Painted in 1958, the year he began his iconic Seagram Murals, Untitled (Black on Maroon) is a mesmeric example of Rothko's ability to create an overwhelming material presence through a combination of shimmering and almost indefinable planes of color. In his painting Rothko wanted to move away from what he termed 'self-expressionism,' (the Abstract Expressionist belief that art should be the expression of individual personality), and instead seeking to establish a pure and direct form of painting, one that opened up the canvas and erased the traditional boundaries between the painter and the idea, and then between the idea and the observer. To this end, Rothko celebrated what he considered to be the two fundamental elements of picture making-space and color-making these the sole protagonists of his work.
Untitled (Black on Maroon) provides ample evidence of just how successful Rothko became in this bid to develop a new treatise of abstraction. Standing in the presence of this powerful painting allows the viewer to join the celebration of the richness and diversity of Rothko's palette as the surface resonates with visceral energy, turning a purely visual experience into the realms of the spiritual. Rothko summons a rich and complex array of chromatic sensations as the deep reds, maroons, blacks and blues reverberate and coalesce into a gentle maelstrom of color and emotion. He begins his journey into the sublime by laying down multiple layers of red pigments, each varying in depth and tone so that surface becomes a subtle assortment of maroon, chestnut, vermillion and crimson. To temper this chromatic intensity the artist lays two passages of darker pigment which, despite the painting's rater foreboding title, resound with a dusky subtleness that allows the shadowy pigment to fracture into diaphanous hues of purple, violet and even blue. In this way, like many of Rothko's mature paintings, Untitled (Black on Maroon) becomes a play of emotive color, one that through its simplicity, directness and the establishment of a tense equilibrium, expresses a psychological reality that immediately resonates in and is unconsciously understood by the human spirit. Continuing in the tradition of the pioneering colorist Henri Matisse and his 1911 masterpiece The Red Studio, Rothko evoked the physical properties of color to disrupt our sense of space and perspective, and alter our sense of reality.
In this particular work Rothko uses a complex web of rapid brushstrokes to conjure up a quartet of rectangular forms. Two large blocks of dark color lead the composition, their dominance subdued by their complex construction as translucent and transfigured passages of intertwined bands occasionally become diaphanous enough to reveal an enticing under layer of rich and warm ambers and ochers. Accompanying these are two, almost imperceptibly subtle passages that populate the upper and central portions of the canvas. Rendered in the same warm tones that Rothko uses elsewhere, he carefully, almost inscrutably, feathers of the edges of these block so that they become delicate and almost indefinable forms. Like the radiant energy of a sunset by J.M.W. Turner--and an artist Rothko greatly admired --the shimmering fiery light seemingly invoked by the horizon-line--like divide between the two forms at the center of this painting invokes a deep and almost sublime sense of landscape.
To achieve this high degree of luminosity, Rothko developed a process by which he would build up his forms by laying down successive layers of thin, almost opaque, glaze over and over again until the resulting body of color would almost shimmer with a lustrous sense of radiance. Visible across the expansive surface of Untitled (Black on Maroon) is the entire range of Rothko's formal repertoire, ranging from melodramatic passages of broad, swiftly applied brushstrokes which morph into more subtle areas of color before our very eyes. Rothko often likened his paintings from this period to "dramas" and with its chromatic intensity and expressive execution, Untitled does not fail to live up to this description.
Paintings such as the present lot speak to this drama of the human condition. Speaking at New York's Pratt Institute in 1958--the year he painted Untitled (Black on Maroon)--Rothko told his audience of the importance of scale and color within his work, "Since I am involved with the human element, I want to create a state of intimacy--an immediate transaction. Scale is of tremendous importance to me--human scale. Feelings have different weights; I prefer the weight of Mozart to Beethoven because of Mozart's wit and irony and I like his scale. Beethoven has a farmyard wit. How can a man be ponderable without being heroic? This is my problem. My pictures are involved with these human values. This is always what I think about. (M. Rothko, quoted by J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 395).
Stylistically, this painting belongs to the period when Rothko first began to adopt the deep somber Dionysian colors that were to increasingly dominate the artist's palette until his death in 1970. It relates closely in color and complexity for example, to such works as Four Darks in Red, 1958, in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and No. 16 (Red, Brown and Black), 1958, in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Many critics have somewhat misleadingly identified these darker paintings with Rothko's 'dark side' and seen in them a symbol of the increasing depression of his last years but this view is a largely simplistic categorization given in hindsight that misinterprets Rothko's original intentions.
1958, the year Untitled (Black on Maroon) was painted, proved to be the peak of the artist's lifelong obsession with the distillation of form. Although he began as a figurative painter, he soon found himself dissatisfied with the representational nature of painting. In his late twenties, Rothko was introduced to Milton Avery, whose reductive forms he admired greatly. By 1938, his Subway Scenes had already begun to show his dismantling of recognizable forms, as the frenetic life on New York's subway is distilled into a collection of flat passages of color. By the mid-1940s and his Multiforms, Rothko was honing his format with the physical power of scale and the emotive power of color, he achieved the kind of unobstructed communion that pitched the individual against the universal forces of the human collective, and indeed, created works that were nothing less than sublime manifestations. "There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing," he had said in 1943, and in the dominant Greenbergian mode of the fifties, maintained that he was interested in communicating deeper human truths. "I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else. I'm only interested in expressing basic human emotions--tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on-and the fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions" (M. Rothko, quoted in ibid. pp. 119-120).
1958 was a pivotal year for Rothko as it was the year he embarked on one of the most significant commissions of his career, that of the Seagram Murals. The story of Rothko's murals is one of the central legends of his career and has become the kind of fable that impregnates and often threatens to dominate the history of any great artist's life. It is however nonetheless a remarkable and particularly pertinent story because the Seagram commission and the unfolding drama that surrounded Rothko's eventual rejection of it-after having worked on the project for nearly two years-encapsulates and reveals two important parameters of Rothko's character and artistic temperament. The Seagram commission threw Rothko's long held personal keenness to create a complete painterly environment into direct conflict with his deep-rooted socialist principles. Ultimately, the overt luxury of the Four Seasons restaurant proved too offensive to Rothko's conscience and this, alongside the fact that he feared that the solemn paintings that had devised for it would come to be seen as mere decoration, led to his pulling out from the project.
Rothko admired the work of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and said that in his paintings he tried to bring together the two opposing forces of the universe--order and dynamism--that the German philosopher identified. It was with the aim of establishing a similar state of harmonious dtente between these two central organizing principles of existence that Rothko painted, hoping to generate within the reductive format of his abstract forms a profound expression of these dual elements compacted into a single unity. Conflicting the romanticism and heightened emotionalism of the rich and expansive horizon-like landscape vistas of his color-drenched rectangles with a strict rational vertical grid-like progression of form compressed onto a rectangular canvas, the dynamism of confrontation is all important in Rothko's work. Such dynamism is often defined and characterized by the nature of the shimmering edges of his colored forms and the 'personality' that they give to the work as a whole. "In a way my paintings are very exact" Rothko explained in 1958, "but in that exactitude there is a shimmer, a playin weighing the edges to introduce a less rigorous, play element. The tragic notion of the image is always present in my mind when I paint and I know when it is achieved, but I couldn't point it out--show where it is illustrated. There are no skull and bones. I am an abstract painter" (Mark Rothko lecture given at the Pratt Institute, New York, 1958, op. cit., p. 395).