No. 11 (Untitled) is a large and magisterial painting made by Mark Rothko in the early part of 1957. A warm, rich, sunset-orange work, seemingly radiating with the awesome power of three shimmering rectangular forms--each pulsating with turbulent, fiery energy-it is the largest of a sequence of similarly colored paintings that Rothko painted in this landmark year when his work was to turn perpetually darker, somber and ultimately more morbid. This short sequence of luminescent orange and yellow-toned works, which includes such paintings as the similarly structured No. 10, now in the Menil Collection, Houston, was to prove, with notable but increasingly rare exceptions, among the last of Rothko's lighter and more brightly-colored series of works.
In 1957, Rothko, having reached the height of his powers and maturity as an artist was also beginning, for the first time, to enjoy the fruits of his success. This year was to prove the first time that the artist had been "able to live by my work in my 53 years of life" he proudly announced (M. Rothko, quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 355). The first part of the year, between February and March, he had spent in New Orleans as an artist in residence at Newcomb Art School, part of Tulane University. There he enjoyed what he described as "a number of benign days of early summer, sun, warmth and lush growth [away from]... all problems and irritations" that he anticipated would no doubt "reappear in full force" when he returned to New York (M. Rothko. 'Letter to the Ferbers,' March, 1954, quoted in J.E.B. Breslin op. cit., p. 353).
Over the previous three years Rothko's reputation along with understanding and appreciation of his work had grown to the point that the often misanthropic artist was growing defensive of the now increasingly laudatory reviews being given to his work. In response to praise from critics such as Thomas Hess, for example, who at his triumphant 1955 show at Sidney Janis's had declared "the international importance of Rothko as a leader of post-war modern art" and had commended his creation of an "elementary serenity of symmetry in a way that avoids the paralyzing boredom perfect symmetry aspires to," Rothko had responded caustically. (T. Hess, quoted in James E.B. Breslin, op cit., p. 355). Fearful of having his work mistaken as simple "color relationships" or worse, as mere abstract decoration, and linking Hess' comments with those of other recent critics who had praised the "serenity" and "sublimity" of his creations, Rothko countered by pointing to the elemental forces of pain, violence and struggle that he had also sought to invoke. "To those who are friendly to my pictures on the basis of their serenity," he wrote, "I would like to say that they have found endurable for human life the extreme violence that pervades every inch of their surface" (M. Rothko, quoted in T. Crow, "The Marginal Difference in Rothko's Abstraction," in G. Phillips and T. Crow, Seeing Rothko, London, 2005, p. 35).
It is precisely this unique combination of serenity and a ferocious, pent-up, barely contained, almost volcanically violent energy trapped and vibrating in the confined space of the work's surface that is conveyed by a work such as No. 11 (Untitled). Like the mesmerizing image of a sunset (or perhaps the more-publicized series of man-made nuclear explosions that peppered the torturous political and psychological landscape of the 1950s), these paintings appear to hover between sublime beauty and a hitherto unknown and immeasurable violence. They establish an extraordinary and febrile balance between the warm almost radioactive luminescence of their radiant, glowing and fiery colored forms and an awesome primordial sense of unimaginable elemental power.
Interestingly, it was precisely this aspect of Rothko's work that had been recognized a couple of years earlier by the writer and former Clyfford Still disciple, Hubert Crehan who wrote, in one of the very first ever reviews of Rothko's mature work, how the "immanent radiance" of Rothko's paintings invoked a similar sense of light to that emitted by the fission reaction in a star or a nuclear explosion:
"We have in our time become aware of the reports of the great billows of colored light that have ripped asunder the calm skies over the atolls of the calmest ocean. We have heard of the terrible beauty of that light, a light softer, more pacifying than the hues of a rainbow and yet detonated as from some wrathful and diabolical depth. The tension of the color-relationships of some of the Rothko paintings I have seen has been raised to such a shrill pitch that one begins to feel in them that a fission might happen, that they might detonate" (H. Crehan, "Rothko's Wall of Light: A Show of His New Works at Chicago," Arts Digest 29, November 1, 1954, p. 19).
