Please note that this work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Mark Rothko, to be held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, in March-June 2019.
“I think of my pictures as dramas, the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at that moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quality and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which once left the world in which they occur.”
“I am only interested in expressing the basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”
— Mark Rothko
“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.”
One of Mark Rothko’s most vibrant and dazzling paintings, Saffron epitomizes the physical and emotional drama that is contained within the artist’s majestic canvases. With its passages of vivid color—floating, receding, and enveloping the canvas—Rothko invokes the elemental forces of humanity to optimal effect. The artist said he never wanted his paintings to be representations of an experience, he wanted them to be the experience and here in the shimmering fields of high-intensity yellows, golds, and warm oranges, the full narrative of Rothko’s existential theater is played out. Painted in 1957, Saffron dates from an important period in the artist’s career. Produced during a period in which he was (for the first time) able to live off the proceeds of his art, he was also on the eve of producing what would become his magnum opus, and one of the most iconic series of paintings the 20th century, the Seagram Murals now housed in the Tate Gallery, London.
Saffron exemplifies Rothko’s fundamental use of color as across its expansive surface, bands of high-keyed pigment appear to hover and float above the surface. At first, the uppermost part of the canvas appears to be free from the passages of intense color that occupy the rest of the painting. However, prolonged observation reveals an area of almost imperceptible color variations as shades of red, white, yellow, gold, and even earth tones coalesce, allowing the demarcation of its amorphous silhouette. This emergence of color—sometimes discreetly, sometimes more obviously—is something which characterizes all of Rothko’s later chromatic canvases. The color seems to roil up to the surface, like the liquid magma emerging from the heat of a white-hot volcano, exuding its primeval force as it does. This sense of dramatic theater is repeated in the larger color bands that occupy the central and lower portions of the canvas. Here the multiple layers and thin washes of color that Rothko applies to the surface of the canvas act in union to produce a highly active surface which reverberates with intense optical sensation. As Sally Avery has written Rothko painted his canvases 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).
Despite the dominance and intensity of these large expanses of color, the artist always insisted that it was at the edges of these areas where he intended most of the painterly action to take place. Rothko achieved this activity through a variety of ways of applying his paint, ranging from broad sweeps of pigment for the concentrated areas to his adoption of a dry brush to facilitate the lively feathering around the edges. It was here that the competing forces of his contrasting color fields came into direct contact with each other, and it was 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). Rothko’s assistant, Roy Edwards, describes the experience of handling and cleaning the artist’s brushes: “Brushes were a big thing with him. They felt like velvet, those brushes, because they were very old and they’d been so well taken care of. I would wash those brushes every day after painting. First in turpentine and then in detergent. For about an hour. Washing and rewashing, rewashing, rewashing” (R. Edwards and R. Pomeroy, “Working with Rothko,” New American Review no. 12, 1971, p. 125). Tactile contrasts and the material qualities mattered to Rothko (“...it was all done with brushes. That’s the marvelous thing. He had such a touch with a brush,” ibid., p. 125). Contrasting his paintings with Ad Reinhart’s, Rothko emphasized the tactile quality of his work in contrast to the seemingly insubstantial effects of Reinhart’s surfaces: “mine are here. Materially. The surfaces, the work of the brush and so on. [Reinhardt’s] are untouchable” (M. Rothko, quoted in D. Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 179).
Nowhere can the infinite variety of Rothko’s painted surface be seen more clearly, or in more depth, than in a work such as the present example. The strata of color appear to bubble up from the layers of underpainting until they permeate the surface, an effect enhanced by the use of both matte and gloss paint. It was Hubert Crehan, in one of the first reviews of the artist’s paintings from this period, who wrote about the “immediate radiance” of Rothko’s paintings. “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).
One of the greatest influences on Rothko’s understanding and use of color was French painter Henri Matisse. It was paintings like his Red Studio of 1911 that had given Rothko the courage to pursue his great breakthrough of 1949 when the representational forms, objects, and symbols of his art finally disappeared and dissolved into his now familiar rectangles of pure nonobjective color. The Red Studio was acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the late 1940s and was first permanently installed in the museum in 1949. As Rothko told Dore Ashton, soon after the painting went on show he would repeatedly “spend hours and hours” sitting in front it. “When you looked at that painting,” he said, “you became color, you became totally saturated with it” as if it were music (M. Rothko, quoted by J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 283).
Although celebrated by many as one of the most skillful exploiters of color of the 20th century, Rothko always insisted that if his paintings were only admired for their chromatic palette, then this would be a complete misreading of his work. In 1961, Robert Goldwater, whom the artist acknowledged was one of the few critics who actually understood his work, wrote, “Rothko claims that he is ‘no colorist,’ and that if we regard him as such we miss the point to his art. Yet it is hardly a secret that color is his sole medium… Rothko’s concern over the years has been the reduction of his vehicle to the unique colored surface which represents nothing and supports nothing else” (R. Goldwater, quoted by J. Gage, “Rothko: Color as Subject,” in J. Weiss, Mark Rothko, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 247). Color, for Rothko, was a vehicle for accommodating the drama that he felt was inherent in his work. “I think of my pictures as dramas,” he once said, “the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at that moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quality and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which once left the world in which they occur” (M. Rothko, “The Romantics were Prompted,” published in Possibilities No. 1, Winter 1947/8).
Thus, Rothko was always at pains to emphasize the experiential nature of his art. In 1956, he wrote, “I am only interested in expressing the basic human emotions— tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!” (M. Rothko, quoted by M. López-Remiro (ed.), Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New York, 2006, pp. 119-120).
In 1957, the year Saffron was painted, Rothko had reached the height of his powers and, for the first time, he was able to enjoy the commercial success of his art. He spent the first part of the year in New Orleans as artist in residence at the Newcombe School of Art (part of Tulane University). Here, having escaped New York, his mind seemed to be clear of pressures that he found inherent in big city living. In a letter written to acquaintances during his stay at Tulane he expressed his upbeat mood at the time. “We have been fortunate enough with the weather,” he wrote. “There have been a number of benign days of early summer, sun, warmth… [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 by J. E. B. Breslin, op. cit., p. 353). This painting belongs to a select group of brightly hued canvases that the artist produced in the mid-1950s, just a few months before his oeuvre shifted away from these celebrated high-keyed, vibrant colors to a more somber palette, culminating in his now iconic Seagram Murals.
The story of Rothko’s Murals is one of the central legends of his career and has become the kind of fable that impregnates and often threatens to dominate the history of any great artist’s life. It is however nonetheless a remarkable and particularly pertinent story because the Seagram commission and the unfolding drama that surrounded Rothko’s eventual rejection of it—after having worked on the project for nearly two years—encapsulates and reveals two important parameters of Rothko’s character and artistic temperament. The Seagram commission threw Rothko’s long held personal keenness to create a complete painterly environment into direct conflict with his deep-rooted political principles. Ultimately, the overt luxury of the Four Seasons restaurant proved too offensive to Rothko’s conscience and this, alongside the fact that he feared that the solemn paintings that had devised for it would come to be seen as mere decoration, led to his pulling out from the project.
Rothko admired the work of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and said that in his paintings he tried to bring together the two opposing forces of the universe— order and dynamism—that the German philosopher identified. It was with the aim of establishing a similar state of harmonious détente between these two central organizing principles of existence that Rothko painted, hoping to generate within the reductive format of his abstract forms a profound expression of these dual elements compacted into a single unity. Conflicting the romanticism and heightened emotionalism of the rich and expansive horizon-like landscape vistas of his color drenched rectangles with a strict rational vertical grid-like progression of form compressed onto a rectangular canvas, 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).