The early 1950s was one of the most productive and active periods in Rothko's career, marked by artistic breakthroughs and professional achievements. By 1949, he had formulated the iconic structure for his paintings. Rothko's earlier paintings, the Multiforms, were populated by irregular nebulous shapes, which eventually gave way to a more simplified composition of rectangular shapes floating on monochromatic canvas. The subtlety and monumental scale of these new paintings gave them a quiet force and compelling presence. At the same time, Rothko was rapidly gaining critical recognition and acclaim from his two one-man exhibitions at Betty Parsons Gallery and inclusion most notably in the seminal exhibition Fifteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art and in several Whitney Annual exhibitions, among others.
Blue Over Red belongs to this group of paintings from the early 1950s that embody this confidence and direction. The grouping are characterized by Rothko's use of pure brilliant colors such as red, blue, orange, yellow and green--a dramatic departure from the earthy and sepia tones of the 1940s works. The colors harmonize beautifully on the canvas, the chromatic relationships set off almost imperceptible vibrations that activate the entire surface. The rectangular shapes, which vary in size, placement and depth of color, dispense with the traditional notions of the drawn line, modeling and perspective in painting. They call for the flattening effect of the picture. Rothko had called for painting's independence from the external world and thought of his paintings as "organisms" that breathed life. Rothko's essay, "The Romantics Were Prompted," published in the winter 1947-1948 includes a prescient observation about his mature work: "They are unique elements in a unique situation. They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion. They move with an internal freedom, and without need to conform with or to violate what is probable in the familiar world. They have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms" (M. Rothko, "The Romantics Were Prompted," possibilities 1, winter 1947/48, p. 84). For Rothko, painting necessitated a decisive break from concrete reality. Only from this liberation could his paintings be infused with their own sense of vitality and animated spirit.
Blue Over Red radiates an outward glow, as opposed to his later, darker paintings which tend to absorb or retain light. Against a monochromatic field of orange--carefully modulated with ochre and yellow--rectanglar areas of blue, orange, and red seem to hover over the surface. "In the 1953 Blue Over Red not only is the leftward lateral lemon strip unique but it is also uniquely glossy and its reflective grain is mimicked in the light weave of the canvas that shows through the extreme thinness above. The latter also has an asymmetrical gold surround that is wider on the left, as though it were a shadow--except of course for its brightness--cast by the dark bar from an external rightward light source. The blue leaps out in inverse proportion to how the orange rectangles as top and bottom are instead scarcely distinguishable from the orange ground" (C. Mancusi-Ungaro, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas Catalogue Raisonne, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 85). The painting achieves a balance with cool and warm tones through the artist's manipulation of the scale and corresponding proportions of the color passages. Rothko's sense of touch allows for the painting to appear as if paint had been breathed upon. The almost imperceptible brushstrokes appear light and misty, which nevertheless had been witnessed by Dan Rice, one of his former assistants, as being graphic and lively in their application, as if Rothko was drawing. The edges of the shapes appear softened and blurred by the feathery strokes of thinned washes of paint or dried pigment. The glow comes from the translucency of the brushwork; there is depth and transparency through the colors, similar to the effect of stained glass.
When discussing Rothko and color, Matisse was an important inspiration for the artist. In 1952, Rothko moved to a new studio on 103 W. 53rd street, just down from the Museum of Modern Art. There he would study the Matisses in their collection, in particular The Red Studio, 1911. Matisse's radically reductive painting depicts the contents of his studio in a field of brilliant red. By eradicating perspective, foreground versus background, interior versus exterior, Matisse painted a flat picture using luminous color saturated to the point of opaqueness. The concept of color as structure was illuminating to Rothko who wanted to collapse the binaries that divided the picture plane, and more importantly to remove any non-essential communicators of emotion in his painting.
Rothko in 1953 stated to Alfred Jensen: "You have noticed two characteristics exist in my paintings; either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say" (Breslin, p. 301). This pulsating effect Rothko spoke of is plainly evident in Blue Over Red. There is tension between the expansive monochrome of the background and the discrete rectangular fields that seek to contain the amorphousness. For Rothko, this tension is dramatic weight; moreover, he was able to convey an astonishing range of expressions in his abstractions.
The elemental nature of Rothko's abstractions lends itself to multiple interpretations. Because of their monumental scale, the critics have likened his paintings to mural or wall paintings. Rothko, during his haunts through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, often studied the Pompeiian murals of Boscoreale. The saturation of the colors gives the panels a veritable glow. It would have appealed to him to incorporate and sustain the authentic "aura" of ancient art. However, Rothko disliked the decorative aspect of murals and described his paintings as "intimate and intense" and being labeled decorative would be a "distortion of their meaning" which he stated in a letter to Katherine Kuh in 1954. Rothko also referred to his paintings as "facades," that emphasize their flatness and architectonic frontality. David Anfam likens Rothko's painting to theater, to dramas that unfold for their audience: "One of Rothko's first loves was the theatre and his mature format hints, like a proscenium, that events are to happen. Symmetrical, regular and open, it also entrances. So does a technique, which employs the devices of illusionist rendering: finely graduated values, scumbles and a palette either warm or saturated enough to emanate sensuality. Yet the presentation is deceptive since the fields, being effaced, are enigmas" (D. Anfam, Abstract Expressionism, London, 1996, pp. 154-155). It is a fitting description as Rothko once referred to his paintings as dramas and the shapes within them are the actors. They scintillate and activate the paint surface with their ethereal, mysterious glow.