In an extremely rare and uncharacteristic response to a critic, Rothko reacted favorably to Crehan's article, declaring to a friend that such observations of his work were "acute," noting also that when "people mistakenly speak only" of his "serenity" they should, like Crehan be aware that "a more accurate description" was his notion of "serenity about to explode" (M. Rothko quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, op. cit., p. 355). Here Rothko was-as he was later to do time and again-pointing to what he saw as the essentially primordial, violent, tempestuous and elemental nature of his work, to what he had once described as "eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas. ...symbols of man's primitive fears and motivations" (A. Gottlieb and M. Rothko, "The Portrait and the Modern Artist," broadcast October 1943, quoted in I. Sandler, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience, New York, 2009, p. 82).
Rothko had first expressed these sentiments in 1943 during the height of the Second World War. For him and his fellow New York School artists, the new, post-Holocaust, atomic era of McCarthyism and the Cold War that followed was no less terrifying a period of trauma and existential despair. As Barnett Newman, a close colleague throughout this period had written in 1948, "We now know the terror to expect. Hiroshima showed it to usThe terror has indeed become as real as life. What we have now is a tragic rather than a terrifying situation. [No] matter how heroic, or innocent, or moral our individual lives may be, this new fate hangs over us" (B. Newmann, "The New Sense of Fate," in J.P. O'Neill, ed., Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, Berkeley, 1992, p. 169).
Amidst the profound existential anxiety that had swept through both Europe and America in the aftermath of the Second World War, Rothko had, like so many others considered it a moral responsibility to seek an elemental art founded on essential human truths and feeling. As Karl Jaspers had recalled of the time, the war years had meant that Rothko's generation had come "face to face with experiences in which we had no inclination to read Goethe, but [instead] took up Shakespeare, or the Bible, or Aeschylus" (K. Jaspers, Unsere Zukunft und Goethe, Zurich, 1948, p. 22). Drawing on the epic nature of the work of his great personal heroes such as Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Mozart, as well as on that of the ancient founders of epic poetry and drama, Aeschylus or Euripides, Rothko sought throughout the 1950s to emulate the pervasive and universal sense of humanity in the art of these great masters of the past.
A painting such as No. 11 (Untitled) is not a 'picture of an experience' Rothko insisted, it is an "experience." What he wanted, he said, was his paintings to radiate with such power that they established an undeniable sense of "presence" so strong that, "when you turned your back to the painting, you would feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back" (Mark Rothko quoted in J.E.B. Breslin op. cit., p. 275). As a work such as No. 11 (Untitled) illustrates, this sensation of being immersed within the colors of the painting to the point where one can physically feel its radiating presence, is one that can only be attained through a subtle combination of color magnification and by painting on such a grand scale that the radiant rectangular fields of color appear to physically pulse and hum with an almost animate shimmering energy. Here, subtly manifesting themselves as turbulent fiery entities that seem to be bubbling and materializing from the innate warmth of the background orange, the painting's three fields of gently contrasting color-solar yellow, white heat and burning orange-seem to almost viscerally project their light far beyond the bounds of canvas and straight into the heart, mood and emotions of the viewer they envelop.
Such a positioning before No. 11 (Untitled) also rewards the viewer with an appreciation of the dexterity and complexity of Rothko's surprisingly subtle and delicate, if also turbulent, evocative and vigorous brushwork. Seeming to emerge from the rich orange ground against which they are set, the three contrasting rectangles of No. 11 (Untitled) collectively maintain a sense of counterpart and balance. The swirls of yellow-orange in the upper rectangle shimmer with a volatile energy that is countered by the more blocky white of the center and the subtle lift in tone of the lowest rectangle. Seemingly united in their collective diversity into a single dynamic entity, the various energies of these four basic colors also reflect the vigorous physical energy and the time that Rothko invested in the painting's realization. Slowly built up with a layering process that in places has created fiery overlaps at the rectangles' edges, there is a profound sense of fusion rather than fission in the way in which the color of these forms seems to actively come into being as one looks at the work. As Sally Avery has recalled, Rothko painted in such a way "that his paint was layered, color on top of color, so that you had a sense of light coming through'. (S. Avery, "Interview with Tom Wolf," February 19, 1982, quoted in B. Clearwater, The Rothko Book, London, 2006, p. 178).
