No. 1 is listed as the first canvas that Mark Rothko painted in 1962, a pivotal year in which the artist produced some of his most vital and vivacious works. Dominated by a central field of intense orange, this large-scale painting displays the full force of Rothko’s creativity, from the floating passages of penetrating color to the animated brushwork that results in its iridescent surface. The rich, warm red and orange hues that are so prevalent in No. 1 are also emblematic of the experiential nature of Rothko’s art—a physical manifestation of what one critic called the “immediate radiance” of these paintings. Famously, Rothko is quoted as saying that he wanted his paintings to have “presence” so that when you turned your back on such a work, you “feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back” (M. Israel, quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, New York, 1993, p. 275). No. 1 exhibits this quality to spectacular effect.
Across the surface of the painting Rothko lays down three large clouds of saturated color. Anchored by a large passage of baking orange hues, the composition subsumes the viewer into an intense field of vibrant color. This highly active core is complemented by two narrower bands of deeper red and orange that express the upper and lower edges of the composition. The upper field appears more ephemeral; a spectral passage of red pigment that allows the delicacy of Rothko’s brushwork to become evident, particularly around the periphery of the form. The lower band of color is a deeper, more concentrated, orange—the result of the artist laying down multiple layers of pigment, resulting in a greater density of color. Around these interior passages, Rothko has applied a delicate, almost transparent, veneer of pigment; here, the larger chromatic fields begin to dissolve as they migrate outwards towards the edges of the canvas, dissipating the visual energy into more neutral hues. Rothko always insisted that it was here, where the edges of his painterly passages met, that the true essence of his paintings could be witnessed.
It is also here that we can see in full force the subtle nuances of the artist’s painterly practice. To achieve the radiance that Rothko required, he would lay down numerous washes of thin, almost translucent, pigment that he would burnish with a soft cloth or brush. Finally he would apply the final, primary layer of pigment with a stiff, dry brush, scouring the surface to leave a richly burnished effect. In No. 1 in particular, the traces of these different layers can be seen in the undulating layers of underpainting that constantly roil up towards the surface. There is a constant shifting of color, as differing areas of pigment give way to saturated passages of high-keyed intensity. It was Hubert Crehan, in one of the first reviews of the artist’s paintings, who wrote about the “immediate radiance” of Rothko’s paintings. “We have in our time become aware of the reports of the great billows of colored light that have ripped asunder the calm skies over the atolls of the calmest ocean. We have heard of the terrible beauty of that light, a light softer, more pacifying than the hues of a rainbow and yet detonated as from some wrathful and diabolical depth. The tension of the color-relationships of some of the Rothko paintings I have seen has been raised to such a shrill pitch that one begins to feel in them that a fission might happen, that they might detonate” (“Rothko's Wall of Light: A Show of His New Works at Chicago,” Arts Digest, no. 29, 1 November 1954, p. 19).
Rothko’s ultimate aim was to break down the traditional and long established barriers that existed in art, and he wanted the viewers of his paintings to undergo an almost religious experience when stood before them. In evolving this idea, the artist was profoundly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche's text The Birth of Tragedy. Rothko's abstract paintings play on the dualism inherent in human nature that Nietzsche had identified as composed of Apollonian and Dionysian forces. The Apollonian represents the force of becoming, of precise definition, of the sculptural arts and of universal order while the Dionysian represents an unstable and wild force, the musical arts, disintegration and chaos. The duality of light and darker areas in the present work echoes these hostilities. In painting No. 1’s main passages of color in competing colors, they vie with one another for dominance, seeming to both emerge from and recede into the painting's more neutral background, evoking this perpetual struggle. As the eye responds to this shifting play of undefined form and color, the viewer's mind enacts an emotive drama, yet Rothko holds the whole together in a fragile balance using the calm serenity of the pale ground. In this way, he counterpoints Apollonian order and refinement with the more unstable Dionysian energy of the shimmering oblongs, creating an overwhelming sense of the sublime.
