At nearly eight feet tall, No. 7 (Dark Over Light) belongs to a select group of canvases that were among the largest that Mark Rothko ever painted. Its grand scale is matched only by the emotional intensity of its painted surface, as a large passage of muted dusky hues tussles for supremacy with a smaller area of dappled whites, all the time corralled by active borders of dark red. Such a highly active painterly surface is a mark of Rothko’s paintings from this important period, but it is the scale on which it has been executed in No. 7 (Dark Over Light) that makes this particular work one of the most extraordinary; its broad sweeps and feathered edges reveal the artist’s ambition to create a pure and direct form of painting. Rothko’s stated aim was to dissolve the traditional, and what he thought of as artificial boundaries, between paint and canvas, between painter and idea, and ultimately between the idea and the observer. To the artist, what the viewer saw was not a depiction of an experience, it was the experience, and to this end he championed what he considered to be the two fundamental elements of picture making—space and color—making these the sole protagonists of his aesthetic drama. Reaching its height in his iconic Seagram Murals, this painterly struggle dominated Rothko’s work for a little over a decade, as in 1968, on the instructions of his doctors, he was forced to retreat into making smaller paintings, often no larger than 40 inches. As a result, works such No. 7 (Dark Over Light) represents the fullest and purest expression of Rothko’s unique artistic vision, one whose visual and emotional power is present in abundance in this magisterial canvas.
Towering above the viewer, No. 7 (Dark Over light) presents an imposing façade of constantly shifting color. A substantial area of intense black pigment dominates the upper half of the canvas, vying for authority with a smaller lighter passage that occupies the lower third, leading the painting to be referenced in some literature (Seitz, 1983) as White and Black on Red. Superficially, these two areas appear to be the purveyor of dramatic opposites—dark versus light, large versus small—yet, afforded time and considered examination, the painterly surface reveals a richly varied expanse of color. Eschewing the tradition of laying down a neutral ground it appears that varying intensities of black, red, mottled whites, and warm taupe have been painted directly onto the raw canvas. Resulting from subsequent layers of thin washes of oil paint, the surface appears to be in a constant state of flux, the result of the constantly changing concentrations of color. This painting is notable for the intensity and purity of the large dark upper register that dominates the canvas. Many of Rothko’s darker canvases are actually blends of dark browns, maroon, purples, even deep greens, but here, the force of the black in its purest form is striking.
And it’s not just in these large areas of monochromatic color that Rothko focuses his attention. It is around the edges of the picture plane, or where the two large area of colors meet, that the artist’s pigments engage in their fiercest tussle for supremacy. Where black meets red, largely clear delineations can be observed; only along the extreme upper edge do the pigments blend seamlessly together. In the lower register, the red appears more translucent, becoming a diaphanous veil that allows us to witness the earlier incarnations of Rothko’s active surface, as the red dissolves out, as if consenting to the delicate shroud being lifted. It is here that the competing forces of his contrasting color fields came into direct contact with each other, and it is here that Rothko felt that his paintings truly reached the apex of their power, “colors push outward in all directions,” he said or “contract and rush inward. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say” (M. Rothko, in conversation with A. Jensen, 17 June 1953, in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 301).
No. 7 (Dark Over Light) belongs to a small group of paintings that Rothko executed in the mid-1950s which feature large passages of predominately dark, moody color. Primarily, his paintings from this period are known for the triumphant schema of fiery reds, golden yellows and deep oranges. But in a handful of canvases he also introduced opposing hues, such as can be seen in the present work along with Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange on Gray), 1953 (National Gallery of Art Washington), No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple), 1954 and Untitled (Red, Black, White on Yellow), 1955 (also in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). These dark paintings reflected not so much a “darkening” of Rothko’s mood as a deepening of feeling, as Rothko wrestled more profoundly with what he saw as humanity’s essentially tragic nature and the wild Dionysian violence at life’s heart—something which would increasingly preoccupy his painting practice through the rest of his life.
In addition to color, size was also an important factor in Rothko achieving the necessary emotional intensity that he desired. As he explained, “I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however—I think it applies to other painters I know—it is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside you experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However, you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command” (M. Rothko quoted in quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, Mark Rothko 1903-1970: Pictures as Drama, Cologne, 2003, p. 46).
Rothko understood totally the power of these monumental canvases, and for his 1957 exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, he deliberately hung No. 7 (Dark Over Light) in the first room, to set the emotional tone for the entire show. “I also hang the largest pictures so that they must be first and encountered at close quarters,” he said, “so that the first experience is to be within the picture” (M. Rothko, quoted by D. Anfam, Mark Rothko. The Works on Canvas. Catalogue Raisonné, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 75). He continued, “Since my pictures are large, colorful and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls. This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are intimate and intense, and are the opposite of what is decorative; and have been painted in a scale of normal living rather than an institutional scale. I have on occasion successfully dealt with this problem by trending to crowd the show rather than making it spare. By suturing the room with the feeling of the work, the walls are defeated and the poignancy of each single work had for me become more visible” (Ibid.).
