‘… in 1949 his painting was transformed into a world of extreme light whose radiance obliterated all objects. Its subject, that transcendent “I” of the absolute subjective, is hidden within the painting, woven into the substance of paint itself, and in light itself. What remains invested of human presence in these radically new paintings is the drama of Rothko’s consciousness – and what it mirrors of ourselves’ —B. ROSE
‘This is the year that he finally broke free of the obligation to make interestingly varied compositions and discovered the power of large, simple, symmetrically ordered blocks of colour. He began to make the paintings that we now view as classic Rothkos. So part of the excitement is seeing the moment when an artist dares to become fully himself. The other part is sheer beauty’ —K. JOHNSON
‘If we tend toward the imaginative, our experience waxes metaphorical and we gain a greater sense of light and space, looking through that surface as though it concealed depths and revealed radiances. Whatever the standpoint, the work responds with a certain stealth, meeting the onlooker with the kind of frontal, vertical and symmetrical order associated with the poise of a human being... while revealing little about its real intent’ —D. ANFAM
‘Rothko said 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
‘I do not believe that there was ever a question of being abstract or representational. It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breaching and stretching one’s arms again’ —M. ROTHKO
‘The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer … To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood’ —M. ROTHKO
‘He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born’
—W. B. YEATS
‘His new paintings created a breathing space. Yet these paintings do not seek simply to “transcend” the walls of an unalterable external reality by soaring upward into either an untrammelled freedom or a vaporous mysticism. Rather, by (in Rothko’s word) pulverising the familiar world of recognisable, stable objects – by grinding them to the verge of dissolution – his works free us from the weight, solidity, and definition of a material existence, whose constricting pressures we still feel. Rothko combines freedom with constraint, and if these paintings create “dramas,” with the shapes as the “performers,” they stage a struggle to be free’ —J. E. B. BRESLIN
Ablaze with resplendent solar colour, No. 1 (1949) was one of twelve pioneering paintings displayed in Mark Rothko’s breakthrough solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in January 1950. This historic exhibition summarised Rothko’s achievements of 1949, marking the leap from his earlier painting, which had been freighted with figuration and mythic allusion, towards the iconic fields of colour that would characterise all his subsequent masterpieces. The title No. 1 places the work at the beginning of a sequence of twelve paintings that ran anticlockwise round the gallery’s main room (an adjacent room contained four smaller canvases). Of these twelve major works, only three now remain in private hands: No. 1, No. 10, and No. 11, which is owned by the artist’s son, Christopher Rothko. All of the others are held in major American museums: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (No. 2), The Museum of Modern Art, New York (No. 3), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (No. 4), The Chrysler Museum of Art, Virginia (No. 5), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (No. 6), National Gallery of Art, Washington (No. 7, No. 8), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington (No. 9), and Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, New York (No. 12). For the first time in art history, colour was distilled to mood itself. Commenced following the death of his mother in late 1948, these extraordinarily important paintings cemented Rothko’s place alongside Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock as an avant-garde trailblazer, and marked the New York School’s ascendance to the global stage.
Towering two metres high, No. 1 is among the most vivid and assured of the group, alight with a visual vitality that rivals Rothko’s mid-1950s period. The tall canvas is divided into three sectors that roughly correspond to the head, torso and legs of the human body, inviting a potently physical experience of the painting. At its middle is a maze of ochre strokes upon a bar of vaporous blue and teal, which glows against a coal-black border. This dramatic central zone floats above a larger arena of rich orange, painted with dry intensity upon a ground of pale peach whose pastel tenor flares through, dissolving harsh outlines to an uneven haze. At the head of the canvas, this same orange haloes a more solid field of fervent, lemon-bright yellow, firmly luminous against a flickering rim of sandy hues. With these lambent zones of dematerialised colour, Rothko had finally eliminated representation: freed from the confines of symbol and image, he had refined his paintings themselves to environments of pure, immersive experience. Capturing the culmination of two decades of effort, No. 1 heralds his arrival at the incandescent union of light and form that would define his life’s work.
No. 1 may ultimately have been forged by grief. Rothko’s mother, Kate Rothkowitz, had died in October 1948 after a long illness. He had lost his father when he was only ten. ‘In the year following the death of his mother,’ writes Rothko’s biographer James E. B. Breslin, ‘Rothko, now distilling his paintings down to two or three large and empty rectangles, began to paint his deprivation, as if that absence constituted a self he could recognise; and he painted his deprivation as full – of coloured light, sensual pleasure, fluctuating movement, charged feeling. … After mid- 1949, Rothko’s paintings confront, and then transcend, loss – by universalising it within an abstract painting language that can express “one’s direct sensations with violence and conviction” by freeing those feelings from their specific occasions in the external world’ (J. E. B. Breslin, Rothko: A Biography, Chicago and London, 1993, pp. 267-68). Rothko’s mother’s death represented a personal tragedy of mythic impact. The turbulent exchange between absence and presence, order and chaos that Rothko had grappled with for so long in his work was brought to catalytic clarity, and fused, as if by violent reaction, into the stunning resonance of his new paintings. Through works like No. 1 Rothko resolved his struggle with paint and began a new era in his life, armed with the most potent, luminous and lucid of means.
ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM REACHES ITS CRESCENDO, 1947-51
Rothko was notoriously exacting. He would engage in fierce battles with gallerists about the lighting and placement of his works. ‘Since I have a deep sense of responsibility for the life my pictures will lead out in the world,’ he wrote in 1952, ‘I will with gratitude accept any form of their exposition in which their life and meaning can be maintained, and avoid all occasions where I think that this cannot be done’ (M. Rothko, letter to L. Goodrich, associate director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 20 December 1952). Photographs of him sat with Betty Parsons herself in the main room of the January 1950 show, with No. 1 visible on a dark wall to the right, seem to attest that he was content with this particular installation. Parsons was a vital early supporter of Abstract Expressionism, having shown Ad Reinhardt since 1946, and Pollock since 1947. She gave Barnett Newman his first solo show in 1950, which Rothko helped to hang. Rothko would hold his own fifth show at the gallery in April 1951. As Anfam observes, ‘There was something apt about the fact that this was also his last show there, because it concluded what the first had begun – the trajectory of the work from its exploratory premises in the mid-1940s to a complete flowering by the end of 1950’ (D. Anfam, Mark Rothko – The Works on Canvas – Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 71).
Rothko’s ‘flowering’ came not only at the midpoint of the twentieth century, but also at the centre of a landmark period of Abstract Expressionist achievement. Pollock’s ‘drip period’ lasted from 1947 until his fame peaked in 1950; Robert Motherwell painted his first Elegy for the Spanish Republic in 1949; Willem de Kooning’s Woman I was begun in 1950, the series ending in 1953. In the wake of the global disaster of World War II, Rothko was part of a bold group of New York protagonists who broke free of the figurative, transcending tradition to paint new frontiers of human experience. Writing to Edward Alden Jewell, Art Editor of the New York Times, Rothko stated with his friend Adolph Gottlieb in 1943 that ‘No possible set of notes can explain our paintings. Their explanation must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker. The appreciation of art is a true marriage of minds. And in art, as in marriage, lack of consummation is ground for annulment’ (M. Rothko and A. Gottlieb, letter to E. A. Jewell, Art Editor, The New York Times, 7 June 1943). Indeed, to attempt a verbal exegesis of No. 1 is to miss the point. The ‘consummated experience,’ the dialogue between work and viewer that Rothko describes, is his painting’s entire and only raison d’être. The painting itself operates as unalloyed idea and encounter.
The 1943 statement, despite its relevance for Rothko’s work of 1949 and afterwards, dates from a Surrealist period in his output, far removed from the immersive paintings that would see him achieve his goal. No. 1 represents the finale of a long and difficult journey. Early inspirations for Rothko included Max Weber and Arshile Gorky, who taught him in the 1920s at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League. Throughout the 1930s he would paint melancholy figures and scenes inflected by an indebtedness to his Modernist tutors, and by his own involvement in left-wing politics. His early painting was also profoundly coloured by his encounters with Surrealism and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Until the late 1940s he would oscillate between competing styles, as if acting out the conflict of principles – the calm, ordered Apollonian urge versus the sensual and emotive Dionysiac – that Nietzsche saw at the source of creativity. Fascinated by the philosopher’s Birth of Tragedy (1872), Greek myth and drama and the automatist painting of artists like Joan Miró, Rothko began to strive for a ‘mythomorphic’ abstraction that would express an exhilarated tragic experience. In the febrile years during and following World War II, these grand, transhistorical human themes were afire with urgent relevance. 1945 marked the beginning of the post-Holocaust era, as well as the dawn of the Atomic Age with the United States’ detonation of the first nuclear weapon. Rothko and Gottlieb believed that new modes of expression were vital for comprehending the catastrophic times they lived in. It was Rothko’s mother’s death, it seems, that gave him the key.
COLOUR AS MOOD
Led by No. 1, it was the seminal Betty Parsons show that saw the climax of this dramatic transformation in Rothko’s work. Arrived at by a process of effacement and cancellation, Rothko’s sensitive, levitating planes of pigment unshackled his painting from object and allusion. He had eroded the traces of the material world from his paintings and reached a visual language that could truly and directly access feeling itself. In these works, form is colour, and colour is mood, creating an all-encompassing emotional experience.
