Originally part of the prestigious Mellon Collection, where it remained for nearly half a century, Untitled is a radiant, majestic and deeply poignant finale to Mark Rothko’s oeuvre. Documented as the artist’s penultimate painting, it offers a parting vision of glowing, incandescent color; a luminous, resonant hymn that eloquently encapsulates the spirit of his life’s work. Upon a ground of rich, saturated indigo, three shimmering dark green fields hover in quivering, translucent bands, allowing light to seep through them like the sun rising over the ocean. In his 1998 catalogue raisonné, David Anfam lists just three paintings made in 1970 before Rothko’s death on February 25, including a vivid red work held in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C. Sidestepping the somber palette of his so-called “Black on Gray” paintings that dominated much of his final year, the artist’s glorious return to color within his last two months was a fitting culmination to a practice steeped in its revelations. New horizons glimmer in the work’s blue depths, before ultimately receding beyond the veil.
Now he had left behind all that spoke of the carnate, the concrete. He had reached the farther shore of art.”
Rothko is said to have regarded his late works as his most profound achievements: an attitude shared widely by scholars. The critic Brian O’Doherty claimed that the period gave birth to some of the artist’s “most remarkable” paintings, while the curator Achim Borchardt-Hume asserted that these works represent “a reassertion of a painter at the height of his powers” (B. O’Doherty, Mark Rothko: The Last Paintings, exh. cat., Pace Gallery, New York, 1993; A. Borchardt-Hume, “Mark Rothko at Tate Modern,” Tate Shots, 2008). During these final years, the artist went further than ever before in his bid to channel grandiloquent emotion through paint, creating dark, haunting and intense visions that were seemingly infinite in their depths. While Rothko claimed that color was not the ultimate purpose of his art—“tragedy, ecstasy, doom” were his primary subjects—the present work seems to offer a final affirmation of its power. Shedding the mournful monochromatic hues that had occupied him for much of 1969, Rothko plunges one last time into the jewelled, intoxicating spectrum that had guided his practice for over two decades. His deep blue tone shifts and mutates as it catches the light, glimmering like a portal to the beyond.
Often towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration—all of these at once. I would like my painting to have the quality of such moments”
In technical terms, the work is a tour de force. Rothko’s three zones of dark green allow shards of underlying brightness to penetrate their forms, creating a cavernous, near-cinematic sense of space. Opacity and translucency merge seamlessly across the breadth of the canvas, giving rise to a luxuriant, velvet-like texture that remains in permanent flux. At the edges of each band, the paint dissolves into an almost static blur, like electric distortion caused by the incursion of the work’s vivid underlayer. Between these vast, dematerialized fields, Rothko’s brilliant, otherworldly blue gleams through like a distant horizon line, simultaneously pushing itself forward within our field of vision. Echoes of his forebears—of Monet, van Gogh and Matisse—linger in the work’s marbled, illuminated chromatic depths. Foreground and background oscillate in a mesmerizing play of polarities; night and day—moonlight and dawn—are held in a hypnotic state of tension. In the upper right-hand corner, a vertical drip stain is frozen in time, serving as a subtle reminder of the painter’s hand, and anchoring the work in the physical world.
The work’s provenance is as exceptional as its execution. The celebrated American collectors and philanthropists Paul and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon acquired the painting in New York in May 1971, less than eighteen months after its completion. Under their stewardship, it took its place within an extraordinary collection of masterworks by Seurat, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Stubbs, Bellows, Diebenkorn and many others. Mellon, a racehorse breeder, had started buying British art during the 1930s: a passion that would culminate in the establishment of both the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London. He married Bunny—a noted horticulturalist—in 1948, and the couple would go on to become some of the most important artistic patrons of their time, broadening their collecting interests to encompass French and American painting. Over the years, they would donate more than 1,000 works to the National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C., as well as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and other institutions. The present painting, however, remained a treasured part of their personal collection for the rest of their lives.
They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion. They move with an internal freedom, and without need to conform with or to violate what is probable in the familiar world. They have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms”
Many of Rothko’s late works have been interpreted in terms of his mental and physical decline during the late 1960s—a trajectory which ultimately led to his suicide. In 1968, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm; the following year, he separated from his wife. The brooding, introspective quality of the “Black on Grays,” in particular, is often seen as an extension of his own psychological state during this period. In Rothko’s eyes, however, painting was a fundamentally abstract pursuit. By immersing the viewer in pure color and form, he hoped to generate a raw, emotional drama capable of reflecting the full spectrum of human experience. Inspired by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche—in particular, the conflict between Dionysian chaos and Apollonian order—Rothko’s works sought to express the competing polarities that underpin our existence, extending the legacy of Romanticism into a territory that Robert Rosenblum would characterize as the “abstract sublime.” While Rothko’s own turmoil during the late 1960s may well have heightened his sensitivity to these dynamics, his works continued to operate in symphonic, universal terms, ignited by the primal friction between tones, surfaces and textures. The abstract virtuosity of his approach is eloquently borne out in the present work, where color crackles, fades, subsumes and subsides with the vitality of live theater.
