Painted in 1958, when the artist was at the height of his artistic and critical achievements, Mark Rothko’s No. 10 represents the pinnacle of his alchemical prowess. Using the most basic of artistic materials—canvas, oil and pigment—Rothko is able to create a painting that appears to glow with a supranatural luminescence, the result of a surface that fizzles with painterly energy. Rothko’s paintings are extraordinarily contemplative and he wanted the people who stood before them to undergo an almost religious experience. For him, a painting was not the record of an experience—it was the experience, and within the echelons of this monumental painting, Rothko is not only able to summon up an object of extraordinary beauty, he is also able to connect us with the basic emotions that make us human.
Floating on an expanse of dark pigment, the shimmering, almost iridescent core of No. 10 is made up of three amorphous forms. Carefully arranged one on top of another, these passages of burnished chroma are the result of a multitude of painterly layers, all similar in tone, but each containing a subtle difference in register from its predecessor. The cumulative effect of these diaphanous layers is to produce an area of canvas that comes alive with a distinct sensation of radiant heat; a sensation so corporeal that one can almost feel the latent energy radiating off the surface of the canvas and warming its environs. As the eye moves away from this almost molten epicenter, the sense of energy appears to cool as the sheer coats of pigment begin to reveal their constituent as they coalesce with the dark mantle that surrounds the central core.
It is in these areas, where Rothko’s molten core meets the outer edges, that the artist performs his supreme alchemy. Here new worlds are created as passages of color collide, amalgamate, repel and morph into areas of fiery activity. Passages of light burst through shrouds of dark pigment, sometimes winning the battle for supremacy and reigning supreme; at other times being forced to retreat and Rothko’s continuous fight with his elements continues unabated. This spiritual, almost divine, quality is paramount in Rothko’s paintings. It lies at the very heart of what he is attempting to convey. “His pictures are designed to deliver transcendence,” John Elderfield notes. “…to provide access to hidden but immanent truths of the universe—not merely to struggle with that transcendence, those truths (what would be a doubter’s way), but to actually convey them. For Rothko, in an interpretation that we can scarcely fathom now, a picture could offer immediate access to the divine. (J. Elderfield, “Transformations,” in G. Phillips & T. Crow (eds.), Seeing Rothko, Los Angeles, 2002, p. 101).
In the spring of 1957, Rothko had begun to transition away from the deep reds, sumptuous oranges and vibrant yellows and pinks of his paintings from earlier in the decade and embarked on a journey that embraced a more somber palette. By 1958 the vibrancy of his paintings had become subdued and an austere and ominous palette had come to the fore, beginning what is regarded by many as one of the most significant periods of his art. Although the overall tone of his paintings had shifted, close examination of their surface revealed that they have lost none of their power to dazzle with chromatic intensity. In No. 10, the richness and sheer variety of Rothko’s color is most evident in the thin sliver of painterly activity that occurs towards in the center of the canvas. Here, in this intensively worked area, the artist reveals an extraordinary array of subtle, almost indistinguishable passages of reds, yellows, pinks, umbers and ochers that constantly shift under the human gaze. Occasionally, this drama is interrupted by a series of tiny, almost pinpoint, flecks of fiery red that seemingly force their way through the maelstrom of painterly activity before disappearing again into a sea of tumultuous pigment. Thus, this inconspicuous passage, almost overwhelmed by the neighboring monoliths of color that want to crowd it out of existence, becomes the most active area of this large, imposing canvas and a demonstration of the remarkable power of Rothko’s brush. The tension that exists on the surface of this and many other Rothko paintings was the result of his long and deliberative process. Alternating between bursts of frenzied activity and long periods (often hours) of quiet contemplation, the result was the culmination of a defined process. Unlike the rambunctious daubs and drips of his fellow Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, Rothko leaves nothing to chance. “Rothko is a precise painter,” Dore Ashton observed in her review of his seminal 1958 exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery, “…bled into the canvas, all the colors fuse, yet their identities are never lost” (D. Ashton, “Mark Rothko at Sidney Janis Gallery, 1958,” Arts & Architecture, vol. 75, April 1958).
Although the entire surface of Rothko’s canvas is populated with his all-pervading brushwork, it is the edges and borders of his colorful forms that tell us most about Rothko’s philosophy of painting. Thomas Crow explains, “it is at the edges that the visual cues coalesce and propel one’s awareness back into the interiors with the heightened apprehension of the status congeries of many delicately coincident blocks of translucent color” (T. Crow, quoted by G. Phillips, “Introduction: Irreconcilable Rothko,” in in G. Phillips & T. Crow (eds.), Seeing Rothko, Los Angeles, 2002, p. 4). Indeed, as early as 1958, the year of the present work, Dore Ashton identifies these passages as the most significant area of Rothko’s work. “I would like to suggest that the…edges, the quavering areas of light, the completely ambiguous extremities of Rothko’s forms—present for the past five years—are the crucial carriers of Rothko’s complex expression” (op. cit.).
