High noon: reflecting on the lyrical brilliance of Rothko’s reds

Abstract and large-scale, Mark Rothko’s colourfield paintings are a staple in postwar art. David Anfam, author of the artist’s catalogue raisonné delves into his most famous colour, red

The intense, bright pigments of Mark Rothko’s indelible colourfield paintings exude a complex range of moods simultaneously, from ecstasy to tragedy. A preeminent figure of postwar art, Rothko spent much of his career translating the emotional language of colour, perhaps most famously in his ongoing fascination with red. From his murals for Manhattan’s Seagram Building to his iconic Chapel in Houston, ‘Rothko’s reds have come to assume a near-universal currency, an ongoing life of their own,’ says David Anfam, the author of the artist’s catalogue raisonné.

This sense of drama and tension felt over time and space is on full display in the pair of red-toned Rothkos Untitled (Shades of Red) and No 1. Both works will be offered in The Collection of Anne H. Bass at Christie’s this May in New York. Abstract and large-scale, the two paintings, from 1961 and 1962 respectively, echo lyrical brilliance with floating fields of tangerine and crimson across the canvas.

Below, Anfam, currently the Clyfford Still Museum’s Senior Consulting Curator and Director of its Research Center, traces Rothko’s career-spanning exploration of the colour red, which culminated in the artist’s late career, including the extraordinary pair Untitled (Shades of Red) and No. 1.

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Mark Rothko in his studio, 1961. Photo by Kate Rothko/Apic/Getty Images

High Noon

‘Through clouds like ashes,
The red sun flashes
On village windows
That glimmer red.’

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Simply stated, Mark Rothko’s two canvases from the Collection of Anne H. Bass form an extraordinary pair. Extraordinary since they are almost pendants, extremely close kith and kin. The pictures date from successive years, employ vertical formats of nearly the same dimensions, each features three rectangular presences and, in particular, share a palette keyed to redness. It is as if in some sly way Rothko had his mind’s eye on the one while painting the other. Nor would it be far-fetched to conclude that the artist thought in these terms — retaining and interweaving pictorial ideas across the years like the parts of some great fugue. For example, consider his verdict on time: ‘The past is simple; the present is complex; the future is even simpler.’ In short, Rothko had a shrewd habit of looking back to the future. In this creative process, he never wavered. His dictum from 1957 confirms the resoluteness, ‘If a thing is worth doing once, it is worth doing over and again — exploring it, probing it, demanding by this repetition that the public look at it.’ In this respect, Rothko need not have worried overmuch. The intensity to Untitled (Shades of Red) and No. 1 is such that any sentient viewer must find it hard to avert their eyes from these abstract icons. They appear indelible.

‘Mark Rothko’s two canvases from the Collection of Anne H. Bass form an extraordinary pair. Extraordinary since they are almost pendants, extremely close kith and kin’

For Rothko, colour — no matter how striking — was always a means to an end. Namely, to voice the language of the emotions. ‘Ecstasy’ ranked high among those feelings, as did ‘tragedy’. Likewise, colour per se struck him as merely decorative: his preferred expressive term was ‘measures’.  Measures are to colour, what scale is to size. Not an inhuman fact but, rather, felt time and space. Thus, among the foremost achievements of his so-called ‘surrealist’ period (the word is a misnomer insofar as it connotes an irrationality alien to Rothko) in the mid-1940s is Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944). With a pale rosy glow in its upper background and two humanoid figures that symbolize Rothko’s marriage to Mary Alice (‘Mell’) Beistle the following March, this ‘slow swirl’ [emphasis mine] celebrates a literal and metaphorical ‘dawn’, a new beginning at once personal and pictorial. Vibrations of Aurora (1944), drives home this message — the titular Roman goddess presides over dawn.

Cut to 1961-62 and much water has flown under the proverbial bridge. Dawn had given way to other hours. Often, the pulse to certain aspects in Rothko’s art quickened a lot. Witness the instantaneity emanating from the current pair of images. Their lyrical brilliance — tangerine yielding to deeper crimsons and all hovering within an indefinable flesh-hued atmosphere — rings out loud, clear and fast. But beware, brightness does not necessarily spell happiness. On the contrary, the mood here may be closer to ecstatic tragedy. If so, then Rothko was recalling one of his foundational texts, Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872).

