"Since I am involved with the human element, I want to create a state of intimacy - an immediate transaction. Large pictures take you into them. Scale is of tremendous importance to me - human scale. Feelings have different weights: I prefer the weight of Mozart to Beethoven because of Mozart's wit and irony and I like his scale. Beethoven has a farmyard wit. How can a man be ponderable without being heroic? This is my problem. My pictures are involved with these human values. This is always what I think aboutI think that the small pictures since the Renaissance are like novels: large pictures are like dramas in which one participates in a direct way. The different subject necessitates different means" (M. Rothko, 'From Lecture at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, 27 October, 1958', quoted in M. López-Remiro, (ed.) Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 128).
Orange, Red, Yellow is a large monolith-like canvas exuding a warm and fiery range of shimmering vermillion rectangles over a cooler and thinly painted crimson wash background that Rothko painted at the very height of his career in 1961. A bold, forceful and imposing work that radiates powerfully with an almost epic sense of vitality, it is one of several large and red-hued canvases that Rothko repeatedly painted in the late 1950s and early '60s between the time of the creation of his Seagram murals of 1958 and the Harvard murals of 1961/2.
As illustrated in these two series of murals, red was, for Rothko, the predominant color of his art. It was the essential color of life, passion, Dionysian energy, fire, ritual and drama, and it was perhaps for this reason - because these were the fundamental elements of existence and the ones that he was anxious for his unique manner of painting to convey - that it was so often in a variety of shades of red that Rothko's painting ultimately took form. As Diane Waldman pointed out in her 1978 monograph on the artist, "Red is the color that fascinates Rothko above all others. No other color appears so insistently in his oeuvre from the time of the multiforms. It dominates Rothko's work of the fifties and sixties and, in fact, was the color of his last painting. Red is so potent optically that it overwhelms or obliterates other hues unless it is diluted or controlled by juxtaposing it, as Mondrian did, with equally strong colors, such as black and white, or the other primaries yellow and blue. But Rothko frequently uses it alone, altering its tonality according to the emotion he wishes to express. Perhaps Rothko was so drawn to red because of its powerful and basic associations: it is identified with the elements and ritual - with fire and with blood - and thus with life, death and the spirit. The Existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard, whom Rothko and his friends deeply admired, wrote movingly of red, in terms that call to mind Rothko's painting. 'The result of my life is simply nothing, a mood, a single color. My result is like the painting of the artist who was to paint a picture of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. To this end, he painted the whole wall red, explaining that the Israelites had already crossed over, and that the Egyptians were drowned'" (D. Waldman, Mark Rothko, London, 1978, pp. 57-8)
It had been the arrival of Henri Matisse's Red Studio at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that had first inspired Rothko to make his great breakthrough into allowing color alone to be the carrier of meaning in his work. "When you looked at that painting" Rothko later said of it, "you became color, you became totally saturated with it as if it were music" (M. Rothko quoted in J. E. B. Breslin Mark Rothko : A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 283). And it was this direct, undiluted, unmediated experience of the sublime sensation of color as a vital but also immaterial entity seemingly pulsing through the viewer in an almost physical way that Rothko sought to establish in his own paintings.
Indeed, Rothko once stated that he wanted his paintings to establish such a "presence" that "when you turned your back to the painting, you would feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back" (M. Rothko cited in J. E. B. Breslin Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 275). As a work such as Orange, Red, Yellow illustrates this sensation of being immersed within the colors of the painting to the point where one can physically feel its radiating presence on one's back, is one that can only be attained through a subtle combination of color magnification and by painting on such a grand scale that the radiant rectangular fields of color appear to physically resonate and hum with a shimmering energy as if they were clouds at sunset casting warm shadows over a landscape. Here, lightly manifesting themselves as opaque entities that gradually seem to materialize out of the cooler gradated surface of the thinly washed canvas ground, Orange, Red, Yellow's vast fields of rich undulating vermillion-colored energy do slowly reveal themselves to be capable of determining and altering the mood and emotions of the viewer they envelop.
It was precisely for this reason that Rothko felt that, in spite of their scale, it was larger paintings like Orange, Red, Yellow that were in fact among the most personal, moving and intimate of his works. As he declared in a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951, "I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however-I think this applies to other painters I know-is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. 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... (but), however you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command" (M. Rothko: statement delivered from the floor at a symposium at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, published in " A Symposium on how to combine Architecture, Painting and Sculpture," Interiors, vol. 110, no. 10 (May 1951), p.104). To facilitate a true appreciation of such works Rothko even insisted that people should view his pictures from a distance of around eighteen inches from the canvas-approximately the same distance that Rothko was when painting them.
Such a positioning before Orange, Red, Yellow also rewards the viewer with an appreciation of the dexterity and complexity of Rothko's surprisingly delicate, if also vivid and vigorous brushwork. In addition to the thinned and in places transparent crimson ground of the painting-a ground that lends the background an earthy and textural quality-the multiple layers of light, vertical brushstrokes feathering the edges of the three principle rectangular clouds of color bestow the surface of the work with a dynamic sense of drama and variation reminiscent of a series of epic landscapes that appear to be emerging and dissolving into one another. The energy and variation of these forms also reflects the physical energy and time that Rothko himself put into the realization of this picture. As Sally Avery has recalled, Rothko painted in such a way "that his paint was layered, color on top of color, so that you had a sense of light coming through" (S. Avery 'Interview with Tom Wolf', 19 February 1982, quoted in B. Clearwater, The Rothko Book, London, 2006, p. 178).
