female model, in a modern day counterpart to the Renaissance architect and theorist Alberti's renowned trope of painting as a window onto the world (Vasari features prominently in "The Artist's Reality"; in turn, Alberti plays a seminal role in Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550). Indeed, Thru the Window almost stages Vasari's words: "Alberti similarly discovered a way of tracing natural perspectives and effecting the diminution of figures, as well as a method of reproducing small objects on a larger scale"). Lastly, the uncanny red blankness of the painting-within-the-painting speaks for itself: a classic embryonic Rothko prefigured at a period when the artist was still, as it were, Marcus Rothkowitz. And somewhere in the makeup of this extraordinary fantasia focused on repetition (notice the ubiquitous rectangles and orthogonals), space, sentience and effacement (the luminous window area is as blank as the deep crimson canvas field) must lurk Rembrandt's precedent, specifically his Artist in the Studio, which heralds Rothko's enclosed room, self-portrait, diminutive figure and canvas on an easel (the former "blank" insofar as only its back is visible). In the Old Masterly past, we might say, Rothko first found his future.
Flash forward from the late 1930s to 1961, a significant point in Rothko's life in being the date of his big retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art - that is, a juncture when the panoply of his creative past came under review in the present. In No. 17 from that year, a great deal of the core concerns that had preoccupied Rothko during his earlier figurative phase remains. Yet even more has been purged in the intervening decades to leave us with the essence of his pictorial dramaturgy. What are the elements and impulses in this remarkable distillation?
Perhaps the most overriding quality that No. 17 conveys is one of fullness. Rothko engineers this impression by means of scale and surface. The two rectangles extend to within inches of the canvas's edges. Consequently, they feel at once compressed and expansive, recalling the scalar ambiguities of the players in Thru the Window. The sovereign difference is that there are now no figures in play other than ourselves, the spectators. Thus we project our awareness into the vacuum occasioned by the apparent blankness, the absence of recognizable imagery. In the process, the viewer starts to empathize with the reciprocal pressures existing between the two rectangles - poised aloft like a mirage, measured "walls of the mind" (to recall the title of a poem Rothko wrote in the 1920s (J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago & London, 1993, p. 44)) - and their confines. This scenario is a subtle replay of a recurrent theme. Rothko summarized it when he said that in realizing his Seagram murals (1958-59) he had been "much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo's walls in the staircase room of the Medicean Library in Florence. He [Michelangelo] achieved just the kind of feeling I'm after - he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall" (M. Rothko, quoted in M. López-Remiro, p. 131). With their severe rectangularity straitening frequently seductive hues, Rothko's hallmark icons convert this melodrama into a more discrete tension between oppression and release. As Rothko ironically described the third ingredient in his "recipe" for making art: "Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire" (M. Rothko, "Address to Pratt Institute, November 1958", in M. López-Remiro, p. 125). Facing No. 17, we are in a sense again in camera - enveloped, when standing close-up (as Rothko wished spectators to do), by a heady atmosphere of red, pink and gold that the thinness of the pigment and the sparse frontal format countermand. The puritan curbs the sensualist.
Of course, Rothko's colorism had diverse sources, ranging from Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard to Pompeian frescoes. Suffice it to say that one Old Master struck a particular chord in his psyche. This was not the oft-cited German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich (whose work Rothko, who had an understandable animus towards Germany's dark modern history, probably eschewed) but rather the Englishman J. M. W. Turner. In Turner's light-drenched visions, atmospheric tints - think of the fiery colors in The Slave Ship's bloody sunset and his incandescent scenes of the burning of the Houses of Parliament - assume a greater presence than the reality that they ostensibly portray. Color in Turner is both light and painstakingly manipulated pigment. No wonder that when Rothko visited the late Turner exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966, he quipped that the English painter "stole from me" (M. Rothko, quoted in B. O'Doherty, American Masters: The Voice and the Myth, New York, 1973, p. 156). For both artists, chromatic sensuality coincides with intimations of catastrophe and tragedy. It was Rothko, after all, who insisted, "Look again, I am the most violent of all the new Americans. Behind the color lies the cataclysm" (M. Rothko, quoted in Mark Rothko in Cornwall, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, St Ives, 1996, p. 10).
