Mark Rothko's canvas Black Stripe (Orange, Gold, and Black) resonates with a palpable sense of the artistic struggles that Rothko played out across the surface of his canvases for much of his life. A painting from his classic period-an upright rectangular canvas, its three stacked soft rectangles variously reflecting and absorbing light-its visual language favors materials and processes over explicit subject matter. Channeling its elemental power through the constantly shifting tussles between color, texture and edge, this work pulsates with energy and majesty, "A painting is not a picture of an experience," Rothko once said, "it is an experience" (M. Rothko, quoted in D. Sieberling, "Mark Rothko: Luminous Lines to Evoke Emotions and Mystery," Life, 16 November 1959, p. 82).
Rothko used a large canvas to enact his expressive ambition. The expanse of canvas, rising vertically almost six feet and extending three feet across, offers an arena in which a painterly discourse of oppositions is enacted through formal elements. Rothko sets surface action in motion through the material effect of abutting edges and color contrasts and assimilations, which entail vertical against horizontal, opacity opposed to luminescence, alternations of saturations with absence of chroma, and interchanges between mottled and silken textures. Such counterpoint engages the viewer in a dynamic dialogue with Rothko's own commitment to materiality and expressive reciprocity. "The reason I paint [large pictures] is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human" (M. Rothko, "A Symposium on How to Combine Architecture, Painting and Sculpture," in Interiors 10 May 1951, in J. Weiss, Mark Rothko, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 308). Rothko identifies deeply with the viewer in front of his canvases, so much so that the frontal plane consists essentially of affective fields that stimulate physical responses, sympathetic triggers to psychic and emotional equivalencies. Thus, when Rothko declares, "I want pure response in terms of human need," he refers primarily to "mood," to affective responses in the presence of material actions on canvas (M. Rothko, "Interview," 22 January 1952, in William Seitz Papers, Archives of American Art, Series 4, Research and Writing Files, 1940s to 1970s, Box 16).
In Black Stripe (Orange, Gold, and Black), Rothko rearranges traditional formal syntax, creating, instead, a complex interplay of oppositional contrasts: the fullness of hue and its absence; a fusion and separation of edge through scumbling and refining textures; and most strikingly, a refusal of translucence through the sheer celebration of opacities. Surface color and material texture enact a drama of tensions. Pitting smooth and roughened facture over a density of orange ground, Rothko's rectangles run from luminous red to obdurate black, then into a neutralized yellow-brown gold worked with white: the "gold" volume and painterly density oppose the flatness of black opaqueness and the silky glaze of pulsating red. Pigments are arrayed in dynamic harmonies, the orange ground, an aqueous mixture of red and yellow, lends the red aspect of its chroma to the larger hovering form and its yellow aspect to the more muted neutrality of the lower shape. The black central rectangle arrests vision in its withdrawal of color, pinned as it is between two fields of oscillating chromatic forces. Contrast is heightened between these forms by the relative saturation levels of each. The upper form, high-keyed and dense, approximates an overall primary red, while the color effect of the lower form, muted and built up from transparent layers, coalesces in blended and overlaid whites on a yellow-tinged ground. This admixture of primary and secondary hues is balanced by the absorption of all hues into the central black rectangle, the opaqueness of the black hard against the red and yellows of various gradations. Black Stripe (Orange, Gold, and Black) is a dazzling example of the assertion and recession of color. Rothko reveled in such a frisson of contrast, where colors "push outward in all directions, or "contract and rush inward. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say" (M. Rothko, in conversation with A. Jensen, 17 June 1953, in J. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 301). Rothko's canvases depend on such tensile relationships for their force.
Contrasts in texture extend to the rectangle's soft bounding edges, which exhibit a variety of articulations, tracking a counterpoint of rifts and joins. The central black form bleeds into to its upper neighbor in feathered strokes, interleaving its red counterpart, while abutting the serrated edge the "gold" form drifting just below. Coarsened edges contrast with smoothed ones in a flurry of marks that define Rothko's contours. Rothko's brushstrokes vary-tight and energetic for the black middle band, broad and sweeping within the larger forms. A dry brush facilitated lively feathering around the edges in contrast to the loaded brush's gliding painterly swaths that fill the centers. Each mark tells: such subtle variation increases the vitality and dynamism of surface event.
The impasto of Black Stripe (Orange, Gold, and Black) reads as a palimpsest of surface incident involving chromatic liquescence, modulations of opacities, all created by the changing rhythms of Rothko's hand gestures. The remarkable tactility of this work emanates from the variety of brush strokes as he layers pigment over pigment. "When he worked out closer to the edges or where he wanted thin spots for the ground to come through he would necessarily slow up a little, so the paint wouldn't go on either as thickly or as quickly. Often, just the very tip of the brush, a big 5" house painting brush, would just sort of flicker over the surface, so the area was not covered as rapidly" (D. Rice, quoted in ibid., p. 317). Roy Edwards describes the experience of handling and cleaning Rothko's brushes: "Brushes were a big thing with him. They felt like velvet, those brushes, because they were very old and they'd been so well taken care of. I would wash those brushes every day after painting. First in turpentine and then in detergent. For about an hour. Washing and rewashing, rewashing, rewashing" (R. Edwards and R. Pomeroy, "Working with Rothko," New American Review no. 12, 1971, p. 125). Tactile contrasts and the material qualities mattered ("...it was all done with brushes. That's the marvelous thing. He had such a touch with a brush," ibid., p. 125). Contrasting his paintings with Ad Reinhart's, Rothko emphasized the tactile quality of his work in contrast to the seemingly insubstantial effects of Reinhart's surfaces: "mine are here. Materially. The surfaces, the work of the brush and so on. [Reinhardt's] are untouchable" (M. Rothko, quoted in D. Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 179).
Matisse's Red Studio was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1949, and for months Rothko studied it, experiencing the red as if "within the picture." In like manner, he preferred that viewers stand at as close a viewing distance as possible, so they could "participate [...] in a direct way" (M. Rothko, in "Lecture at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, 27 October 1958," quoted in M. López-Remiro, (ed.), Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 128). Based on Rothko's viewing preference, Anna C. Chave proposes that a parallel between the frayed edges of Rothko's forms-hovering but rarely touching the neighboring rectangle, as here in Black Stripe-and the psychic rifts or schisms in human experience (A. Chave, "Rothko's Instruments," in Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, New Haven and London, 1989, p. 175). Such parallels are supported by Rothko who placed his trust "in the psyche of sensitive observers who are free of the conventions of understanding. I would have no apprehension about the use they would make of these pictures for the needs of their own spirits. For if there is both need and spirit, there is bound to be a real transaction" (M. Rothko, in K. Kuh, "Mark Rothko," Art Institute of Chicago Quarterly 48, 15 November 1954, p. 68).
Black Stripe (Orange, Gold, and Black) stages a multiplicity of incident 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. Clarity is achieved through material contrasts that elicit an expressive push and pull in which tensions arise from "conflict or curbed desire" (M. Rothko, quoted in Breslin, op. cit., p. 390). "Desire" for Rothko exists in the realm of the personal, the arena of "human need." Brice Marden acknowledged Rothko's metaphor, a drama unfolding in the space of the canvas and over time in the viewing experience of looking: "I think Rothko was making an environment where your whole spirit becomes isolated. You just have to deal with it. He helped you deal with yourself. It's a part of that kind of grand way of thinking" (B. Marden, in Weiss, p. 362).