Painted in 1952, this towering, vibrant and deeply moving painting derives from the first years of Mark Rothko's maturity--the period when, after many years of struggle and exploration, the artist had suddenly arrived at the "new vision" and "new structural language" that was to define his painterly practice for the rest of his life. A vast, extraordinarily painterly, turbulent and even, in places, tempestuous work, determined by its fascinating, busily worked surface of multiple layers of warm, radiant color, this painting is a vivid and gripping example of the full revelatory power of Rothko's "new vision." First developed between 1949 and 1950, this "vision" was the realization of what fellow New York School artist, Robert Motherwell, once famously called Rothko's "genius" in creating an entirely new "language of feeling" solely from the painting of only a few, separate, and at the time, shockingly empty, rectangular fields of color.
Initially unsettling in the rawness of its highly material, visceral painterly energy, Untitled, with its bold contrasting blocks of mesmerizing color, is a work that exudes an imposing physical presence on its viewer. At over eight and a half feet high and openly displaying an intricate and engrossing surface, the frenetic energy, vigor and dynamism of Rothko's swift, sweeping brushwork is openly visible. This is especially true at the borderlines of each block of color, where the feathered edges and multiple layers of a vast but subtle range of other hues bleeding in and over one another simultaneously conjure a series of different visions of a ferocious, wild nature. Flickering flames, waves rising and crashing against the shore and warm sunlight illuminating the silhouette of a dark forest all come to mind as the eye skirts the extraordinary variety and nuance of the intersecting forms before finally settling into an appreciation of the dynamic and febrile balance of the work as a whole.
The primary form of the painting is the large and dominant purple square towards the top of the picture. Comprised of a multitude of lightly, wet-brushed, poured and splattered shades of color that range from a silvery mist to a deep violet, this area pulls the viewer into itself like a seductive aerial vista. Recalling the innate Romanticism of seascapes by J. M. W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, August Strindberg or Emil Nolde, its allure is underpinned and held into place by the rich, solid orange band that streams across the middle of the painting beneath it. At the same time, the subtle, enticing and inward pulling nature of this rectangle is completely thwarted by the stark materiality of the dark oblong that dominates and anchors the bottom of the canvas. Contrasting directly with the ethereal purple rectangle above it, this forceful earthy-colored form, painted in rough swaths of a dark blue over a deep orange-red, is so materially present on the surface of the canvas that it compels the viewer's gaze away from the inward--pulling dream of purple mist above it--opposing it and checking its seductive power.
As a consequence of this, the viewer is perpetually enthralled by the painting, simultaneously invited in and thrown back, while the emotional turbulence of the struggle between these two, earth- and sky-like forms is both articulated and held into balance by the fiery borderlines of the painting and the raw gestural energy of Rothko's fierce brushwork. With each constituent element held and compressed into an elongated, upright, human-scaled canvas, Untitled is clearly a painting that encapsulates Rothko's sentiment that his pictures were epic dramas "involved with the scale of human feeling, the human drama, as much of it as I can express" (M. Rothko, quoted in Mark Rothko, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998, p. 346).
Untitled was painted in 1952 the year Rothko moved into a new, larger studio space at 106 West 53rd Street, New York. Situated on the second floor above a glass manufacturer and in the same street as the nearby Museum of Modern Art, which he would visit regularly, this was Rothko's first studio outside his family home and the first of five such spaces that he would use between 1952 and his death. The higher ceilings and wider space of 106 West 53rd Street allowed the artist, and perhaps even encouraged him, to paint larger format paintings. In addition to this, the studio had a wooden floor containing four large rectangular sections of glass placed right in front of the wall space where he painted. As a visitor to the studio recalled, "Light came up from the floor below and his paintings, which by today's standards are not enormous, really filled that room. And when you walked into that room, with this light coming from below, it was like a chapel in there" (Quoted in J. E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago and London, 1993, p. 318).
Rothko's aim with his work had been to establish a pure and direct art that "eliminated all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer." The "idea" that he wanted his paintings to embody he often described as being a "single tragic idea" that somehow communicated a deeply existential sense of what it was to be human and alive in the face of the void. Towards this end, Rothko, responding to the inspiration of Henri Matisse and, in particular, his painting The Red Studio which had been permanently installed in the Museum of Modern Art in 1949, "heroified" color to the point where it suddenly became the sole protagonist of his work.