Mark Rothko (1903-1970), No. 1, 1962. Oil on canvas. 69 x 60 in (175.3 x 152.4 cm). Estimate: $45,000,000-65,000,000. Offered in The Collection of Anne H. Bass on 12 May 2022 at Christie's in New York

At risk of writerly recycling, it proves impossible not to invoke The Birth of Tragedy because its philosophy, which caused a revolution in classical scholarship, unified existential opposites — a stately tranquil impulse (personified by the Greek god Apollo) and intoxicated, violent energies (the antithetical deity Dionysus). As such, they strike to the core of Rothko’s vision wherein tragic shock waves are born from this simultaneous fission and fusion. Suffice it to quote his undated note: ‘Apollo may be the God of sculpture [i.e. form-giving]. But in the extreme he is also the God of light and in the burst of splendour not only is all illuminated but as it gains in intensity all is also wiped out. That is the secret which I use to contain the Dionisian in a burst of light.’ This script is the drama that unfolds, in a flash, in the two Anne H. Bass compositions. In each, three nimbuses irradiate and electrify one another like uncanny sunbursts. Did Rothko, who had once portrayed a Crucifixion (1935), perhaps at some unconscious level still associate the triad with catastrophe-laden spirituality, an emotional darkness at noon?

Whether it be the early 1960s, a decade or two previously or in the remaining years before Rothko’s death in 1970, one leitmotif recurs over and again as his prime agent (not to mention its ripple effect far and wide). Red — a hue that for Rothko proved by turns fundamental, changeful and, ultimately, redux. Significantly, scholars of the subject regard this colour as primal, cataclysmic (‘red next to yellow/will kill a fellow’) and, in the Kabbalah, a sign of power and strength.

Mark Rothko, Thru the Window, 1938 -1939. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Multiform), 1948. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Red lurks there at the outset in the strange, highly significant Thru the Window. Already, the blank picture-within-a-picture on its easel is as diminutive as the prophecy its walls and windows foretell was to become engulfing. A decade on, in the crucial ‘Multiforms’ phase, typified by a forceful 1948 work, reds spread resurgent like a bloodbath (should the simile sound melodramatic, remember the ‘charnel-house’ compositions inspired by Greek tragedy and World War Two from just a few years earlier) around a lone ultramarine ‘actor’ (Rothko’s own appellation for these shapes). Then, during the 1950s and after, the reds multiply. They wax and wane, shrink and dilate, dematerialize or become denser, brighten and dim. On this score, Rothko left no chromatic stone, so to speak, unturned. Thereafter, ruddiness became his virtual trademark (like many another mature canvas, the 1961 Bass picture is signed and dated on the verso in maroon pigment). Thus, for example it migrated into the cinema — Rothko became friends with the Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni whose Red Desert with its stress on static yet charged emptiness he influenced, just as the former admired the latter’s film L’Avventura (1960) for its moody tension. Closer to the present, an ersatz ‘Rothko’ in varying rufescent shades even featured in the crude but shrewd cable network series Mad Men (2007-15). Needless to add, an award-winning play also debuted in 2009 (no matter that its portrayal of Rothko is overly melodramatic) titled… Red. Rothko’s reds have come to assume a near-universal currency, an ongoing life of their own.

‘In retrospect, we can now see where Untitled (Shades of Red) and No. 1 truly stand. At a dazzling, poised high noon shortly before nightfall’

But stop for a decisive moment, that of the two masterpieces at stake. In 1961-62 Rothko was exactly midway in what were to become his climactic three murals projects. First, the series conceived for Manhattan’s Seagram Building (1958-59); next, those for Harvard University (commissioned 1961, completed 1962); and the Chapel in Houston that bears his name (posthumously inaugurated in 1971). Although each ensemble is distinctive, they share a somber monumentality conveyed predominantly by an auratic redness that has morphed into multitudinous maroons, ranging from ghostly, almost lilac tints to the indescribable, subfusc purples headed toward crepuscular black in the Chapel. In retrospect, we can now see where Untitled (Shades of Red) and No. 1 truly stand. At a dazzling, poised high noon shortly before nightfall.

David Anfam has curated five major exhibitions at the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver. His Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2016-17) was the largest survey of its kind ever held in Europe.

© Art Exploration Consultancy Ltd 2022

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