“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 by J. E. b. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, New York, 1993, p. 275).
With its dueling forces of warm rich color surrounding a dark, ominous void, Mark Rothko’s Untitled is one of the most dramatic paintings from the latter part of the artist’s career. Painted in 1967, it is one of only four vibrant canvas the artist completed after finishing his suite of dark meditative paintings for the Rothko Chapel, and before his series of black and gray bifurcated canvases that were to be the final paintings of his career. Its dramatically painted surfaces display the ultimate spectacle of Rothko’s canvases; throughout much of his life Rothko suffered from inner demons—emotions that took him to the heights of creativity, but also dragged him down to the depths of despair. Like the eternal conflict between Apollo and Dionysus, this painting evokes these conflicting characteristics; the life-affirming fields of magenta and red, and the dark abyss, combine together into one powerful and complex painting.
In Untitled, Rothko fills the canvas with his iconic fields of floating color. The upper register—occupying almost two-thirds of the painted surface—is filled with the artist’s warm, rich hues . The concentrated, vibrant, fiery pigment is the result of Rothko’s unique painterly process, a method in which he laid down layer upon layer of colored washes to produce an ethereal experience that, on occasions, reduced viewers to tears. Such an emotional reaction was just what the artist wanted to achieve; turning his back on centuries of painterly tradition he intended his paintings not to represent or evoke an experience—instead he wanted them to be the experience. “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 by J. E. b. Breslin, Mark Rothko A Biography, New York, 1993, p. 275).
These floating blocks are among the last renditions of this iconic form that the artist ever produced, yet their intensity remained as striking as they were two decades earlier when they first emerged out of the surreal shapes of the artist’s Multiforms. This particular composition is among Rothko’s most powerful and intense, containing the strength and concentration perhaps matched only by other celebrated colorists such as J.M. W. Turner or Edwin Church. The present work not only amply demonstrates the power of pigment, but also Rothko’s unique ability to evoke a sense of authority and emotion through the simple act of applying paint to a surface. The complexity of this process results in a canvas that is full of subtly and nuance as the pools of concentrated pigment bubble up across the surface. The sheer quality of Rothko’s painterly dexterity can truly be witnessed around the edges of these blocks of color as it is here, where the active edges increase their impact by bleeding into the neighboring areas, that much of the drama of Rothko’s work occurs. Rothko always insisted that it was here, where the edges of his painterly passages meet, that the true essence of his paintings could be witnessed.
However, although Rothko was celebrated by many as one of the most skillful exploiters of color of the twentieth-century, he himself always insisted that if his paintings were only admired for their chromatic palette, then this would be a complete misreading of his work. In 1961, Robert Goldwater, whom the artist acknowledged was one of the few critics who actually understood his work, wrote “Rothko claims that he is ‘no colorist,’ and that if we regard him as such we miss the point to his art. Yet it is hardly a secret that color is his sole medium… Rothko’s concern over the years has been the reduction of his vehicle to the unique colored surface which represents nothing and supports nothing else” (R. Goldwater, quoted by J. Gage, “Rothko: Color as Subject,” in J. Weiss, Mark Rothko, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 247). Color, for Rothko, was a vehicle for accommodating the drama that he felt was inherent in his work. “I think of my pictures as dramas,” he once said, “the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at that moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quality and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which once left the world in which they occur” (M. Rothko, “The Romantics were Prompted,” published in Possibilities No. 1, Winter 1947/8).
The dark void that occupies the lower part of the canvas is equally as commanding. In stark contrast to the upper register, which appears to be an endless source of radiant energy, the lower passage acts like a black hole, pulling in all light that falls upon it. Thus, the lower passage seems to recede inwards suggesting the infinite space of a void. Again, Rothko achieves this spatial complexity through his careful manipulation of paint, which he applied with a striking variety of gestures, from broad flat passages applied with housepainters' brushes to delicately quivering strokes and smudges. The brushwork reaches a crescendo in the borders of the suspended rectangles, where the flickering edges at times seem to dance , and at other times seem to dissolve into a smoky mist. Rothko enlivened these edges by layering and smudging contrasting colors against the black paint, such as warm tones of ochre extracting great visual force from this effect of halation. Like Rembrandt, one of his great heroes, Rothko was deeply attuned to the spiritual effect of light. As the American artist's biographer recalled, "'Rembrandt and Rothko,' Rothko would say to a friend; then pause, smile and say, 'Rothko and Rembrandt'" (quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 339). Rothko indeed sought to attain the mythical status of his hero, yet through the modern language of abstraction, which he believed could speak to universal human emotion.
As a great admirer of the Dutch artist, Rothko was keen to impart the softly illuminated light so highly developed by the skilled artist, and its exquisite effect is given a final flourish in Untitled, along with others in Rothko’s penultimate series. Visitors to Rothko’s studio during this last great period described its effect: “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. Hartmann, quoted in A. Borchardt-Hume, “Shadows of Light: Mark Rothko’s Late Series,” in A. Borchardt-Hume (ed.), Rothko: The LAte Series, exh cat, Tate Modern, London, p. 18).
With his ailing health and increasing isolation, Rothko funneled his remaining energy into his work, savoring the sense of cathartic release that had become necessary to his day-to-day emotional survival. Perhaps not surprisingly, he hit upon several new artistic strategies that were fostered by these late works—particularly his later works on paper (painted after his aneurism in early 1968). In Untitled, the crackling horizontal line where red meets the black results from the powerful confrontation between those two colors. This pictorial convention would morph into his Black on Gray paintings, Rothko’s final works before he died in 1970. His son, Christopher Rothko explains: “The bipartite structure of these canvases generates many associations, but its meaning ultimately remains elusive. …these paintings are fueled by means of the static charge generated by abutting forces both opposing and complementary. The undeniable energy of magnetic repulsion and the sweeping power of attraction. Opposites that, in fact, define each other” (C. Rothko, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, Cambridge, 2015, p. 209).
Rothko admired the work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and said that in his paintings he tried to bring together the two opposing forces of the universe—order and dynamism—that the German philosopher identified. It was with the aim of establishing a similar state of harmonious détente between these two central organizing principles of existence that Rothko painted, hoping to generate within the reductive format of his abstract forms a profound expression of these dual elements compacted into a single unity. Conflicting the romanticism and heightened emotionalism of the rich and expansive vistas of his color-drenched rectangles, the dynamism of confrontation is all important in Rothko’s work. Such dynamism is often defined and characterized by the nature of the shimmering edges of his colored forms and the ‘personality’ that they give to the work as a whole. “In a way my paintings are very exact” Rothko explained in 1958, “but in that exactitude there is a shimmer, a play…in weighing the edges to introduce a less rigorous, play element…The tragic notion of the image is always present in my mind when I paint and I know when it is achieved, but I couldn’t point it out—show where it is illustrated. There are no skull and bones. I am an abstract painter” (Mark Rothko lecture given at the Pratt Institute, New York, 1958, op. cit., p. 395).