Such analogies are certainly apt in the context of Rothko’s own rhetoric. The artist once explained that he conceived the floating rectangular shapes in his paintings as “performers,” who “begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space” (M. Rothko, “The Romantics were Prompted,” Possibilities No. 1, Winter 1947/8). Where the “Black on Grays” had assumed a bipartite structure—consisting of a darker band above a lighter gray one—the present work returns to the iconic superimposed color fields that first entered his practice in 1949, evolving from his early “multiforms.” During this formative period, Rothko had been inspired by the work of Clyfford Still, whose paintings helped to fuel the artist’s move to abstraction. The bold, vertical fissures in Still’s apocalyptic canvases—much like Barnett Newman’s “zips”—were often interpreted in figurative terms: as traces of the upright human form against the abyss. Rothko’s bands of color, stacked to the sky before a seemingly endless chromatic void, exude a similar anthropomorphic quality. The artist frequently claimed that his visions were not intended to be “grandiose,” but rather intimate and “human.” Here, the green bands quiver like silhouettes against the night sky, enveloping the viewer into their world.
One of Rothko’s first loves was the theater and his mature format hints, like a proscenium, that events are to happen. Symmetrical, regular and open, it also entrances. So does a technique, which employs the devices of illusionist rendering: finely graduated values, scumbles and a palette either warm or saturated enough to emanate sensuality. Yet the presentation is deceptive since the fields, being effaced, are enigmas”
If Rothko’s forms were conceived in theatrical terms, so too was his approach to light. Indeed, the critic Dore Ashton described the qualities of his late works through similar dramaturgical metaphors, explaining that “his darkness at the end did allude to the light of the theater in which, when the lights are gradually dimmed, expectation mounts urgently” (D. Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 189). Rothko was a great admirer of the Old Masters, whose use of chiaroscuro taught him vital lessons in how to activate the two-dimensional space of the picture plane. Layering thin washes of color on top of one another allowed him to build a sense of organic luminosity: indeed, the present work seems to glow from within, like a spotlight roving the stage in search of life. As the artist Murray Israel explained, “Rothko said that he wanted a presence, so when you turned your back to the painting, you would feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back” (M. Israel, quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, New York, 1993, p. 275).
With his personal life in disarray, art became the sole focus of Rothko’s existence during his latter months. The period leading up to his death was a time of immense productivity and rich creative ambition, with almost every day spent working in the studio. His assistant Oliver Steindecker remembers how the artist would already be immersed in painting when he arrived in the morning, often working on multiple canvases at once. As Ashton recalled of a visit she made to his studio in the spring of 1969, Rothko was immensely proud of his recent work: “he named the exact number with pride, as though to say, ‘with all my trouble, I was able to do this,’” she recounted. “Many are very haunting … I see them as consequent to the murals” (D. Ashton, quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, ibid., p. 511). Rothko, indeed, had recently completed his vast, meditative series of paintings for the Houston Chapel in Texas, whose spiritual grandeur and resonant depths offer pertinent context for the present work. Here, a similar sense of architectural aspiration pervades the canvas, opening before the viewer like a window onto our own condition.
Within Rothko’s lifetime, the French artist Yves Klein had proclaimed his belief in the transcendental power of blue. “Blue has no dimensions,” he wrote. “All colors bring forth associations of concrete, material, and tangible ideas, while blue evokes all the more the sea and the sky, which are what is most abstract in tangible and visible nature” (Y. Klein, “Speech to the Gelsenkirchen Theater Commission,” reproduced in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York, 2007, p. 41). While Rothko attached no such explicit commentary to the hue, it is nonetheless striking that the color flared up with such intense, piercing brilliance in his final days. For an artist who set great store in the value of myth, the density and luminosity of his chosen tone seems to evoke a deep, mystical plane beyond the material world. As the curator Diane Waldman wrote, “Now he had left behind all that spoke of the carnate, the concrete. He had reached the farther shore of art” (D. Waldman, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 69). Rothko, at the last, steps into the blue, offering a final, echoing call into the unknown.