At the age of ten, Mark Rothko (then Marcus Rothkowitz) and his family immigrated to America from Russia, settling in Portland, Oregon. He attended Yale University, and soon after moved to New York, where he became a leading member of a group of artists that were eventually called the Abstract Expressionists. In the city, he attended the Art Students League and formed close friendships with Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still.
Rothko's Untitled painting of 1953 is a classic example of his early mature work, which was marked by tiers of colors in bands and oblongs, softly glowing, stacked on the canvas. Rothko, not unlike Newman, used color as a powerful way to express basic human emotions-- tragedy, ecstacy, doom. Rothko wanted people to be moved by his evocative color juxtapositions and floating clouds of pigment. Untitled is certainly compelling in this way, but in its scheme of red, yellow, blue, and white, it is also key as it suggests the work of a figure Rothko greatly admired, the Dutch-born, New York-based painter Piet Mondrian.
Rothko's work had developed from the depiction of mythic imagery in the 1930s to European-influenced Surrealism in the 1940s. Rothko's subsequent break with Surrealism represented an important shift in allegiance from that movement to the ideas espoused by Mondrian and the world of "pure relationships" and "rich beauty" which Mondrian claimed to be the future. As the eminent critic Meyer Shapiro pointed out: ". . . it was only in a milieu of artists who also admired the cubists and Mondrian that abstraction could take over some of the functions that Surrealism assigned to imagery" (D. Waldman, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, A Retrospective, New York 1978, p. 53). Rothko's goal, to effect a spiritual response with a limited and essentially geometric idiom, and a "metaphysical truth through abstract forms, are all clearly related to Mondrian's own goals" (ibid.).
As David Sylvester noted:
The value of his paintings lies precisely in the paradox that he uses seductive colour so that we disregard its seductiveness, that he uses the apparatus of serenity in acheiving 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. The acheivement is parallel to Mondrian's who, using means the obvious potential of which was the creation of perfectly static art, evolved a world of form in which stillness is locked with violent movement. Of this consummation in terms of the physical--to put it rather schematically--Rothko's art is the equivalent in terms of the emotional. Their work is as it were the Parthenon and the Chartres of abstract painting--a vulgar analogy, perhaps, but one whose relevent implications include the point that a Mondrian dominates us as a compact entity out there, beyond our reach, a Rothko incorporates us, envelopes us in its light. The analogy also serves to emphasise that a Rothko is awe-inspiring as a cathedral is, not as a mountain is: the effect of its scale is not to make us feel puny beside a sublime vastness. It has a scale transcendent enough to command, accessible enough to reassure." (ibid., p. 37)
Rothko arrived at pure abstraction in his quest to eliminate traditional subject matter, depth, and perspective, but not emotion. Between 1947 and 1949, Rothko executed small paintings of amorphous patches of color--later called the "Multiform" paintings--in which he eliminated all imagery and even line. However, gradually the patches coalesced and the structure firmed, and by 1949, he had created the formula he would explore for the remaining twenty years of his life.
Untitled, 1953 is sublime in its balance of color, form, structure, surface and light. The brilliant color is applied in a manner consistent with all Rothko's mature works. Layer upon layer of thin paint is applied to an unprimed canvas with each layer saturating the canvas, giving it a veiled luminosity through which underlying hues glow.
Dore Ashton wrote in Art & Architecture in August 1957 (where Untitled is reproduced, but titled Yellow-Red and Blue), ". . . the viewer who makes himself available to the unique experience of these canvases tends to fall into silence: the effect is one of inner echo, the mute overpowering emotion that a great symphony can evoke."