In late 1967 after three years of intense and exhausting work Rothko finally completed the most important project of his life; the large and profoundly moving series of black murals for the Menil Chapel in Houston. As a direct contrast to these vast and largely monochromatic black oil paintings, Rothko deliberately began to paint on a smaller scale and with the new and more direct and immediate medium of acrylics.
A few months later, in the spring of 1968 the 65 year-old artist suffered a massive aneurysm to his aorta and after his recovery was advised by his doctors 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 the year Rothko returned to the medium of acrylic that he had experimented with earlier in his career and began to explore new possibilities in a series of works executed on paper and later laid down on panel or canvas for the purpose of preservation. At around 58 inches in height Untitled of 1969 is one of the largest of these late acrylic works as well an imposing example from this dramatic and important late series of paintings.
Rothko's acrylic paintings were in many ways a re-exploration in a different medium of the profound depths of feeling Rothko had immersed himself in for the Houston Chapel murals. His central theme there had been the Passion of Christ, the finality of death and the reality of the human spirit. Working over the summer of 1968 after his own recent brush with death and with its constant threat still hanging over him, this heavy drinking, heavy smoking, hypochondriac painter who throughout his life had sought an art of transcendence, dedicated himself to his work like never before. Seeking both solace and meaning from his art, Rothko's late works seek to emulate the great tragedies of his literary heroes Aeshyllus and Shakespeare. Sombre, heavy colours predominate in most, drawing out the chthonic dionysian forces of elemental nature and confining them within the picture plane in such a way that each work conjurs a sense of monumental emotion compressed into a small and unremarkable human scale.
Working on several paintings at one time by taping each work against a large plywood backboard that served as an easel, the sombre intensity of Rothko's acrylics is clearly representative of the tragic conditions of the artist's life at this time. As his biographer James Breslin has pointed out, since the spring of 1968 Rothko had experienced a series of losses. He had separated from his wife and children, left his home to live in his studio and his recent aneurysm had robbed him of his sexual potency, and prompted his doctors to insist he stick to strict diet and abstain from drinking and smoking. Rothko largely ignored the doctor's advice concerning alcohol and cigarettes and as his friend Stanley Kunitz recalled, began to move "out of the world in general. He became solely self-preoccupied. That was one of the after effects of the aneurysm, and I think he was rejecting family, Mell (his wife) and the children and everything except art." (cited in Mark Rothko; A Biography J. E. B. Breslin, Chicago 1993, p. 505)
Art must have seemed at times to represent the sole pleasure he had left and, as Dore Ashton - one of very few critics whom Rothko respected - recalled about a visit she made to his studio in the spring of 1969, Rothko was immensely proud of his latest work. Showing her his new acrylic work she recalled that "He named the exact number with pride, as though to say, 'with all my trouble, I was able to do this.' Many are very haunting. Some directly expressive of a sinking heart. Many blacks over purple, or blacks over brown in a more decisive, almost incisive line dividing the weights. He sees them as very different and asked if they surprised me. I see them as consequent to the murals." (cited in Ibid, p. 511)
Untitled with its simple concentration into two large and heavy forms of deep colour recalls the sombre resonance of the Houston Chapel Murals. Pressing close against the outer edge of the painting their heavy contrast strikes a deep sonic chord in the heart of the viewer, resonating like that of a large bell tolling. Rothko's predilection for rich dark colours in late paintings like this undoubtedly owes much to his experience with the Houston murals, but it may also owe something to the influence of Ad Reinhardt, whose monochromatic black paintings from 1960 until his death in 1967, were also a significant influence on Rothko's late work. "I should have painted them", Rothko once told the artist's widow Rita Reinhardt, with whom in 1969 he had begun an affair. "The difference between me and Reinhardt", Rothko asserted however, "is that he's a mystic. By that I mean that his paintings are immaterial. Mine are here, Materially. The surfaces, the work of the brush and so on. His are untouchable." (Ibid, p. 529)
It is essentially this material presence that so distinguishes Rothko's late acrylics. Using the thick and heavy matt quality of the acrylic paint to create a convincing degree of presence and permanence and using broad sweeps of the brush and sponge throughout to create an energised and shimmering edge to his forms, Rothko has created in Untitled a profoundly physical image of transcendent reality and emotive power. Rothko asserted as early as 1958 that his paintings reflected his own growing preoccupation with death. Untitled is no exception. Its strong and solid arrangements of rich dark colour combine with the radiant deep blue of the background to create a work that, almost in spite of itself, speaks of the sombre grandeur of human existence and experience.