Discussing Rothko’s 1949 paintings, Ken Johnson writes that ‘part of the excitement is seeing the moment when an artist dares to become fully himself. The other part is sheer beauty’ (K. Johnson, ‘Art in Review: Mark Rothko – “A Painter’s Progress: The Year 1949,”’ New York Times, 6 February 2004). This ‘sheer beauty’ arises majestically in No. 1. Rothko’s quest for universal truths through myth had led him to a new kind of splendour, an abstraction that could communicate the timeless realities of sensation without recourse to symbolism or representation. No longer was figuration adequate for connecting the viewer with human tragedy. David Anfam observes of Rothko’s transitional work that ‘details, objects, patternings, planes and quasi-figurative traces are recalled only to be shattered, effaced or dissolved … A painterly patchwork or “hide-and-seek” appearance comparable to the variegations of camouflage is often the result, as half-recognisable snippets of figuration are churned into the colouristic mazes of these canvases’ (D. Anfam, Mark Rothko – The Works on Canvas – Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 59). Approaching 1949, Rothko gradually purged his figures and motifs for abstract ‘multiforms’ as he explored different possibilities in paint; from these embers would spring his idiom’s purest manifestation as powerful, interacting chromatic fields.
No. 1 sustains a magisterial tension between serenity and fierce, pent-up energy. As Anfam writes, in the 1950 show’s arrangement ‘there was both continuity and contrast as well as a richer counterpoint than any orchestrated before. Overall, the polarities might be summed up by references to the names “Bonnard” and “Mondrian” – tutelary painters who can be taken to personify the extremes inherent in Rothko’s sensibility in the late 1940s. Representative of the former’s legacy are the yellow, cinnamon, gold, cerulean blue, white and black of No. 1 (cat. no. 408) – the quintessential palette of the late Bonnard. Mondrian’s severity – toward which Rothko had a love/hate attitude – guides the simpler, flatter planes of No. 2 (cat. no. 409)’ (D. Anfam, Mark Rothko – The Works on Canvas – Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 62). In its soft-edged yet disciplined array of colour and form, No. 1 arguably brings together Bonnard’s Impressionist light and Mondrian’s geometric intelligence into conversation within a single canvas, embodying the clash between sensuousness and restraint that had fired Rothko’s journey towards creative breakthrough. The Betty Parsons show saw Rothko eclipse even the achievements of the School of Paris, taking painting into uncharted new realms of emotive potential.
‘TRAGEDY, ECSTASY, DOOM’
Cataclysm can be sensed in No. 1, with its fiery contrasts of simmering hue and turbulent hints of dissolution. The rapture of Rothko’s painting, however – his unfolding captivation with the medium of colour itself – outshines any apocalyptic timbre. Rothko has applied thin strata of paint with supreme subtlety, sinking countless tones into the fibres of the canvas and building them up carefully to sing against one another in radiant new ways.
Significantly, it was the landscape painter Milton Avery, introduced to him by Gottlieb in 1930, who had first convinced Rothko that life as a professional artist was possible. The rich fields of saturated colour in Avery’s landscapes – which were also a huge inspiration to Barnett Newman – attained an astonishing chromatic sublimity that Rothko would later transcend. Insistently figurative, Avery never gained the recognition in his lifetime that Rothko felt he deserved. Speaking at Avery’s memorial service in 1965, Rothko unknowingly foreshadowed the very phrase that would later be used to describe his own 1949 paintings. ‘Avery is first a great poet. His is the poetry of sheer loveliness, of sheer beauty’ (M. Rothko, Memorial address delivered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, 7 January 1965, quoted in Milton Avery, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1982, p. 181).
The words Rothko used in relation to his own work were often aggressive, charged with the anger of an artist who felt misunderstood by many of his viewers. ‘To those who are friendly to my pictures on the basis of their serenity,’ he wrote in 1955, ‘… I would like to say that they have found endurable for human life the extreme violence that pervades every inch of their surface’ (M. Rothko, unpublished essay draft, 1955, James E. B. Breslin Research Archive, 1940-1993, Getty Research Institute). Certainly, No. 1 can be understood as born of violence. Behind its brilliance glows the pain of Rothko losing his mother; the raw, echoing horror of the postwar years; his stormy relationship with himself, his work, his own drives and desires; and, as Rothko would have it, a vision of the eternal, cyclical tragedy of human existence that resounds across the ages. The beauty of No. 1 lies not only its tragic splendour, however, but also in its crystalline realisation of a new visual language. In paint, Rothko had finally found a radiant and absolute way of expressing what he called ‘basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on’ (M. Rothko, quoted in S. Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York 1957, p. 93). No. 1 is a dawning of beauty incarnate in truth, in purity, in communication. As Rothko wrote in 1949, ‘The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer … To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood’ (M. Rothko, ‘Statement on his attitude in Painting,’ The Tiger’s Eye, No. 9, 15 October 1949, p. 114).