Untitled is a large and almost square painting infused with a pulsating warmth and energy that is grounded by a deep tonal balance between the three elemental rectangles which form its heart. Consisting solely of four separate but interacting elements - three shimmering rectangles on a rich brown background - this untitled painting resonates with the fiery energy of a warm sunset orange as if it were evoking a unique balance between the primal elements of earth and fire. Painted in 1963 at the height of Rothko's powers, Untitled dates from the brief interlude between his work on the Harvard Murals and those for the Menil Chapel in Houston, which he began in 1964.
With its nearly square format and its large rectangles seeming to almost fill the picture plane, Untitled suggests and epic sense of scale. This sense of epic drama, which Rothko so eagerly sought to achieve in his paintings, can here, also be seen perhaps, as an attempt to infuse his work with the same panoramic energy and grandeur that he wished to convey in his mural commissions.
The sense of a primal, elemental force, expressed solely with color and compressed by another color, in this case, the rusty background, into a cohesive space where a tenuous but stable balance between these opposing forces is achieved is a common theme of much of Rothko's work. Here in this work however, it is particularly apparent. This striking harmony between opposites, opposites that Rothko famously declared, after his reading of Nietzsche, to be Apollonian and Dionysian forces and "embodiments" of the human psyche, this harmony, is also achieved, not merely by Rothko's emotive use of color, but also by his geometry. If color could be said to be the Dionysian element in Rothko's work, then the geometry, the scale, proportion and graphic balance of his works is its Apollonian element. As Sean Scully has said of Rothko's paintings, "In Rothko's painting you have the idea of horizon lines and you have all this sort of mist. They really look like geometric clouds. He came from the West Coast where it's a very misty and mountainous terrain. Perfect terrain for producing Romantics in fact - writers or painters. When he came to Manhattan, all this hits the New York grid and then you get this, you get Rothko, and it's the two put together that bring this yearning for the sublime into correspondence with urban architecture" (Sean Scully quoted in the film Rothko's Rooms, BBC 2000).
Scully's interpretation of Rothko's work in terms of landscape is not inappropriate. Though Rothko was a deeply urban personality who is well known to have been deeply ensconced in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, the ultimate aim of his art was transcendent. The rich and often tempestuous horizon lines that are generated by the feathered edges of his grid of rectangles generates a powerful sense of the infinite, of the sublime and of primal or elemental forces. Rothko's work primarily echoes the Romantic landscape tradition of juxtaposing the small vertical figure of man, here the viewer, with the vast infinite horizon of the void.
This is not to say that one should interpret Rothko's work in terms of landscape nor in any other "objectifying way." The crucial element of his work and the reason it became non-figurative in the first place was deliberate in order to avoid the referential. As Untitled clearly demonstrates, while prompting a profound emotional response from the viewer through the associations its form and color evoke, these elements also remain manifestly anonymous and essentially abstract. They are what Rothko described as "organisms," ones that "move with internal freedom, and without the need to conform with or to violate what is probable in the familiar world. They have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms." (M. Rothko, "The Romantics were Prompted," Possibilities No. 1 Winter 1947/8, n.p.)
Almost autumnal in its coloring, the bold harmony of Untitled seems infused with tremendous power. This radiating sense of primal energy pulsating through the deep tones of color has been carefully achieved by Rothko layering his brushstrokes one upon the other until precisely the right balance and intensity has been achieved. Seemingly simple in its conception, this work has been built up over a period of time until the apparent calm of the gentle red/brown background seems impregnanted with the fiery energy of the three colors it surrounds. In this respect, Untitled is a perfect example of Rothko's desire to "fill" his work with the elemental, with "Dionysian content." Writing about Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy- a book which played a significant part in the development of his art, Rothko reflected that "I found in this fable the poetic reinforcement for what I inevitably knew was my inevitable course: that the poignancy of art in my life lay in its Dionysian content, and that the nobility, the largeness and exaltation are hollow pillars, not to be trusted, unless they have as their core, unless they are filled to the point of bulging, by the wild." (Mark Rothko: a draft of a proposed lecture on the relationship between his work an Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, 1955 cited in Mark Rothko: A biography, E.B. Breslin, Chicago and London, 1993, p. 357-358).
Mark Rothko, circa 1964-1966 c Hans Namuth Estate/Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
Mark Rothko, circa 1964 c Hans Namuth Estate/Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona