"A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience" (quoted in D. Seiberling, "Mark Rothko," Life, 16 November 1959, p. 82). In this 1959 statement, Mark Rothko summarized the central aim of his art: to produce an image that elicited an emotional response in the viewer akin to the deepest religious experience. According to Rothko, traditional genres of painting--landscape, still-life and portraiture-- were no longer capable of conveying the existential anguish of modern man. Rothko struggled to create a pictorial equivalent to the despair, tragedy and angst which he felt dominated the world. Among all the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko remained the most adamant about the metaphysical content of art. In an early statement written with Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, Rothko announced:
There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art. (M. Rothko, A. Gottlieb, with B. Newman, "Statement," New York Times, 13 June 1943)
Initially, Rothko's desire to imbue his paintings with universal and tragic emotions led him to incorporate elements of Greek tragedy and mythology into his paintings, as in Untitled (fig. 1). In his Surrealist-inspired pictures of the same decade, including Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea (fig. 2), Rothko explored the use of seemingly aquatic creatures as a means of creating a primordial and universal language. But he became increasingly aware of the lack of resonance such symbols carried in contemporary society, and in 1947 he conceded that unlike "the archaic artist" who lived in a society where "the urgency for transcendental experience was understood and given an more official status" and who could draw upon a cast of monsters, hybrids, gods and other creatures to enact the drama of human life, he did not have recourse to such cogent images (M. Rothko, "The Romantics Were Prompted," Possibilities, New York, 1947, p. 84).
By 1949 the figurative elements of Rothko's paintings had disappeared and he had devised the standard format with which he worked until his death in 1970: rectangular bands of color applied in numerous layers of thinned pigment which gave the veils of color a luminosity and an illusion of hovering just above the surface of the canvas. So nuanced was the basic scheme that slight variations in opacity, scale, impermeability, tone, position and brushwork resulted in a wholly different inflection in meaning and emotional resonance. By eradicating all that was representational in his art and by focusing on color as the primary communicative tool, Rothko created a starkly simple form of expression whose meaning resisted verbal explanation and instead was best ascertained, according to the artist, through the direct experience of standing before the painting.
Untitled (1967) is a brilliant example of what Rothko referred to as "the simple expression of a complex thought" (ibid.). Painted the same year that he completed a series commissioned by the de Menils for a chapel in Houston, Untitled represents a departure from the somber blacks, browns, maroons and grays which permeated his oeuvre in the mid- and late-1960s when frustration over critics' failure to understand his brilliant color-contrasts as tragic led him to revise his palette. Here, the vibrant fuschia emerging from a backdrop of deep red is reminiscient of the hot reds, oranges and yellows of his 1950s canvases, as in Orange and Yellow (fig. 3). While the radiant color of these works places Rothko within the lineage of great colorists in the history of art, he maintained that his foremost concern was not color and that to approach his paintings with this perception was to miss the point of his art.
The juxtaposition of vivid pink with deep black is typical of the dichotomous format of Rothko's later mature style and corresponds to the artist's fascination with Nietzsche's concept of Greek tragedy. The commitment to tragic and universal themes that Rothko professed at the outset of his career remained essential to his mature paintings, and he looked to Nietzsche's paradigm of the conflict between the Dionysian--impulsive, dynamic, and unrestrained-- and the Apollonian--harmonious, controlled, and beautiful--as the basis of the human drama he sought to convey in his pictures. Most often, such dualities were manifest in oppositions of light and dark hues, as in Untitled (Black and White) (fig. 4) or bright and muted colors, as in the present picture where the pink pulsates vibrantly along the top three-quarters of the canvas while the comparatively smaller band of black recedes silently into the distance.
Despite the torment and anger Rothko identified in his paintings, viewers most often respond to his work in a contrary manner, finding only peacefulness and harmony before his images. David Sylvester has commented on this discrepancy, explaining, "The value of his paintings 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."
(fig. 1) Mark Rothko, Untitled, circa 1942
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 2) Mark Rothko, Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea, 1944
Museum of Modern Art, New York
(fig. 3) Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
(fig. 4) Untitled (Black and Gray), 1970
Museum of Modern Art, New York