Rothko’s ultimate aim was to break down the traditional and long established barriers that existed in art. He wanted the viewers of his paintings to undergo an almost religious experience when stood before his canvases. In evolving this idea, he was profoundly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Rothko’s abstract paintings play on the dualism inherent in human nature that Nietzsche had identified as composed of Apollonian and Dionysian forces. The Apollonian represents the force of becoming, of precise definition, of the sculptural arts and of universal order and the Dionysian represents an unstable and wild force, the musical arts, disintegration and chaos. The duality of No. 7 (Dark Over Light)—with its large yet intimate scale, and vast passage of black pigment superseding the smaller white area—echoes these hostilities. In painting the work’s two main passages of color in opposing colors, they vie with one another for dominance, seeming to both emerge from and recede into the painting’s more neutral background, evoking this perpetual struggle. As the eye responds to this shifting play of undefined form and color, the viewer’s mind enacts an emotive drama, yet Rothko holds the whole together in a fragile balance using the red background’s calm serenity. In this way, he counterpoints Apollonian order and refinement with the darker, more unstable Dionysian energy of the shimmering oblongs, creating an overwhelming sense of the sublime.
This had been a fight which has consumed Rothko for much of his career. His earliest art was motivated by a search for a vocabulary and to express what he called the “tragic and timeless” nature of the human condition. Finding ideas similar to his in the Greek tragedies, he turned to the epic plays of Aeschylus and Euripides in the early forties, channeling these ancient characters and narratives into the Surrealist works that followed. Plumbing elements of Greco-Roman art with increasing infusions of Breton-like automatic écriture, the signs, symbols and ethereal hazes of these works hinted at the collective mysteries of existence, but remained rooted in the kind of figuration that characterized the material world. As a result, Rothko’s works began to take on an abstract bent in 1946. He expunged representational elements for the irregular, amorphous washes of color in the Multiforms. In 1949, this tendency received ultimate clarification in the classic format that Rothko pursued in Untitled (Dark over Light). Early on, the artist intuitively understood his direction; in a letter to the New York Times dated July 7, 1943 he wrote, “We favor the simple expression of complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth” (M. Rothko, quoted in Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 36). Read in relation to Untitled (Dark over Light), this statement seems perfectly pitched for the classic work that would ensue in Rothko’s oeuvre.
No. 7 (Dark Over Light) was first acquired by Count Alessandro Panza di Biumo, Sr. in 1961. He was the son of the legendary Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, widely considered to be one of the most important collectors of Post-War American Art. His father began his collection in 1956, initially acquired works by European Informel artists such as Jean Fautrier and Antoni Tàpies, along with American Abstract Expressionists like Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. The collection eventually grew to include Minimalist works such as Robert Morris’s plywood, fiberglass, and metal sculptures and Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light “propositions.” “At the beginning my aim was to collect 100 beautiful paintings, because there was enough space in my home to show them,” Count [Guiseppe] Panza told Daily Telegraph of London in 2005. “Soon I had those 100 paintings, but I could not stop because my desire to have what I liked was too strong.” “We can only feel the love, or else not feel it and reject the work,” he added (G. Panza di Biumo, quoted by W. Grimes, “Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, Collector of Postwar American Art, Dies at 87,” New York Times, May 1, 2010, via www.nytimes.com [accessed 4/3/2018]). Works from the elder Panza di Biumo’s holdings later formed the basis for the collection of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and in the 1990s, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum filled a yawning gap in its holdings when it acquired, in a combined gift and purchase arrangement, more than 300 Minimalist sculptures and paintings from the collection.
Despite Rothko’s grand ideas, he was also determined that his art should remain an intensely personal experience. In 1958 he wrote, “Some artists want to tell all like at a confessional. I as a craftsman prefer to tell little. My pictures are indeed facades (as they have been called) …I do this only through shrewdness. There is more power in telling little than in telling all. Two things that painting is involved with: the uniqueness and clarity of the image and how much does one have to tell” (M. Rothko, quoted by D. Anfam, Mark Rothko. The Works on Canvas. Catalogue Raisonné, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 75).
Conflicting the romanticism and heightened emotionalism of the rich and expansive verticality of his pigment rich passages of color, the dynamism of confrontation is all important in Rothko’s work. Such dynamism is often defined and characterized by the nature of the shimmering edges of his colored forms and the ‘personality’ that they give to the work as a whole. “In a way my paintings are very exact” Rothko explained in 1958, “but in that exactitude there is a shimmer, a play…in weighing the edges to introduce a less rigorous, play element…The tragic notion of the image is always present in my mind when I paint and I know when it is achieved, but I couldn’t point it out—show where it is illustrated. There are no skull and bones. I am an abstract painter.” (Mark Rothko lecture given at the Pratt Institute, New York, 1958, op. cit., p. 395).