Rooted in his own strongly psychological reading habits and in the deep sense of redemption that he and his generation wanted to give to the world in the aftermath of the Second World War, Rothko's earnestness and complete involvement in each brushstroke derived from an almost messianic desire to create an art that invoked a universal and timeless language--one that spoke directly to and about a collective humanity--in a new age of existential uncertainty. Rothko was, in this respect, one of the last of the great Romantics of modernism--a man about whom, his friend the critic Dore Ashton once wrote, "is still capable of believing that his work can have some purpose-spiritual if you like-that is not sullied by the world.' (D. Ashton, Journal, July 7, 1964).
Rothko's abandoning of the object or figure, his magnification of scale, "heroifying" of color and his attempts to completely immerse the viewer within an entire field of color were all elements that drew on the Northern Romantic tradition in art. Rooted in an archetypal concept of the sublime they were part of essentially Symbolist idea of there being a direct and ultimately transcendent correspondence between color, sound, sensation, feeling and memory. "Free of the familiar," Rothko had declared in a text appropriately entitled The Romantics were Prompted, "transcendental experiences become possible... pictures must be miraculous ... a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need." The "artist's real model is an ideal which embraces all of human drama" (M. Rothko "The Portrait and the Modern Artist," broadcast with A. Gottlieb, Art in New York, WNYC, October 13, 1943, published in Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, New York, 1981, p. 170).
Underpinning Rothko's Romantic Sehnsucht or longing for the sublime, was an earthy counterbalance in the form of a profound sense of the innate violence and tragedy of existence. This other, underlying fundamental of life was personified for him by the "Dionysian," by a "bulging" wild, elemental, volatile and pent up force or aggression that imbues and in fact directs all his work. This fundamental and even epic sense of what Rothko once referred to as the "tragedy, ecstasy, doom" of human existence derives from a combination of the traumatic era through which the artist lived, his own misanthropic personality and outlook, and his close personal identification with and internalizing of the writings of Nietzsche. Throughout his life Rothko had repeatedly read and re-read Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, once claiming that he saw in this book, "the way in which I could achieve the greatest intensity of the tragic irreconcilability of the basic violence which lies at the bottom of human existence and the daily life which must deal with it.' (M. Rothko, a draft of a proposed lecture on the relationship between his work and Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, 1955 quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, op.cit., p. 357-358). It was in this remarkable 'fable' that Rothko declared he had found "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" (ibid).
Like all of Rothko's mature paintings No. 11 (Untitled) is, in this context, an essentially Dionysian play of emotive color or "drama" as Rothko called it--one that through its overt simplicity, directness and the establishment of a subtle and also tense equilibrium, expresses a reality that communicates itself unconsciously to the human psyche. For Rothko, the dynamic resonant power of his paintings derived from what he believed to be the inherent duality within all human nature that Nietzsche had identified and classified in The Birth of Tragedy as either Apollonian or Dionysian. According to Nietzsche, the Apollonian force represents the act of forming, of becoming, defining and measuring; it is the force of the sculptural arts, of geometry and of universal order. The Dionysian aspect represents the opposite. Unstable and wild, it characterizes passion, emotion, desire, the musical arts and the destructive forces of disintegration and chaos. Greek tragedy, Nietzsche noted, played on this inherent duality in the human psyche and merged them into an eternally conflicting but united whole. Rothko, who seems to have personally felt very acutely the same intense conflict and division within his own persona, sought to generate a direct experience of this innate elemental duality, of wild Dionysian forces compressed onto a human scale through the dynamic and resonant balance he gave to his compositions.
"I think of my pictures as dramas," Rothko famously announced, "the shapes in the pictures are the performersThey begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur" (M. Rothko "The Romantics were Prompted," published in Possibilities No. 1, Winter 1947/8). The "drama" of No. 11 (Untitled) is one that presents the compression of a sublime, elemental power in the form of a fission-like radiance of colored form. Evoking a deep sense of the incandescent radiance of the sun, or of a thousand suns, pulsating from a single self-contained source, it invokes both the kind of Romantic sensibility provoked by a sunrise or sunset as well as an underlying sense of dread of the kind that accompanies our witnessing an immense, unknowable power beyond our control and comprehension.