Painted in 1961, Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Shades of Red) forcefully captures the mysterious and emotional intensity that lies at the very heart of the artist’s work. Haunted by the eternal drama that he believed was an inherent part of the human psyche, Rothko spent his life trying to convey these emotions on canvas, and his floating fields of color became the central elements in many of his most accomplished paintings. One of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth-century, Rothko maintained that his canvases weren’t paintings of an experience, they were the experience, and standing before paintings such as the present example he sought to induce in the viewer a deep emotional—almost spiritual—connection. Untitled (Shades of Red) is a manifest example of the triumph of Rothko’s oeuvre, and painted the same year as the artist’s seminal mid-career retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, it displays the self-assurance of an artist at the height of his painterly powers.
Across this expanse of canvas, Rothko lays down clouds of crimson, red, ruby, scarlet, and deep orange pigment, one on top of one another, resulting in bottomless pools of rich color that appear to reverberate with chromatic energy as the eye passes over them. These shifting planes, constantly churning and roiling, produce a sense of dynamism that continues to play out long after the artist’s brush has left the surface of the canvas. Pushing against each other, this trifecta appears to be in a constant state of expansion, pushing out over the surface like an ever expanding galaxy of celestial gases. Surrounding each of the fields of color are paler areas, sheer veils of pigment that surround the central rectangles of deep red and saturated orange, revealing what is regarded by many as one of his greatest accomplishments: his ability to contain a vast array of colors of differing hues in differing proportions all on the same plane.
It is here, around the edges of each of these bodies of color, that Rothko’s tempestuous painterly energy is readily exposed; individual layers of paint bleed into each other revealing the rawness and vitality of the artist’s unmistakable process. Unlike the center of the blocks of color where a more harmonious co-existence results in rich fields of color, around the edges the tussle between order and chaos is played out to its ultimate conclusion. Throughout much of his career, Rothko struggled with his own inner demons, caught between the competing forces of order and chaos, and it is here, on the surface of the canvas, and in these contrary planes of color that he sought to confront and tame these forces once and for all.
It is in these areas, where the competing color fields came into direct contact with each other, that Rothko felt that his paintings truly reached the apex of their power, “colors push outward in all directions,” he said or “contract and rush inward. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say” (Rothko, in conversation with A. Jensen, 17 June 1953 in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 301). In 1961, the year that the present work was painted, the curator Peter Selz organized what would become one of Rothko’s most influential early retrospectives for The Museum of Modern Art in New York. In his introductory essay, Selz described these passages in almost miraculous terms: “These ‘shivering bars of light’ assume a function similar to that loaded area between God’s and Adam’s fingers on the Sistine ceiling. But Rothko’s creation can no longer be depicted in terms of human allegory. His separated color areas also create a spark, but now it takes place in some sort of revolving atmospheric universe rather than between Michelangelo’s man and his God. Rothko has given us the first, not the sixth, day of creation” (Mark Rothko, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961, p. 12). Selz continued, “The surface texture is as neutral as possible. Seen close up and in a penumbra, as these paintings are meant to be seen, they absorb, they envelope the viewer. We no longer look at a painting as we did in the nineteenth century; we are meant to enter it, to sink into its atmosphere of mist and light, or to draw it around us like a coat—or a skin.”
Untitled (Shades of Red) emanates the same sense of ethereal light that radiates from Rothko’s best works. The artist always maintained that his paintings possessed their own inner source of light that illuminated any room in which they were placed, an effect achieved by an intensive process of laying down numerous translucent washes of pigment. Rothko would rub down each of these using a soft brush—or sometimes even a rag—before using a dry brush to “scrub in” the primary wash. The resulting “disembodied” colors stem from the optical mixture between the usually strong tincture of the pigment and the lightness of the scoured fabric support, “the hues become aftermaths—as when the flaming orange-reds are no more than ‘breathed’ onto the surface so that they vacillate between ardency and pale, vaporous transience” (D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas. Catalogue Raisonné, 2001, London, p. 93).
The effect of this process produces the luminosity that Rothko so admired in the works of two of his favorite artists, namely Rembrandt and Henri Matisse. In Rembrandt, Rothko admired the inner radiance that illuminated his subjects, be they portraits, mythological scenes, or landscapes, and from Matisse, he was enraptured by the depth and intensities of the French artist’s colors, particularly his reds. Rothko was particularly enamored with Matisse’s 1911 painting The Red Studio and he visited the painting at the Museum of Modern Art every day for months, often overcome by the intensity of Matisse’s planes of red. “You become that color,” Rothko later remarked, “you become totally saturated with it” (quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, Mark Rothko: Pictures as Drama, Cologne, 2003, p. 38). Such was Rothko’s admiration for the French master that he later named a 1954 painting, Homage to Matisse.
Rothko’s process reached its peak during the period in which the present work was painted. The late 1950s and early 1960s proved to be a particularly significant period for the artist having come off the back of his commission to paint the Seagram Murals in 1958. The story of Rothko's murals is one of the central legends of his career and has become the kind of fable that impregnates and often threatens to dominate the history of any great artist's life. It is however nonetheless a remarkable and particularly pertinent story because the Seagram commission and the unfolding drama that surrounded Rothko's eventual rejection of it—after having worked on the project for nearly two years—encapsulates and reveals two important parameters of Rothko's character and artistic temperament. The Seagram commission threw Rothko's long held personal keenness to create a complete painterly environment into direct conflict with his deep-rooted principles. Ultimately, the overt luxury of the Four Seasons restaurant proved too much for Rothko's conscience and this, alongside the fact that he feared that the solemn paintings that had devised for it would come to be seen as mere decoration, led to his pulling out of the project in 1960.
A significant influence on Rothko’s oeuvre is the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, and it is 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 horizon-like landscape vistas of his color-drenched rectangles with a strict rational vertical grid-like progression of form compressed onto a rectangular canvas, 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 his lecture to students at the Pratt Institute in New York 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” (quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 395).
Untitled (Shades of Red) was painted the same year as the artist’s seminal exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1961. It brought together what was—up to that point—the largest exhibition of the artist’s work, including fifty-five drawings, works on paper, and paintings along with the first ever public installation of the Seagram Murals. Writing in the catalogue, Selz identified Rothko’s humanist values as being the most astonishing aspect of the artist’s paintings. “These silent paintings with their enormous, beautiful, opaque surfaces are mirrors, reflecting what the viewer brings with them,” he wrote. “In this sense they can even be said to deal directly with human emotions, desires, human relationships, for they are mirrors of our fantasy and serve as echoes of our experience” (quoted in a Museum of Modern Art press release, 18 January, 1961. Available from https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/2788/releases/MOMA_1961_0003_3.pdf [accessed 12⁄4/2022]).
What Rothko achieved with color accomplished something utterly original and its mesmerizing affect came from a lifetime of accumulated experience. When asked during the hanging of his retrospective exhibition how long it took him to paint a picture, Rothko dryly responded “I'm 57 years old, and it took me all that time to do it” (quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, op. cit., p. 326). He would work fast, and then would sit sometimes for hours or days, contemplating the success of the painting before making any necessary adjustments. Through his progressive layering of brushstrokes Rothko hoped to “breathe” his colors into the work and give the surface its own animated sense of life. “This kind of design may look simple,” Rothko once said, “but it usually takes me many hours to get the proportions and colors just right. Everything has to lock together” (quoted in J. Fischer, "The Easy Chair: Mark Rothko, Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Man," 1970, in M. Lopez-Ramiro, ed., Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 133), and it is with works such as Untitled (Shades of Red) that this accomplishment is on full display.