The following work is being considered for inclusion in the forthcoming Mark Rothko Online Resource and Catalogue Raisonné of Works on Paper, compiled by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Mark Rothko began a sustained period of activity in which he focused increasingly on painting works on paper, beginning a period of artistic self-discovery that would endure for the rest of his life. This body of work, of which Untitled from 1968 is a distinguished example, would reveal both the astonishing expressive possibilities of the medium, and also of the artist himself. Reverting back to materials which he used heavily at the very beginning of his career, Rothko unleashed a renewed creative force, one which enabled him to reprise his role as one of the greatest artists of his generation. Exhibited in the major retrospective of the artist’s work organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1998 (and which later travelled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris), Untitled displays the mysterious and enigmatic nature of Rothko’s art in sublime fashion. Its rich tones and brushwork displays the confidence of an artist who had spent his whole career pursuing a new course for the nature of painting.
In Untitled, two blocks of color appear to float across Rothko’s painterly surface. The larger of these is comprised of a multitude of thin washes of color applied in a flurry of brushstrokes. These numerous layers, combined with the exacting method of the execution, results in an atmospheric cloud where miasmic tones of green, fringed with teal seemingly effervesce up towards the surface creating a sense of tumultuous movement and depth. Hovering below this passage of color is a striking area comprised of warm reds and ochers. The two areas come close to touching but never quite merge together creating a dramatic sense of ‘push-pull’ in which both areas seem to be in a constant tussle for supremacy.
This surface was typical of Rothko’s work from this period. Although his palette may have darkened somewhat since the vibrant pinks and yellows of the 1950s, this new, deeper palette offered Rothko a remarkable opportunity to further explore the complexities to which his surfaces could go. As curator Oliver Wick states, “The dark, subdued palette that dominated his canvases of the period was found in the majority of these works on paper as well. Blackish-blue over deep violet, dark blues and greens dominated and emphasized the careful proportions of the interior surfaces hovering over an occasionally luminous, advancing ground. Alternating chalky opacity and glossy effects enlivened the visual play of the otherwise plain gradations in these works, that challenge the viewer to extended contemplation” (O. Wick, “Seeing Blind and Drawing as Remembrance Commemorated,” Mark Rothko, Works on Paper 1930-1969, exh. cat, Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 2005, p. 29).
Painted in 1968, Untitled is a rare painting from the period in which Rothko used oil paints as opposed to acrylic paints which were becoming an important medium for the artist. In April of that year, following his aortic aneurysm, he began to increasingly work with acrylics, attracted by their fast-drying qualities. But he never lost sight of the medium of oil paint with which he made his name. In addition to working with new types of paint, he also returned to working almost exclusively with paper as his chosen support. He had worked with paper before, primarily in the 1940s, and again in 1958 when he made a series of small-scale paper versions of some of his larger oil on canvas works. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that he worked almost exclusively on paper, resulting in paintings that scholar Diane Waldman called “among the most exquisite work he had done” (D. Waldman, “Mark Rothko: The Farther Shore of Art,” in D. Waldman (ed.), Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 68). Under doctors’ orders he was restricted to working a scale no larger than 40inches by 40inches and had an assistant roll out lengths of paper on the floor. When Rothko decided on the size he wanted, the assistant would then cut a dozen or so sheets to size and tack them on the wall, which Rothko would then work on one by one.
By choosing again to focus on painting on a paper surface, Rothko was, in many ways, returning to his painterly roots, as Wick argues “The act of painting on paper became a reversion to Rothko’s own…beginnings…, an act of retrospective memory… that by the summers in Provincetown from 1957-61 had already become a thing of the past” (O. Wick, op. cit.). Many of his most significant early works were done on paper, which allowed Rothko the freedom to innovate and develop his artistic vocabulary. These early works, such his painting Tiresias (which featured the legend of the blind soothsayer of Thebes), spoke to Rothko’s wish for people to approach his paintings having abandoned all conventional ideas about how to read the visual world. With Rothko’s work, Wick proposes, “The viewer, metaphorically blind, is thrown back upon the sheer act of perception, upon his own his own vision. Neither too much anecdotal content nor previous knowledge should influence his origination in front of the image. Confronted with painterly and narrative denial, the viewer would be isolated with his own perception and gain insight into its workings” (O. Wick, ibid., p. 7).
With its cloud-like passage of emotive color and its gentle feathered edges of paint, this painting captures a moment of apparition or revelation. Balanced subtly by their position on the surface, the two clouds of color are anchored within the space of the picture in a way that enhances its strange and almost mystical radiance. Establishing a formal and tonal dialogue at the heart of the work, this painting not only displays the full sophistication and subtlety of Rothko’s brushwork, but also the extraordinarily emotive and complex power of color.