Formerly in the collection of the sculptor Herbert Ferber, one of Rothko's closest friends and supporters, Untitled No. 15 is an important painting from the highpoint of Rothko's career. Painted in the climatic year of 1958 - a time when Rothko had just embarked on the painting of his so-called 'dark' paintings and on his first series of murals for the Seagram building - No. 15 is a bold work that is characterised by an imposing grandeur typical of this mature period. Consisting of three shimmering blocks of radiant color painted over a deep violet-pink ground, the painting is packed with a powerful sense of warm energy resonating from its heavy and opaque colored rectangles. Contrasting a deep ultramarine with a rich orange-red, this almost violent clash of opposites is separated by a thin strip of grey/blue that seems to labor under the strain of the opposition of its two imposing neighbors.
Rothko's colored rectangles take on the role of dynamic personalities whose energy transcends the confining restrictions of the minimal enclosed grid-like context of the structure of his painting. Certainly Rothko's view towards his work and the role that color played within it was one that encouraged his forms to enact epic pictorial "dramas". These dramas he hoped would move the viewer emotionally and instantaneously to a deep and personal appreciation of what he felt to be the essential tragedy of the human condition.
Based on his love of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Rothko sought in his work to combine Nietzsche's identification of the two opposing forces in the universe, the ordering, rational, formalizing, Apollonian force and the wild, demonic, dark Dionysian drive, into a temporary, dynamic and ecstatic state of balance or harmony. In this way Rothko hoped his work would express what he called "a single tragic idea" with " the greatest intensity of the tragic irreconcilability of the basic violence which lies at the bottom of human existence and the daily life which must deal with it." (Mark Rothko: a draft of a proposed lecture on the relationship between his work and Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, 1955 cited in Ibid, pp. 357-358).
It was with the aim of establishing a state of harmonious détente between two central organizing principles of existence that Rothko painted, hoping to generate within the reductive format of his abstract forms a profound expression of these dual elements compacted into a single unity. Conflicting the romanticism and heightened emotionalism of the rich and expansive horizon-like landscape vistas of his color-drenched rectangles with a strict rational vertical grid-like progression of form compressed onto a rectangular canvas, the dynamism of confrontation is all important in Rothko's work. Such dynamism is often defined and characterized by the nature of the shimmering edges of his colored forms and the 'personality' that they give to the work as a whole. "In a way my paintings are very exact," Rothko explained in 1958, " but in that exactitude there is a shimmer, a play in weighing the edges to introduce a less rigorous, play element. The tragic notion of the image is always present in my mind when I paint and I know when it is achieved, but I couldn't point it out - show where it is illustrated. There are no skull and bones. I am an abstract painter." (Mark Rothko lecture given at the Pratt Institute, New York, 1958, op. cit, p. 395).
The strong formal contrasts in the three shimmering rectangles of No. 15 are a dramatic illustration of how Rothko's dynamic use of color and counterpoint is manipulated so as to convey a heavy and imposing emotional message. It is a message that through the simplest and most direct of means--the scale and abstract color of the work--strikes the viewer on a physical, emotive and sensory level long before his/her mind is engaged. "I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else," Rothko once famously told a critic, "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., Conversations with Artists, New York, 1957, pp. 93-4).
Photograph of Rothko, c. 1961
Rothko carrying his canvas at his studio Photograph by Hans Namuth c 1991 Hans Namuth Estate, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona