"I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on -and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted by my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!" (Mark Rothko quoted in S. Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York, 1957, pp. 93-94).
A romantic at heart, Rothko famously maintained that his paintings were not pictures of an experience, they were an experience. "Free of the familiar," he maintained, "transcendental experiences become possible" and, through such an experience, a work of art could, he believed, become "miraculous a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need." (M. Rothko, "The Romantics were Prompted") "What is wonderful about Mark," his friend Dore Ashton wrote in 1964, "is that he aspires, and is still capable of believing that his work can have some purpose - spiritual if you like - that is not sullied by the world."
Brown and Blacks in Reds is an imposing and deeply resonant work from the height of Rothko's maturity that poignantly reflects these beliefs. Painted during the crucial year of 1957 (and later mistakenly attributed to 1958 by the Sidney Janis Gallery when it was exhibited there that same year) it is a work that, with its three bold and contrasting rectangles of shimmering color stands as a classic example of Rothko's mature style. An extremely painterly work, it is also one that has had the ambiguous honour of being the only painting by the artist to adorn the interior of the famous Seagram building in Manhattan. Bought from Sidney Janis in 1958 by Phyllis Lambert, an architect and a member of the Bronfman family (the majority owners of Joseph E. Seagram and Sons), Brown and Blacks in Reds was the first work by Rothko to be bought for their renowned art collection. Since then it has formed the centrepiece of this remarkable collection hanging in the executive reception area on the fifth floor of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson's celebrated masterpiece of modern architecture.
When Phyllis Lambert bought Brown and Blacks in Reds she was seeking to assemble a collection of the finest contemporary art in the world to adorn what many people were saying was the most beautiful building in the world. It was her intention that the Seagram building should come to be regarded as a cultural institution with its collections, exhibitions, and its program of public art reflecting what she has described as the company's "sense of responsibility to the public in New York and the rest of the world." Lambert had known Rothko's work since 1954 and, thrilled with her purchase of Brown and Blacks in Reds, she conceived of a major commission for the artist. In the early part of 1958, along with Philip Johnson, who had recently been told by Alfred Barr that Rothko was "the greatest living painter", Lambert commissioned Rothko to produce a series of paintings for the smaller of two planned dining rooms at the Four Seasons Restaurant on the ground floor of the Seagram building.
The story of the resulting series of "Seagram" murals which Rothko painted for this space--only to later withdraw from the commission because of ideological doubts he had about the morality of their hanging in such luxurious surroundings--is now the stuff of legend. Withdrawing from the commission and returning the money, the murals were eventually dispersed in select groups to the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Japan, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and to the specially-designed "Rothko Room" at the Tate Gallery in London. As a result of this parting of the ways Brown and Blacks in Reds remained the only Rothko in the Seagram building and a poignant reminder of this great but never completed project.
With its warm pinks and reds and its cold brown and feathery black rectangles vying with one another in a play of radiant and earthy form, the colors of this warm and deeply spiritual painting in some ways anticipate the rich maroons and deep chthonic tones of the Seagram murals. The prevailing atmosphere of Brown and Blacks in Reds is however very different from the dark and heavy mood of the later murals which Rothko intended be so strong as to put the Four Seasons diners off their food. In contrast to these dark and heavy paintings which, from 1958 onwards, would increasingly dominate Rothko's art, the warm color, radiant light and shimmering forms of Brown and Blacks in Reds echoes Rothko's earlier paintings of the 1950s which had, among other things, reflected the influence of Bonnard. Most notable in this painting is the way in which Rothko maintains a dynamic and febrile balance between the strong colors and dark forms with the lightest of painterly touches. The intensely painterly surface of Brown and Blacks in Reds is of paramount importance in the attainment and the maintaining this balance. Intensely worked with a light feathery touch and using a broad brush, Rothko has seemingly "molded" the painted forms into almost three-dimensional blocks of color that, while dense and seemingly impermeable, are never solid, but, like dark rolling clouds on the horizon, constantly shifting both their form and their appearance.
"My current pictures" Rothko had claimed in a lecture he gave at the Pratt Institute in New York in 1958, "are involved with the scale of human feeling, the human drama, as much of it as I can express." (cited in Mark Rothko ex. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 1998, p. 346.) In Brown and Blacks in Reds this "human drama" is expressed through the heavy contrast of the light and dark rectangles. Generating two horizon-like strips that seem to, like the red sky of a hot summer night to threaten thunder, the intersecting of the three horizontal rectangles of colour instills the viewer with a sense of both transcendent beauty and a sense of foreboding. A testament to Rothko's painterly skill, Brown and Black in Reds is, like many of Rothko's works, infused with a pervasive sense of longing for transcendence. What is rarer, however, is that, through the carefully brushed and muted pink of the central rectangle a lightness and a sense of mystery is generated that breathes hope into what would otherwise be a sombre painting. In this way Rothko has managed through the use of simple form and color to instill a sense of both hope and futility, and to communicate these twin parameters of the human heart by "merging" them into what he called, one "single tragic idea."
Fifth floor of the Seagram building, Brown and Blacks in Reds in the center