In 1950, at the age of 28, Mark Rothko found a motif and method of painting which he was to use until his suicide in 1970. It was, in Harold Rosenberg's words, "the conclusive insigne of a disembodied absolute. This icon consisted of the rectangle of the canvas as a one-color ground visible along the edge of--and occasionally through an opening between--three or four horizontal blocks of color with brushed surfaces and furry borders. For the next twenty years, Rothko's work consisted of reanimating this pattern with the substance of his emotional life" (H. Rosenberg, "The Definition of Art," in D. and C. Shapiro, Abstract Expressionism, A Critical Record, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990, p. 413). He used thinned oil paints, reminiscent of the watercolor medium with which he was so adept, applying them in many layers to create glowing, evanescent colors (figs 1 and 2). The present painting has a sensuous, natural quality that is replaced by a brooding melancholia in the later dark works, a joyful vitality that it has not lost in nearly fifty years since its execution.
Rothko described the use of simple flat shapes as bearing a kinship with primitive art and myths, often retold through Jungian psychology: "We seek the primeval and atavistic roots of the idea rather than their graceful classical version; more modern than the myths themselves because we must redescribe their implications through our own experience" (in a radio broadcast in October 1943, quoted in D. Waldman, Mark Rothko, A Retrospective, New York, 1978, p. 270). He constantly sought the dramatic and violent in his work; and through the format of usually upright human-scaled canvases which were big enough to envelop the viewer, he used the simplest of forms to convey universal emotions.
By 1948, when he wrote a statement for Possibilities magazine (edited by Robert Motherwell, Harold Rosenberg, John Cage and Pierre Chareau), his position was more precise. He wrote, "The Romantics were prompted to seek exotic subjects and to travel to far off places. They failed to realize that, though the transcendental must involve the strange and unfamiliar, not everything strange and unfamiliar is transcendental." He described the shapes in his pictures as being like performers of "an unknown adventure in an unknown space... Ideas and plans that existed at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur... The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed. Pictures must be miraculous... The picture must be...a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need" (quoted in D. and C. Shapiro, op. cit., pp. 397-400; fig. 3). Rothko wanted to express universals through the simplest forms in his paintings and, by the end of 1949, in paintings such as Number 22, 1949 he had found a partial solution to the desire for the simple transcription of complex emotions. Between 1949 and 1951, the year that the present work was executed, he developed his distinctive voice and his dramatically simplified format. This work is one of the most elegant and lyrical of his paintings from this early period. The color promotes both a sense of disquiet and the calm resonance of an arcadian landscape before a tragic storm. David Sylvester, writing in 1961, explained that Rothko was paradoxical when he painted:
Dionysian--the perverseness of this calm being that it seems pretty extravagant to attribute violent passion to paintings whose means of expression...are traditionally associated with serenity and stillness... The value of his painting lies precisely in the paradox that he uses seductive color so that we disregard its seductiveness, that he uses the apparatus of serenity in achieving violence. For of course the stillness is there as well, and that is just the point: violence and serenity are reconciled and fused--this is what makes Rothko's a tragic art. (D. Sylvester, About Modern Art, Critical Essays 1948-1997, New York, 1997, p. 65)
Rothko never acknowledged that he was a colorist, insisting that he was attempting to reach universal emotions by finding subjects rather than affecting emotions through color itself. Many critics have found this hard to understand, although Harold Rosenberg put it succinctly when he compared Rothko and Hofmann and declared Rothko to be searching for the non-self rather than self-expression. The arrangement of color, its modulation on the canvas, remains however one of the most precise means that Rothko had for pressing towards transcendence. In an article originally published in Arts and Architecture in 1958, Dore Ashton suggests:
...the paling edges, the quavering areas of light, the completely ambiguous extremities of Rothko's forms...are the crucial carriers of Rothko's complex expression... Rothko is a precise painter. His green in one painting is deep like a tarn, and black phantoms stir in its depth. White below is a silvery film, escaping pressure from above... They are all held, in this painting, by the framelike band of Fra Angelico jewel blue. But that blue is also varied, though scarcely visibly so that it creeps in deeper in parts and returns to the surface when needed for containment purposes. Bled into the canvas, all the colors fuse, yet their identities are never lost. (Quoted in D. and C. Shapiro, op. cit., pp. 402-405)
(fig. 1) Mark Rothko at work in his West 53rd Street studio
(Photograph by Henry Elkan)
(fig. 2) Mark Rothko in his studio, before No. 25 (1951), circa 1952.
(Photograph by Kay Bell Reynal)