This had been a conflict which consumed Rothko for much of his career. His earliest art was motivated by a search for a style that was his own and which could be used to express what the artist called the "tragic and timeless" nature of the human condition. Finding ideas similar to his in the Greek tragedies, he turned to the epic plays of Aeschylus and Euripides in the early 1940s, channeling these ancient characters and narratives into the Surrealist works that followed. Plumbing elements of Greco-Roman art with increasing infusions of automatic writing, the signs, symbols and ethereal hazes of these nascent works hinted at the collective mysteries of existence, but remained rooted in the kind of figuration that characterized the material world. As a result, Rothko's works began to take on a more abstract dimension in the mid-1940s. He expunged representational elements for the irregular, amorphous washes of color in the Multiforms. In 1949, this tendency received ultimate clarification in the classic format that Rothko pursued in the present work. Early on, the artist intuitively understood his direction; in a letter to the New York Times dated July 7, 1943 he wrote, "We favor the simple expression of complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth” (quoted in M. López-Remiro, Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 36). Read in relation to the present work, this statement seems perfectly pitched for the classic work that would ensue throughout Rothko's subsequent oeuvre.
Rothko wanted his work to possess the same gravitas and force as an Old Master painting. Whilst it may not possess the narrative theatre of Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome) or Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (Uffizi, Florence) for example, the emotional drama that plays out across the surface of No. 1 is undeniable. That this is done with the simple rendering of pigment upon canvas is all the more remarkable. Across its expansive surface Rothko stages a multiplicity of events where edge and ground interact; hues are assimilated and contrasted; and textures are opposed and blended. Its optical effects elicit an emotional response that resonates with Rothko's ambition to create a total experience for the viewer, where tactility is emotional and opticality is empathic. “I am interested only in expressing basic human emotions,“ Rothko once said. “Tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions. …The people who weep before my picture are having the same religious experience I had when painting them” (quoted in J. Elderfield, “Transformations,” in G. Phillips and T. Crow, eds., Seeing Rothko, Los Angeles, 2002, p. 101).
Rothko’s layering of thin coats of paint and his approach to pictorial form have as their goal to create both a physical as well as an emotional relationship between the work of art and the viewer. As the art historian Stephen Polcari declared, “Rothko managed to intensify and make immediate… a pictorial environment, form, and theater of emotion” (“Mark Rothko: Heritage, Environment and Tradition,” in Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 2, no. 2, 1988, p. 59). It is as if here Rothko creates a visual environment in which discrete elements – the warmth of color, the surface agitation, and the indeterminate space – coalesce to create a charged atmosphere that stimulates the viewer to a pitch of excitation, what the art historian Jeffrey Weiss called the “abstract theater of emotions and ideas” (Mark Rothko, New Haven and London, 2000, p. 10). The viewer’s affective response to formal qualities lies at the heart of Rothko’s pictorial structures and translucent colors. Stacking the thinly painted rectangular forms in such color associations as we find in the present work puts pressure on characteristics of luminosity and hue, creating an equivalent frisson of emotion in the viewer. In addition, Rothko’s reduction of forms, allows complexity in other elements, such as light against dark, opaqueness opposed to translucently, smooth contrasted with brushy textures, and a tension between varieties of saturation levels. In the present work, Rothko renders characteristic a touch that elicits an empathic, emotional response and when integrated as convincingly as it is with shape, brings about a merging of elements that the artist Gerhard Richter noted when he commented that “The mystery and incomprehensibility of Rothko’s paintings is based on the specificity of the structures, the transcendental effect, and the viewer’s contemplation” (quoted in ibid., p. 365). Thus, No. 1 is a quintessential example both of Rothko’s ability, as Richter has affirmed, to “create […] a special art for us, and no one else will do such paintings again. I believe Rothko will be important for centuries to come” (quoted in ibid., p. 366).