Like all of Rothko's mature paintings, this towering example from 1952 is an emotive play of purely abstract color and form--one that solely, through its vast, almost empty, simplicity, the directness of its medium and the establishment of a tense and ultimately surprising equilibrium between all of its parts, expresses an emotional and psychological reality that both resonates in and is unconsciously understood by the human psyche. In his evolution of this idea of communicating directly with the inner emotions of the viewer through a purely abstract medium, Rothko had been inspired, not just by Matisse, but by his love for and deep appreciation of music, especially that of Mozart. Like a musical composer, he was attempting to use the radiant hues of his color-fields as distinct tonal vibrations that would resonate in such a way as to instill a specific emotional response in his audience. In addition to the example of music, he had also been profoundly influenced in this direction by his reading and re-reading of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and, in particular, Nietzsche's first treatise on the roots of the Western tradition of art, The Birth of Tragedy. In this book, Nietzsche had outlined how the ancient Greeks had found the ability to affirm a meaningful existence in an ultimately meaningless world through the invention and development of dramatic art, chiefly tragedy.
Vast, elemental and all-encompassing, Untitled with its enigmatic fields of color surrounding and subsuming the viewer into itself, is a work that functions on this epic scale. The dramatic pull and push between its two dominant rectangles--one soft and ethereal, the other dense, earthy and material--is one that inevitably associates itself in the viewer's mind with the suggestion of a vast, volatile landscape. Magnified onto a monumental scale of feeling, Rothko's image also evokes here the timeless theme--often invoked in ancient mythology, creation metaphors and gnostic thought--of the eternal battle between earth and sky. Such myths were, Rothko had claimed "eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas. And modern psychology finds them persisting still in our dreams, our vernacular, and our art, for all the changes in the outward condition of life..." They "hold us," he said, because they "express to us something real and existing in ourselves" (M. Rothko, "The Portrait of the Modern Artist," Art in New York, a program on WYNC radio, New York, copy of broadcast in Maurice Tuchman, New York School: The First Generation, Greenwich, 1971, p.139).
In this grandiose opening of an essentially archetypal, mystic idea into an immense realm of near-formless color, the impressive scale of Rothko's work is all-important. As with his color, for Rothko, it was of key importance that his paintings, with their horizon-like forms, interacted physically and directly with the vertical, corporeal scale of his viewers-with their physical size, upright viewpoint and with the breadth or scope of their vision. "Since I am involved with the human element," Rothko said, his "dramas" had to interact with their observers on what he called a "human scale." "I want to create a state of intimacy-an immediate transaction," he said. "Large pictures take you into them. 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...large pictures are like dramas in which one participates in a direct way. The different subject necessitates different means" (M. Rothko, "From Lecture at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, 27 October, 1958," quoted in M. Lpez-Remiro, (ed.) Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 128).
There is also a strong spiritual, one might almost say religious, element, to many of Rothko's often altar-like paintings, with their unmitigated frontality and simple symmetry. This is particularly true of works such as Untitled of 1952, which, with its tall, elongated-looking format and its ethereal-looking upper portion layered in seemingly ascending veils of purple color, appears to invoke a distinctly mystical air of transcendence.
Rothko himself was always wary of such associations, one time telling his friend Alfred Jensen, "beware of a too vague, too abstract, too symbolic concept. When a person is a mystic he must always strive to make everything concrete" (M. Rothko, quoted in J. E.B. Breslin, op cit. p. 276).
While not denying that his own vision was at times a mystical one, Rothko was keen to distinguish himself from painters interested solely in a transcendence of reality. "The difference between me and Reinhardt," he pointed out assertively in this respect, "is that he's a mystic. By that I mean that his paintings are immaterial. Mine are here. Materially. The surfaces, the work of the brush and so on" (Ibid, p. 529). It is exactly this materiality and physical actuality or "thereness" that distinguishes Untitled of 1952 and, in particular, of course, its bottom rectangle, where, in answer to the apparent mysticism of the upper part, Rothko has boldly and vigorously asserted, using wild, confident sweeps of a deep blue, an undeniable earthy, material presence as a counter to the transcendent pull of the form above it.
Compared with many of his New York School contemporaries, Rothko's method of painting was comparatively orthodox, even academic. He painted on a primed canvas with large but conventional house-paint brushes, standing in front of an upright canvas. Within this convention, however, Rothko's use of painterly media was often highly variable, deeply exploratory and almost hermetic in the way in which he perpetually sought out new ways in which to convey his color as a pure, raw and unmitigated physical experience for the viewer. Rothko said he wanted his paintings to have such an overwhelming sense of "presence" 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, op cit., p. 275). Towards this end, as Dana Cranmer has recalled, Rothko's near alchemical experiments with paint "were focused not on methods, but on (the) physical components and (the) quality of the paint film itself and the variety of effects possible in the manipulation of the medium" (D. Cranmer, quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, op cit., p. 316).
