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In Mark Rothko’s Untitled, three vibrant rectangular forms in shades of red, orange and white—some of the artist’s most significant and frequently recurring colors—float on a nude field. With blurred and bleeding edges, these forms of seemingly raw, uncontainable energy are set tenuously against the soft ground, where they move forward and recede, over and over again, as they jockey for position against one another and create a powerful dynamic of energy and movement. The painting shows gestural, confident and quick brushstrokes on the paper, hinting at the vigor and passion that the artist poured into his practice. Non-figurative and devoid of anything but fields of pure color, Untitled is emblematic of Rothko’s investigations into how to convey spiritual messages with his paintings. Invoking the viewer’s powers of perception and sensation, the work’s imposing presence is greater than the confines of the canvas, and it resonates on a higher plane than the physical.
Painted in 1968, Mark Rothko’s Untitled represents a pivotal moment in the artist’s career, when he threw himself into exploring the artistic possibilities of painting on paper. For much of that year, Rothko was in poor health and unable to paint anything greater than 40 inches in height. Undaunted, he began a feverish period of painting on sheets of paper—his assistant during this time noted that when he showed up to Rothko’s studio each morning, Rothko was already there, painting—that conveyed all of their meaning through color, gesture and form, representing the culmination of the artist’s signature strategies. Paintings from the later period of Rothko’s career are typically noted for their dark and somber colors, but in fact the artist also simultaneously created many paintings featuring the brighter palette of his earlier works. Untitled is paradigmatic of this latter group, and echoes the colors Rothko favored in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. In the present work, the fiery, vivacious orange of the bottom field provides a scintillating contrast to the juicy crimson rectangle above, and both show the signs of rapid, forceful brushstrokes applied in a frenzy of lyrical loops and strokes. These two fields are separated by an energizing shock of white in the center, the tension of which pushes the orange and red forms outward, creating a feeling of expansion and even explosiveness from within. The fields of color are flat and light reflects from the paper support, endowing the work with a refined luminosity and a steady glow.
Rooted in his own strongly psychological readings and in the deep sense of redemption that he and his generation wanted to give to the world in the aftermath of World War II, 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. Aiming to establish a pure and direct art that “eliminated all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer,” he often described the idea that he wanted his paintings to embody as a “single tragic idea” that could communicate a deeply existential sense of what it was to be human and alive in the face of the void. While initially inspired by postwar trauma, Rothko’s desire continued to manifest itself in his later works such as Untitled, motivated by both the political and social turmoil of the 1960s and the growing popularity of such antithetical movements as Pop and Minimalism, which rejected the more spiritual intentions of the Abstract Expressionists.
Rothko was, in this respect, 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). Related to this belief, all of the distinguishing elements of Rothko’s art—his abandoning of the object or figure, his magnification of scale, his “heroifying” of color and his attempts to completely immerse the viewer within an entire field of color—have their origins in the Northern Romantic tradition in art and the archetypal concept of the sublime as a direct and ultimately transcendent correspondence between color, sound, sensation, feeling and memory. In fact, his work has often drawn parallels with the grand Romantic landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich, Emil Nolde and J.M.W. Turner, a comparison supported by Rothko’s use of emotionally charged colors and horizontal registers. During the 1960s, Rothko was also profoundly influenced by man’s exploration of the moon, and the exciting voyages into the unknown that were represented by this otherworldly landscape.
Underpinning Rothko’s Romantic Sehnsucht, or longing, for the sublime was an earthy counterbalance in the form of a profound sense of the innate violence and tragedy of existence, mirrored in Untitled’s subtle yet tense equilibrium. This other, more violent fundamental of life was personified for Rothko by the “Dionysian,” or a “bulging” wild, elemental, volatile and pent-up force or aggression. This fundamental and even epic sense of what Rothko once referred to as the “tragedy, ecstasy, doom” of human existence derived from a combination of the traumatic era through which the artist lived, his own cynical personality and outlook and his close personal identification with and internalizing of the writings of Nietzsche. 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 and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, 1955, quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 357-358).
This irreconcilable tension at the lines between sublime and earthly and between creative and destructive lies at the heart of Rothko’s paintings, and as such, borders, interstices and gaps are afforded particular attention in his art. As charged spaces, they are both tortured and triumphant in their rendering, and capture the great intensity that Rothko hoped to convey to his audience. In Untitled, this is seen not only in the visible ground between the veils of red, orange and white forms, but on the sides of the canvas, which Rothko painted a deep red in bold strokes that at times spill over onto the front of the painting. Untitled thus falls squarely in line with Rothko’s overarching spiritual aims, and boasts an emotive play of purely abstract color and form that both resonates in and is unconsciously understood by the human psyche. As Rothko stated, “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 A. Gottlieb, Art in New York, WNYC, October 13, 1943, published in Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, New York, 1981, p. 170). Painted in the final years of his life, Untitled is an exceptional example of Rothko’s continuing efforts to depict the miraculous, the universal, and certainly, the eternal.