Rothko's mature works, like the present painting, reveal dazzling surfaces which can barely contain their inner dynamism and luminosity, qualities which the artist conveyed through an intensive process of thin layers and light strokes.
The mastery with which Rothko orchestrates these canvases, with such a superb sublimity and associative value, has led many art historians to describe his paintings almost as musical interludes. As Irving Sandler has written about the artist's technique: "Rothko built up his rectangular containers of color from lightly brushed, stained and blotted touches which culminate in a chromatic crescendo. These resonant nuances also function as subtle lights and darks which create atmosphere, a tinted aura that emanates from within the painting and suffuses the entire surface" (I. Sandler, "Mark Rothko," in Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, exh. cat., New York, 1996, p. 12).
Rothko found significant inspiration for his strident color combinations and forcefully flattened surfaces in Matisse's most radical paintings. The artist has acknowledged his debt to Matisse's Red Studio, in particular, which he studied intensely after the Museum of Modern Art acquired the painting in 1949. As Robert Rosenblum has noted, this was "the very year in which Rothko achieved the full-scaled conviction of what was to become his signature format: tiered clouds of color magnetized before the symmetrical pull of horizontal and vertical axes." (R. Rosenblum, "Notes on Rothko and Traditions," in ibid., p. 22). John Gage has recorded, Rothko's reaction to Matisse's painting: "When you looked at it, he said, 'you became that color, you became totally saturated with it'; it was like music." (J. Gage, "Rothko: Color as Subject," in Mark Rothko, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 261).
The predominant colors in the present painting certainly recall the red ground of Matisse's painting. By 1957, however, Rothko had moved well beyond this example. For Rothko, the goal was not harmony, but more often discord. His deliberately striking, and sometimes cacophonous, color combinations, often produce unusual juxtapositions. The present composition appears to flicker. The edges of the black and red rectangles are especially alive with variation as they bleed subtly into the terracotta ground, registering Rothko's mastery of technique in the lightness of his strokes.
In many ways, works like the present painting are pivotal, marking the point at which Rothko began greater experimentation with more somber colors, and seemingly more brooding compositions, moving toward atmospheres of tragedy that would persist, with some exceptions, until the end of his career. In the present painting, the vibrancy which characterizes Rothko's works of the early 1950s has not yet diminished, but its palette anticipates his later dark paintings which found their full expression in his works installed in the Rothko Chapel in Houston. As the artist reflected in 1960: "I can only say that the dark pictures began in 1957 and have persisted almost compulsively to this day" (Quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago and London, 1993, p. 328).
Addressing the artist's extraordinarily evocative color, Robert Goldwater has asserted: "The enjoyment of color for its own sake, the heightened realization of its purely sensuous dimension, is not the purpose of his painting. If Matisse was one point of departure . . . Rothko has since moved far in an opposite direction. Yet over the years he has handled his color so that one must pay ever closer attention to it, examine the unexpectedly joined hues, the slight, and continually slighter, modulations within the large area of any single surface, and the softness and the sequence of the colored shapes. Thus these pictures compel careful scrutiny of their physical existence . . . all the while suggesting that these details are means, not ends. (R. Goldwater, "Reflections on the Rothko Exhibition," in Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, p. 32).
(fig. 1) Rothko, New York, circa 1952. Photograph by Kay Bell Reynal.
(fig. 2) Interior view of the Rothko Chapel, Houston, 1974.