Presciently envisioning the trajectory of his work, Mark Rothko stated in 1949, "The progression of the painter's work will be towards clarity, toward the elimination of all obstacles" (Mark Rothko, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Zurich, Zurich, 1971, p. 58). By the late 1960s, the artist had reduced his art to a minimum of form and color. Featuring two solid, impenetrable planes of opaque black bisected by an attenuated painterly chord of wine that recurs faintly along the painting's edges, Black, Black on Wine is part of a series of the artist's late black paintings and embodies his clarity of vision.
Rothko suffered an aneurysm of the aorta in May 1968, and was advised against working on large scale canvases. As a result, he turned almost exclusively to the less strenuous creation of paintings on paper. Despite his setback, he worked almost everyday, painting as many as fifteen pictures on a productive day. In these works, the artist abandoned oil paint in favor of water-based acrylic, which greatly accommodated his speed and decisiveness. Rothko had made works on paper in his early Surrealist phase; however, returning to the medium towards the last two years of his life he expanded his scale thereby blurring the distinctions between "drawing" and "painting" in the process.
Robert Goldwater, the first scholar to write about Rothko's black paintings and forever set the tone to their understanding, connected these works to the mounting tragedies in the artist's life that led to his eventual suicide in 1970. He stated, "In their somber colors, or lack of color, in their starkness and quiet, above all in a remoteness of a kind never evident in any of his previous work, they seem already to contain the mood that led to their tragic end" (B. Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York, 1984, p. 57.)
However, reading these works from a purely psychological viewpoint does not do justice to their complexity. Rothko executed dark paintings during happier times in the mid-1960s and did not assign particular emotions to colors. Rather, he intended to invoke the basic human emotions - "tragedy, ecstasy, doom" - throughout his oeuvre, even in his "joyous" brightly colored paintings.
Indeed, the black paintings on paper seem to evolve from his arguably greatest legacy, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, over which he labored for three years from 1964-67, prior to the onset of his personal debacles. Comprising large, dark, somber triptychs and single panels of black and violet washes, these mural-scale works seem to have infiltrated Rothko's creative process long after their completion.
Compared to Rothko's mature style of floating stacks of amorphous, evanescent forms that forever advance and recede in ambiguous space, the black rectangles in the present work are densely opaque and embody a relatively static, heavy and planar presence. Not conceived as two distinctly separate forms from the outset, the work comprises an intense, uniform field of black separated by a feathery, wavering tremor of burgundy. The substantial halo-like borders that surrounded the forms of his earlier works and provided the "ground" for his earlier works (but nonetheless gave rise to fluctuating figure-ground tensions) fade to a tapering line of the same shade of burgundy around the border. The illusionism of the earlier works gives rise to pure physicality of surface and pigment.
The iconic nature and object-like presence of Black, Black on Wine, along with its uncompromising hue, almost certainly owes a debt to the influence of Ad Reinhardt's black paintings of the 1960s, which incidentally also provided a strong impetus to the Minimalists. Rothko asserted, "The difference between me and Reinhardt is that he is a mystic. By that I mean that his paintings are immaterial. Mine are here, materially. The surfaces, the work of the brush and so on" (Breslin, Ibid., p. 505). While approaching the singular clarity of form that characterized the 1960s, Rothko never abandoned the hand-made look of his creations. Black, Black on Wine is built up of multiple layers of black paint. The surface layer evinces the horizontal sweep and faint tremor of the artist's hand, made all the more poignant because of his physical handicap. The work's easel scale renders it an intimate presence.
Black, Black on Wine is a stoic gem from an exceptional artist, who despite the tribulations of his own life, determinedly sought solace in the universal communicability of his art.