In his attempt to, as he put it, "breathe" his paint onto the canvas, Rothko sought an ever smoother, purer application of color that would help to generate the mysterious "inner light" or glow that so many of his pictures have. By 1950 he had evolved a set of working procedures that would more or less serve him for the rest of his life. He began with raw, unprimed canvas onto which, in the manner of the Old Masters, he would apply a rabbit glue size boiled up in a pot in the studio. In the early 1950s Rothko began mixing this glue with powdered pigments, "so that" in his assistant Dan Rice's words, "even the glue would go on in a color" (D. Rice, quoted in Rothko, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2008, p.78). Having established his base ground, Rothko then covered this with a pure oil color. This, now layered ground color, which in Untitled is a pale yellow still visible along the edges of the work, formed the base-color of the work and was, in the case of this work, applied to the whole canvas. Rothko also colored the edges of his paintings in this way because he insisted on keeping his paintings unframed and he wanted the painting's physical existence as a three-dimensional colored and material presence to be asserted as a part of its surroundings. His paintings were to be open, interactive entities, rather than something separate and divided from their environment.
It was onto and over this ground color that Rothko would begin to paint the "performers" of his "dramas," the shimmering fields of contrasting color, that as can be seen in this work, were built up gradually in a series of thin, glazed layers of carefully diluted paint. As Dan Rice recalled, Rothko used "very good quality paint-top grade Bocour oil," mixed with a lot of turpentine. "We used one of those kitchen pots about (2 feet) around" he recalled, "and just tube after tube, after tube, after tube would go into the turpentine" (Ibid, p.78).
It had been in the early 1950s that Rothko had begun experimenting with the physical components of his paint mixture in order to gain control over the plasticity and color resonance of his paint. Thin sequential layering of color lent an intensity and radiance to Rothko's color that was wholly unobtainable in any other way. Similarly, the painterly edges created by the "breathed-on" brushwork of his forms could also be varied according to the viscosity of the paint mixture he was using.
In Untitled of 1952, the painting's three rectangular "performers" have each been rendered using differing paint mixtures and brushwork techniques. The large purple form at the top of the painting comprises several very thin layers of purple applied like a wash, its overlapping edges pouring and splashing over one another to create wave upon wave of misty, seemingly levitating, layers of color that carry an inner glow and is evocative of some of Sigmar Polke's alchemical explorations with abstraction in the 1980s and '90s. At the bottom of this form, using drier white, tempestuous strokes, suggestive of waves from a Nolde seascape, Rothko's brush articulates an elemental meeting of this purple field with the dense, thickly painted vibrant orange below it. This solid, radiant sunset hue painted with a heavily loaded brush, flickers over this watery horizon as if it were a bush-fire conquering the sea. In contrast to the watery, blurred and, in places, greyed, edges of the purple, the edges of this defining orange are sharp and vigorously applied. Their force however, is overshadowed by the equally sharp edges and even heavier, more aggressive, brushwork of the darker form below them. It is here that Rothko, though himself never an action painter and fiercely resentful of having the term applied to him, has allowed the strong physical nature of his brushwork to openly display itself and become a very material part of the painting's surface. As even the splashed and mottled warm yellow hues of border/ground of the painting show, the entire picture has been built up over a long period of time through a progressive sequence of differently colored layers until the dynamic balance of the whole has been attained. Essential to the radiance and push of the lowest rectangular form is the deep orange/red hue that illuminates the sweeps of dark blue with which Rothko has overpainted it. In this way, this color both materially fixes the physical energy of Rothko's dynamic brushwork while also making visible a deep fiery color radiating within it. As Dana Cranmer wrote of Rothko's unique technique in this respect, the artist's paint films, "brushed on top of one another, have an opalescent quality, (so that) light seems to emanate from within the paint film itself" (D. Cranmer, quoted in Mark Rothko exh., cat., Tate, 1987, p. 189). It is a unique quality, common to many of the finest of Rothko's paintings, which no reproduction of his work can ever hope to capture.
Untitled of 1952 is a case in point. It is a painting with an extremely rich and rewarding surface-one that, in order to fully appreciate its grandeur and complexity, requires a prolonged viewing or even sequence of viewings. But, this kind of commitment is nothing more that what Rothko always demanded of his audience. "No possible set of notes can explain my pictures," he wrote. An appreciation and understanding of them "must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker. The appreciation of art is a true marriage of minds." "And," he added, "in art, as in marriage, lack of consummation is ground for annulment" (M. Rothko, "Letter to Adolph Gottlieb," quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, op cit., p. 193).