Following a very methodical and painstaking process of gradually building the surface of the picture and slowly bringing his colored forms into being through an accumulation of subtle brushstrokes Rothko hoped to 'breathe' his colors into the work and give the surface its own animated sense of life. Towards this end, as his assistant Oliver Steindecker recalled, Rothko often worked with "large brushes, like paint brushes for housepainters-they might be 6 or 7 inches wide-really heavy duty brushes and really got into his painting, his whole body would go up, down with the sweep of his brush on canvas; it was like he was really into it rather than just moving his arm. His whole body moved up and down with each stroke" (O. Steindecker, 'Interview with the Rothko Foundation', May 10, 1983, Mark Rothko Files, National Gallery of Art, Washington, quoted in B. Clearwater, The Rothko Book, London, 2006, p. 178).
Rooted in his own strongly psychological reading habits and in the deep sense of redemption that he and his generation wanted to give to the world in the aftermath of the Second World War, Rothko's earnestness and complete involvement in each brushstroke derived from an almost messianic desire to create an art that invoked a universal and timeless language-one that spoke directly to and about a collective humanity-in a new age of existential uncertainty. Rothko was one of the last of the great Romantics of modernism-a man about whom, his friend the critic Dore Ashton once wrote, "is still capable of believing that his work can have some purpose - spiritual if you like - that is not sullied by the world" (D. Ashton, Journal, July 7, 1964).
Rothko's abandoning of the object, his magnification of scale, 'heroifying' of color and attempts to completely immerse the viewer within an entire field of color were all elements that drew on the Northern Romantic tradition in art, on the archetypal concept of the sublime and on the essentially Symbolist idea of there being a direct and ultimately transcendent correspondence between color, sound, sensation, feeling and memory. "Free of the familiar," Rothko had declared in a text appropriately entitled The Romantics were Prompted, "transcendental experiences become possible ... pictures must be miraculous ... a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need." The "artist's real model is an ideal which embraces all of human drama" (M. Rothko 'The Portrait and the Modern Artist' broadcast with Adolph Gottlieb, Art in New York, WNYC, October 13, 1943, published in Adolph Gottlieb : A Retrospective, New York, 1981, p. 170.).
Throughout his life Rothko had repeatedly read and re-read Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, once claiming that he saw in this book, 'the way in which I could achieve the greatest intensity of the tragic irreconcilability of the basic violence which lies at the bottom of human existence and the daily life which must deal with it" (M. Rothko: a draft of a proposed lecture on the relationship between his work an Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, 1955 quoted in J. E.B. Breslin, op.cit, p. 357-358) It was in this remarkable 'fable' that Rothko declared he had found "the poetic reinforcement for what I inevitably knew was my inevitable course: that the poignancy of art in my life lay in its Dionysian content, and that the nobility, the largeness and exaltation are hollow pillars, not to be trusted, unless they have as their core, unless they are filled to the point of bulging, by the wild" (Ibid.).
Like all of Rothko's mature paintings Orange, Red, Yellow is, in this context, an essentially Dionysian play of emotive color or "drama" as Rothko called it, that through its overt simplicity, directness and the establishment of a subtle and also tense equilibrium, expresses a reality that communicates itself unconsciously to the human psyche. For Rothko, the dynamic resonant power of his paintings derived from what he believed to be the inherent duality within all human nature that Nietzsche had identified and classified in The Birth of Tragedy as either Apollonian or Dionysian. According to Nietzsche, the Apollonian force represents the act of forming, of becoming, defining and measuring, it is the force of the sculptural arts, of geometry and of universal order. The Dionysian aspect represents the opposite. Unstable and wild, it characterizes passion, emotion, desire, the musical arts and the destructive forces of disintegration and chaos. Greek tragedy, Nietzsche noted, played on this inherent duality in the human psyche and merged them into an eternally conflicting but united whole. Rothko, who seems to have personally felt very acutely the same intense conflict and division within his own persona, sought to generate a direct experience of this innate elemental duality, of wild Dionysian forces compressed onto a human scale through the dynamic and resonant balance he gave to his compositions.
"I think of my pictures as dramas," Rothko famously announced, "the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur" (M. Rothko 'The Romantics were Prompted' published in Possibilities No. 1 Winter 1947/8).
A profound sense of the sublime, elemental power of nature is conveyed in Orange, Red, Yellow for example, by the vast scale of intense blocks of color shimmering in strangely close proximity to one another, their fiery edges hinting at a sequence of epically scaled and apocalyptic horizons somehow held into a dynamic state of equilibrium by the painting's overall stable balance of color, proportion and scale. "This kind of design may look simple," Rothko once said of such pictures, "but it usually takes me many hours to get the proportions and colors just right. Everything has to lock together. I guess I am pretty much a plumber at heart" (M. Rothko, quoted in John Fischer, 'The Easy Chair: Mark Rothko, Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Man', 1970 reproduced in M Lopez-Ramiro (ed.) Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven 2005, p. 133).