Hovering before the viewer in vast, absorbing fields of colors, Untitled (Dark over Light) derives from Rothko's classic period. Created shortly after he arrived at his mature format in 1950, this exceptional work captures the artist's spare but emotive vocabulary of luminous rectangles vertically stacked and set afloat within a radiantly hued ground. Displaying the remarkable economy that established Rothko's style during this time, Untitled (Dark over Light) embodies the extraordinary depth of feeling that his alchemical manipulations of color, form and scale engendered; towering at over seven feet with looming forms of black pitched against white, this painting taps into the binaries of Dionysian and Apollonian forces at the heart of all existence.
Rothko intended paintings such as Untitled (Dark over Light) to plumb the depths of the psyche and indeed, his earliest art was motivated by a search for a vocabulary and to express what he 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 forties, channeling these ancient characters and narratives into the Surrealist works that followed. Plumbing elements of Greco-Roman art with increasing infusions of Breton-like automatic écriture, the signs, symbols and ethereal hazes of these 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 an abstract bent in 1946. 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 Untitled (Dark over Light). 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" (M. Rothko, quoted in Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 36). Read in relation to Untitled (Dark over Light), this statement seems perfectly pitched for the classic work that would ensue in Rothko's oeuvre.
Rothko's gradual distillation of form -- his stripping of superfluous elements and reduction to a few floating rectangles -- was based on his desire for a pure and direct art that "eliminated of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer" (M. Rothko, quoted in Ibid., 65). Honing his format with the physical power of scale and the emotive power of color, he achieved the kind of unobstructed communion that pitched the individual against the universal forces of the human collective, and indeed, created works that were nothing less than sublime manifestations. "There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing," he had said in 1943, and in the dominant Greenbergian mode of the fifties, maintained that he was interested in communicating deeper human truths. "I am not an abstractionist," he said in 1956, "I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else. I'm only interested in expressing basic human emotions -- tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on -- and the fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions" (M. Rothko, quoted in Ibid. pp. 119-120). Indeed, the enveloping, spatially ambiguous planes of color in Untitled (Dark over Light) -- its chthonic zone of black, ethereal shimmer of white, and corporeal ground of red -- is more a spiritual coup than a formal one; despite its masterful orchestration of color harmonies and relationships on monumental scale, its power derives from its undeniable evocation of universal forces. Channeling an almost unbearable tension through its constrained range of hues and radically reduced means, Untitled (Dark over Light) provokes the most elemental feelings and profoundest reflections on existence, and indeed, seems to harbor life's secret energies and ineffable truths within its expansive and absorbing purview.
Rothko accomplished what he intended to be encounters with mortality in the greatest of his works, including Untitled (Dark over Light). Using upright dimensions that were pitched towards the human, but heightening scale to dramatic proportions, he created physically and mentally enveloping experiences in works such as the present painting. Discussing this strategy, Rothko stated: "I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them however 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. However when you paint the larger picture, you are in it" (M. Rothko, quoted in Mark Rothko 1903-1970, exh. cat., London, 1987, p. 85). As vast walls of color, almost dizzying in their recommended close-up perception (of 18 inches away from the canvas -- the same distance at which he painted them) these works invade and loom, demanding to be contended with. Without question, Untitled (Dark over Light) is an immersion in the greatest mysteries of the soul.