Untitled is one of an extraordinary series of approximately twenty canvases which Mark Rothko created in the final year of his life. The communication of deeply held feelings and emotions were of paramount importance to Rothko, and the last three series of paintings he made were some of the most dramatic and tragic of his career. Dedicated as he was for over twenty years to the same basic format of his work, Rothko passionately sought to transform paint and canvas into an experience of the sublime. Rothko wrote, 'I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else...I am only interested 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' (S. Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York 1957, pp. 93-94).
Rothko's paintings are characteristically composed of hovering rectangles of color on a contrasting field. 'There are metaphorical suggestions of an elemental nature: horizontal divisions evoking the primordial separation of earth or sea from cloud and sky, and luminous fields of dense, quietly lambent color that seems to generate the primal energies of natural light' (R. Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko, New York 1975, p. 214). The stark abstraction of Rothko's work is tempered by the subtle gestural handling of the paint, which, throughout layering thin coats of transparent pigment, reinforces the feeling of landscape or nature. Light seems to flow from within the painting.
Human in size, Untitled seems vast in its interior scale, a dramatic rendering of the elemental forces of the earth in a struggle for survival. The composition is reduced to its most fundamental, two opposing rectangles. Though nearly equal in size, the two rectangles have immensely different weight and tone. The massive, dark gray of the top presses heavily on the luminous, lighter shades of the bottom, seeming to attempt to extinguish the light there like the shadow cast by an eclipse of the sun. The two rectangles are defiantly contained by a stark white border, which both reasserts the surface of the painting and acts like a window framing the view into the painting. Elegiac in their opposition, the two color fields in Untitled reflect Rothko's mental and emotional state at the end of his life. He had a heart attack in 1968, and nagging health and emotional problems left him depressed and led ultimately to his death by his own hand in February 1970.