Many of the acrylic paintings that Rothko created after suffering an aneurysm in the spring of 1968 were a re-exploration in a different medium of the profound depths of feeling he had immersed himself in for the Menil Chapel murals in Houston. There his central theme 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, 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, many of Rothko's late paintings sought to convey a sense of the epic drama of life as an experiential whole in same way as the great literary tragedies of his heroes Aeshyllus and Shakespeare. Forced by his doctor to work on a scale no larger than 40 in. high, Rothko translated the bold horizontal format of his large oils onto paper, afterwards he often laid them down on board or canvas. He learned to pack the same extraordinary intensity and emotion into this smaller and more intimate space. In most of these works sombre, heavy colors predominate as Rothko attempts to draw out the chthonic dionysian forces of elemental nature and then confine them within the picture plane so that each work projects a sense of monumental emotion compressed into a small and human scale.
In Untitled, Rothko has employed a thick heavy brush to articulate the two dominant rectangular crimson forms that rest upon a fiery scarlet background. The coarse sweeps of this brush allow the vibrant scarlet tone to seep through the more sombre color and impregnate it with warmth and dramatic energy in such a way that its surface suggests a struggle of epic and elemental proportion. Bounded only by the thin intensely radiating febrile lines at their edges these two resonating rectangles seem to be forcing their mass to the limits of the picture plane. Punctuated by the fiery energy of the background they shimmer on a specific visual wavelength that establishes a dramatic but constantly oscillating sense of balance between the formed and the formless, between the material and the immaterial, perhaps even between the living and the dead.