In the spring of 1958, Rothko had been approached by the architect Philip Johnson and Phyllis Lambert, the heiress to the Seagram fortune, to produce a series of works for the Four Seasons restaurant on the ground floor of the Seagram’s new headquarters building on New York’s Park Avenue. According to his assistant at the time, Rothko seized the opportunity with vigor and began to produce a series of large-scale canvases in a portentous palette of somber reds, desolate blacks and various tones in between. Dore Ashton, the critic and close friend of the artist, felt Rothko undertook the Seagram Murals to finally lay to rest the ghosts of his earlier “vibrant” paintings with their palette of warm pinks, sumptuous yellows and hot reds. She felt that the Seagram Murals offered Rothko the opportunity to deal “with the exasperation at the general misinterpretation of his earlier work—especially the effusive yellow, orange and pink of three years back. He seemed to be saying in these new foreboding works that he was never painting luxe, calme and volupté, if we had only know it” (D. Ashton, quoted by A. Borchardt-Hume, “Shadows of Light: Mark Rothko’s Late Series,” in A. Borchardt-Hume (ed.), Rothko, exh. cat., Rothko: The Late Series, Tate Modern, London, p. 20). Yet, after a period of initial euphoria, Rothko soon began to feel uneasy about the project. Whether this was due to the lingering self-doubt that had plagued much of his career, or the growing realization that this was not the setting in which he wished his work to be viewed, in 1960 he finally withdrew from the contract and returned the considerable sum of money he had been paid. The reason for such a dramatic turnaround is the stuff of legend and while the exact cause may never be known, the result was a body of work that has been held up to be the pinnacle of Rothko’s career, the true manifestation of Rothko’s artistic rasion-d’etre.
Painted the same year as he began the Seagram Murals, No. 10 not only shares the same palette of many of the Seagram works, but also the same techniques that Rothko used to create his unique painterly dissonance. Whereas the Seagram Murals emitted a heavy solemnity from their dark internal framework, No. 10’s dissonance comes from an all-together more mysterious place, as witnessed by the German art historian and curator Werner Haftmann who visited Rothko’s studio during this period. “Soon we were encompassed by these darkening walls of light. It was a very spiritual luminosity that emanated from these backgrounds. It was not a real light and did not suggest any perspective. It had no source. Without shadows or brightness, it shone out of the colored background as a still, pure light from within the picture” (W. Haftmann, quoted by A. Borchardt-Hume, “Shadows of Light: Mark Rothko’s Late Series,” in A. Borchardt-Hume (ed.), Rothko, exh. cat., Rothko: The Late Series, Tate Modern, London, p. 18).
Rothko, like his hero Rembrandt, was fascinated by the effects of light, both as it affected his paintings as an external source, but also in the use of pigment in such a way that it illuminates the painting from within. Paradoxically, Rothko was also one of the few painters who successfully managed to create the effect of light appearing out of darkness. In 1678, Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel von Hoogstraten, summed up his master’s remarkable ability to create searing light out of simple pigment. “…let your strongest light areas be accompanied with gentle duller light areas,” he said, “as I assure you this will make them even brighter; surround your deepest shadows with clear brown tints so that they are even more effective in showing up the force of light. Rembrandt excelled in this skill and was a master in combining companion colours” (S. von Hoogstraten, quoted by E. Hinterding, “Light,” in Rembrandt: The Late Works, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 2014, p. 174). While the Dutch master excelled at using this technique to search out every individual detail of his subjects’ faces, Rothko evokes similar properties to illuminate his canvases from the very core. Thus, No. 10 appears to glow from the inside out, emitting a low-level intensity that almost elicits a physical reaction, one akin to the warmth given off by the long-burning embers of a fire on a chilly autumn day.
Measuring nearly eight feet in height, No. 10 was meant to envelop the viewer on every level. The size of the canvas was a crucial factor in the overall composition of many of the artist’s paintings and for Rothko’s works to successfully convey the power and resonance the artist required, their scale had to be correct. Addressing the students at the Pratt Institute in New York in 1958, Rothko opined on the role that scale played in his work. “My current pictures are involved with the scale of human feelings, the human drama,” he said, “as much of it as I can express. …Many times I see large pictures whose meaning I do not understand. Seeing that I was one of the first criminals, I found this useful. Since I am involved with the human element, I want to create a state of intimacy—an immediate transaction. Large pictures take you into them. Scale is of tremendous importance to me … small pictures since the Renaissance are like novels; large pictures are like dramas in which one participates in a very direct way” (M. Rothko, “Address to Pratt Institute, November 1958,” in M. López-Remiro (ed.), Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, 2006, p. 128).
Even in the age of Abstract Expressionism, the inscrutable nature of Rothko’s paintings led some of his critics to focus too heavily on the enigmatic nature of his canvases. The artist felt that too many of them were trying to equate his work with some of his contemporaries and that they had failed to fully understand the exact nature of what he was trying to do. He felt their focus was far too much on the ethereal, instead of the material. “The difference between me and [Ad] Reinhardt,” Rothko surmised, “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. His are untouchable” (M. Rothko, quoted by J. Elderfield, “Transformations,” in G. Phillips & T. Crow (eds.), Seeing Rothko, Los Angeles, 2002, p. 110).
Although much has been made of Rothko’s constantly shifting psychological state, unlike his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, the artist was adamant that his paintings were not a reflection of his own personality, but much more about the human condition. During his Pratt lecture he insisted “I have never thought that painting a picture has anything to do with self-expression. It is communication about the world to someone else. …All teaching about self-expression is erroneous in art; it has to do with therapy. Knowing about yourself is valuable so that self-expression can be removed from the process. I emphasize this because there is an idea that the process of self-expression itself has many values. But producing a work of art is another thing and I speak of art as a trade” (M. Rothko, “Address to Pratt Institute, November 1958,” in M. López-Remiro (ed.), Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, 2006, p. 125).
For Rothko, who wanted the viewers of his paintings to stand close to his work and immerse themselves within them, this direct experience of a work of art was a fundamental part of his intention when he made them. Part of a generation that, in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War, sought an art rooted in fundamental human values, Rothko sought to commune with a universal humanness that he believed was under threat from the modern world. The abandonment of all figurative realism, all objective reality and the reliance upon color, form, scale and a sense of space alone to express his own deep feelings were all a part of this deep-rooted desire to reach out to and communicate directly and on a very basic level with what he believed to be a universal humanity. Towards this end, Rothko fell back on the example set by the ancients. “The known myths of antiquity” he wrote “are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas. …Modern psychology finds them persisting still in our dreams, our vernacular, and our art, for all the changes in the outward condition of life...The myth holds us, therefore not thru (sic) the possibilities of fantasy, but because it expresses to us something real and existing in ourselves” (M. Rothko, “The Portrait of the Modern Artist” in Art in New York, a program on WYNC, New York, cited in Maurice Tuchman, New York School: The First Generation, Greenwich, 1971, p. 139).
Yet, as much as Rothko invoked the “myths of antiquity” in his paintings, he also remained resolutely a contemporary artist, concerned with the nature of the human condition, realizing that the essence of that condition remained resolute in eternity. 1958 was an important year and in many respects Rothko’s paintings from this period represent the clearest manifestation of his fascination with the inherent fragilities of the human condition. For it was during this particular period that Americans were experiencing the many benefits of the postwar economic boom while living the pervasive nervousness that all this could be wiped out in an instant had the tensions of the cold war finally boiled over. His fellow artist Adolph Gottlieb lamented, “If we profess kinship to the art of primitive man, it is because the feelings they expressed have a particular pertinence today. In times of violence, personal predilections for niceties of color and forms seem irrelevant. All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition of the brutality of natural as well as the eternal insecurities of life… To us, an art that glosses over and evades these feelings is superficial and meaningless” (A. Gottlieb and M. Rothko, “The Portrait of the Modern Artist” broadcast October 1943, quoted in Irving Sandler, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience, New York, 2009, p. 82).
Rothko wanted his work to possess the same gravitas and force as an Old Master painting. Whilst it may not possess the narrative drama of Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome) or Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (Uffizi, Florence) the emotional drama that plays out across the surface of No. 10 is undeniable. That this is done with the simple rendering of pigment upon canvas is all the more remarkable. Across its expansive surface Rothko stages a multiplicity of events where edge and ground interact; hues are assimilated and contrasted; and textures are opposed and blended. Its optical effects elicit an emotional response that resonates with Rothko’s ambition to create a total experience for the viewer, where tactility is emotional and opticality is empathic. “I am interested only in expressing basic human emotions, “Rothko once said. “Tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions. …The people who weep before my picture are having the same religious experience I had when painting them….” (M. Rothko, quoted by J. Elderfield, “Transformations,” in G. Phillips & T. Crow (eds.), Seeing Rothko, Los Angeles, 2002, p. 101).