In 1951 Rothko explained how such absorption related to size and scale: "I paint very large pictures ... The reason I paint them however ... is precisely because I want to be intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience However you paint the larger picture, you are in it" (M. Rothko, quoted in M. López-Remiro, p. 74). Without even so much as a thought that Rothko knew, still less admired, older academic precursors, a certain link sometimes connects him to their Symbolist spirit. For example, Lord Leighton's Flaming June is a mood piece in which one prevalent tone resonates with others - the smoldering orange juxtaposed with the silver sea and violet sky - as it will in his own resolutely non-objective compositions. Common, too, between Leighton's sleeping maiden (early on, Rothko also portrayed numerous female nudes) and No. 17 is the enveloping air of nuance, reverie and lusciousness. In 1958, Rothko defined the latter as "our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relation to things that exist" (M. Rothko, ibid., p. 125). By contrast, the pink that crowns No. 17 was, for him, a rather rare chromatic choice. Could it have been chosen with an eye to the contemporary practice of a fellow Abstract Expressionist, Willem de Kooning - at this date they shared the same dealer, Sidney Janis - given to a notoriously lusty aesthetic gaze? Certainly, this lipstick pink has carnal associations, not least in light of Rothko's belief that paintings are "skins that are shed and hung on a wall" (M. Rothko, quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, p. 306). The very sheerness of the fields in No. 17, stretched out before the gaze like hallucinatory integuments, latter-day veils of St. Veronica, reinforces this corporeal undertow. The same applies to the meticulously brushed-out peripheries of its red and the slight horizontal striations amid the pink, as well as the way that the orange-gold extends around all sides of the stretcher. These are alike the intimate signs of a hypnotic presence that equivocates between materiality and evanescence, stillness and change. If the word "aporia" did not already exist for this suspension between antitheses, it would have to be invented to describe Rothko's tense stagecraft. Its magnetism casts a spell before the eyes, silently challenging us to fathom what lies beyond or beneath the façade.
That Rothko should have avowed that his paintings were indeed "façades" is arguably the final clue to No. 17's stealth attack. Façades are intrinsically ambivalent: the very face of a building or person, they also mask whatever realms and thoughts may lie behind. Not just the unyielding planarity and directness of No. 17 but also a more subliminal formal device ensures that the whole holds a façade-like sway over perception. Namely, the slightest traces of olive green registering infinitesimally, here and there, around the main crimson expanse. This penumbra intimates things hidden amid what is otherwise a full-throttle chromatic revelation. Such concealment has a lengthy history in Rothko's repertoire, extending to the blank gray rectangle of the Jewish peddler's stall that makes a baffling appearance in the midst of his first oil painting of 1924/25. Subsequently the blankness gravitated to walls or similar inhuman surroundings, as with the surfaces that veritably immure the protagonists in his subway scenes of the late 1930s. Ultimately, the blankness caused the erasure of the figures and other recognizable vestiges into the aniconic fields that prevailed throughout the quintessential abstractions. Some justification exists for discerning a sacred or metaphysical aspect in this dialogue of the manifest and the hidden. Although a secular Jew and socialist/anarchist by conviction, Rothko - who nevertheless wished his audience to have the same "religious experience" that he had when painting the works (M. Rothko, quoted in M. López-Remiro, pp. 119-120.) - was altogether aware of sacred dimensions. In "The Artist's Reality" he cited "the Hebraic abstraction of Jehovah, who cannot be seen, whose name must not even be spoken, and whose representation must never be made" (M. Rothko, ibid., pp. 91-192). Thereafter, around 1945 - when Jewish history stood at midnight - he incorporated motifs from medieval Jewish bibles into the semi-abstract signs and symbols of his vocabulary. Details in the same group of illuminated manuscripts provide a striking premonition of the structuring of Rothko's achieved style (S. Shalev-Eyni, Jews Among Christians: Hebrew Book Illumination from Lake Constance, London, 2010. According to Rothko's biographer, in the mid-1920s the artist illustrated an essay in the Menorah Journal; in 1947 he certainly attended the Annual Dinner of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (the program and invitees are listed on a typescript in Rothko's papers)). Among many possible examples, note the rectangular tiers that frame the word panel in a 14th Century Tripartite Mahzor; the gold, pink and red of the illumination even match No 17's hot palette. The beauty of the painting, however, lies in how it finesses these and myriad further ramifications into a visual statement combining strong perceptual immediacy with rapt mystery. Its glow is as adamant as any message it may bear is cryptically reticent. In sum, Rothko's engulfing luminosity conquers all while divulging little, akin to an oracular pronouncement in paint.
No account of No. 17 would be complete without mentioning its place among Rothko's paintings and its relation to the published record of that oeuvre. Recently come to light after an extended sequestration in private hands, No. 17 fits squarely among the twenty-two hitherto documented oils on canvas from that year, especially a red-orange Untitled of very similar height and uniform facture (D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas - A Catalogue Raisonné, Washington DC, New Haven and London, 2008, p. 551, cat. no. 694.). Its verso inscriptions in pencil and black wax crayon are also typical of the artist's hand. Large, classic canvases that managed to elude my catalogue raisonné research are rare and, for that reason, the more welcome. At its publication in 1998, I compared the catalogue raisonné project to hopefully a sort of homecoming, in print, for a vast family of works that had undergone a diaspora - perforce scattered around the world by time and circumstance into public, private and even forgotten places. Absent from my pages then, the re-discovery of No. 17 adds another indelible presence to the great Rothko canon.
David Anfam is the author of Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas -- A Catalogue Raisonné published by Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998.