A concordance of three, vibrant, shimmering rectangles of dramatically contrasting colours, each self-asserting itself against an almost luminescent red ground, this painting is a classic example of Rothko’s mature style. It is also a work that, through its unusual, strongly horizontal format, its rich, deep palette and its pervasive sense of brooding drama, is one that evokes the same blend of sombreness and tragic grandeur that was to characterise the epic series of murals that Rothko had begun to work on at this time.
The year 1958 was to prove a watershed moment in the history of Rothko’s life and work. While his paintings would continue to develop, deepen and evolve over the next 12 years, becoming, as many observers have noted, progressively darker throughout the 1960s, nothing Rothko was to make in this decade was to surpass the intensity of his achievements in the 1950s.
By 1958, Rothko was not only at the very height of his creative powers — painting, in addition to the now famous Seagram Murals, many of the finest and most representative paintings of his career — he was also at the pinnacle of his influence, and reputation.
Mark Rothko (1903–1970), No. 36 (Black Stripe), 1958. Oil on canvas. 61 ? × 67 in. (156.9 × 169.9 cm.) Estimate: $30,000,000–50,000,000. This work is offered in Looking Forward to the Past — A curated Evening Sale on 11 May in New York
Like all of Rothko’s mature paintings, No. 36 (Black Stripe) is essentially an emotive play of purely abstract colour and form aimed at instilling a specific set of feelings in its viewer. Through the all-enveloping openness, simplicity and directness of its medium and its establishment of a tense and ultimately surprising equilibrium between all of its contrasting parts, No. 36 (Black Stripe) is a painting that expresses an emotional and psychological reality which, like a pictorial music, both resonates in and is unconsciously understood by the human psyche, communicating with the inner emotions of the viewer through the purely abstract medium of colour.
The work echoes a sense of longing towards a Romantic sublime while simultaneously posing a rebuttal, its grandiose bands of colour suggesting a wild Dionysian nature. Yet miraculously both forces are contained by some mighty ordering force into a dynamic and harmoniously structured, Apollonian whole. Together, each of its three dominant forms resonates within a febrile and fascinating collective equilibrium.
Rothko himself referred to this dynamic sense of balance as a kind of ‘push and pull’ between the forms that he manipulated in order to prompt a precise kind of emotional impact; between a longing for the mysteries of the sublime and the visual enjoyment of the material drama playing out on the picture’s surface. No. 36 (Black Stripe) is being sold to benefit the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden Germany, one of Europe’s major private collections of pioneering modern and contemporary painting.
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