At nearly eight feet high, No. 7 (Dark over Light) belongs to a select group of canvases that were among the largest Mark Rothko (1903-1970) ever painted. Its grandeur is matched only by the emotional intensity of its painted surface, as a large passage of muted dusky hues tussles with a smaller area of dappled white, corralled by active borders of dark red.
Such a highly active painterly surface is a mark of Rothko’s work from this important period, but it is the scale on which it has been executed that makes this particular work one of the most extraordinary; its broad sweeps and feathered edges reveal the artist’s ambition to create a pure and direct form of painting.
On 17 May, No. 7 (Dark over Light) will be a highlight of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York. ‘Standing before this radiant picture, one is immediately enveloped by the dramatic brilliance of Rothko’s artistic vision,’ comments Christie’s Global President Jussi Pylkkänen. ‘Between its intensely kinetic surface and its epic scale, No. 7 is a consummate example of Rothko’s ability to convey pure emotional power.’
In 1949 Rothko explained, ‘The progression of a painter’s work [should be] toward clarity; toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer… to achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.’ Ultimately, he wanted the viewers of his paintings to undergo an almost religious experience when confronting his canvases. To this end, from 1946 his work had begun to take on an abstract bent, increasingly stressing what he considered to be the two fundamental elements of art: space and colour.
If Rothko’s paintings from the mid-1950s were generally executed in fiery reds, golden yellows and deep oranges, a handful of canvases — such as the present work — introduced sombre hues. In addition to No. 7 (Dark over Light), pieces in this group include Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange on Gray), 1953 (National Gallery of Art Washington); No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple), 1954; and Untitled (Red, Black, White on Yellow), 1955 (also in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). These paintings reflected not so much a darkening of Rothko’s mood as a deepening of feeling, as he wrestled with what he saw as humanity’s essentially tragic nature — something which would increasingly preoccupy his painting practice throughout the rest of his life.
‘I hang the largest pictures so that they must be first and encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture’ — Mark Rothko
This preoccupation can perhaps be said to have culminated in Rothko’s iconic murals commissioned in 1958 by the owners of the Seagram distilleries for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. In these murals — he eventually executed 30 in all — the artist continued his experimentations with darker hues including purple, red, black and blue. (Famously, he would ultimately turn down the commission, refusing to give the Seagram murals to the Four Seasons; years later, Rothko donated a number of them to the Tate, where they still hang.)
Portrait of Mark Rothko (1903-1970), 1961. Photo: Ben Martin/Getty Images.
Besides colour, Rothko also considered size a key factor in achieving the emotional intensity he desired. ‘I paint very large pictures. I realise that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however… is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human,’ he explained. ‘To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.’
Rothko understood totally the power of his monumental canvases. For his 1957 exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, he deliberately hung No. 7 (Dark over Light) in the first room, to set the emotional tone for the entire show. ‘I also hang the largest pictures so that they must be first and encountered at close quarters,’ he would clarify, ‘so that the first experience is to be within the picture.’
In 1968, on the instruction of his doctors, Rothko was forced to give up making pictures on such a large scale. The works he would execute in the last two years of his life were much smaller — often no larger than 40 inches. In some ways, then, a work such as No. 7 (Dark over Light) represents the fullest and purest expression of Rothko’s artistic vision.