Contrary to popular belief, Rothko did not spend the last years of his life painting increasingly dark pictures that arrived at the almost dual-tone contrast of brown and grey in the works he painted shortly before his suicide in February 1970. As Untitled of 1968 clearly illustrates, some of the artist's richest color orchestrations appear in the acrylic works on paper that he created during the last two years of his life.
After the long and exhausting years he had spent painting the vast, dark, somber and nearly monochrome oil panels for the Menil Chapel in Houston, Rothko began to work in a new and completely different way, painting on a smaller scale and with the new and more immediate medium of acrylics.
In May 1968 Rothko suffered a massive aneurysm to his aorta and after his recovery was advised never to work with the more strenuous medium of oils or on paintings of over 40'' in. height again. In response to these restrictive conditions, in the summer of that year Rothko returned to the acrylic medium in a series of paintings executed on paper which he later laid down on panel or canvas. With its three bold colored rectangles radiating a warm energy against a fiery red background, Untitled is a vibrant and striking example from this series. Contrasting the seemingly light surfaces of the two red rectangles with the deep heavy void of the seemingly receding central black rectangle, the drama of the three clashing forms is resolved into a harmonious compositional balance by the feathered edges of their form. Brought into being by a steadily built-up series of broad but swiftly-executed brush strokes, Rothko has developed a strong material presence in the surface of the work - one which, with minimal means, seems to generate a powerful, shimmering and transcendent energy that is caught between and yet sustains the balance between the forms.
Fig. 1 Kasimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting, circa 1927, Stedlijk Museum, Amsterdam