Untitled (Orange and Blue) is a rich and exuberant work executed at the very height of Rothko's career. Radiant rectangular fields of color resonate against one another like colorful geometric clouds casting shadows over a landscape; the sunny oranges and tranquil blues seem to determine and manipulate the mood and emotions of the viewer enveloped by them. The vitality of Untitled (Orange and Blue) establishes a mysterious and powerful sense of depth and resonance using, what at first glance seems to be, the very simplest of means of paint and paper laid down on canvas. Painted between 1960 and 1961, Untitled (Orange and Blue) was created during one of the most intensely creative periods of the Rothko's career, and coincided with some of his most celebrated works. Following the completion of his murals intended for the Seagram building in Manhattan in 1959, at the time of this work's creation, Rothko was embarking on his series of murals for Harvard University and was intimately involved in the planning for his major touring retrospective exhibition which opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1961. In between these formative and well-known projects, Rothko continued his routine of painterly exploration, often working on paper to probe and perfect his use of colour, tone and proportion.
The orange and blue of this painting comprise variegated hues-orange is laid over red, and blue-green over purple--creating a mesmerising state of subtle motion. This work bears similarities to Rothko's No. 14 of 1960, a large-scale oil painting in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, particularly in its tonal arrangement of a bright vermillion square hovering over a dark blue rectangular base. With its delicately brushed forms seemingly vying with one another for prominence, this work as a whole generates a tense and powerful pull on the viewer's emotions - a mystical play of warm and cool, of lightness and weight, fought out on an intimate and personal scale. The vibrant clouds of colour epitomise Rothko's restrained yet emotive pictorial language that defines his mature style.
Since the 1940s, Rothko had used paper not only as studies for larger canvases, but also to produce finished and fully conceived paintings in their own right. Indeed his early works on paper, particularly his experimentations in the medium of watercolour, heavily influenced the technique he developed for his oil paintings and lead to his shift away from figural form towards the realm of pure, floating colour. Dore Ashton once remarked that Rothko's works on paper are essential in understanding the trajectory of his career. 'Rothko succumbed to the lure of light,' she wrote, '...light that envelops us and is all things that we are not. In moving toward this ineffable beacon it was natural enough that Rothko should find his way in the light of paper, that most subtle of light-reflecting bearers, and that his works on paper should be as integral a part of his total vision as his easel paintings and murals. It was almost certainly his experience with the paradoxical nature of paper--absorbing and reflecting at the same time--that set him on his course to the great clearing away that his life's work represents' (D. Ashton, 'Forward', in B. Clearwater, Mark Rothko Works on Paper, exh. cat., New York, 1984, p. 9).
Paintings like Untitled (Orange and Blue) are intentionally much smaller in scale than the monumental canvases that dominated Rothko's work at this time, and the effect he sought in these works was somewhat different. Whereas the large canvases were 'dramas' he once remarked, these smaller works were more like 'tales'. Together with the larger canvases they chart his quest for an elemental language that could communicate the basic human emotions of 'tragedy, ecstasy, doom'. But the medium of paper also presented possibilities unavailable in his large-scale paintings on canvas. In particular, as the present work illustrates, the use of paper as a ground enabled a swifter, bolder, more energetic and immediate application of translucent paint. Thinned pigments tend to blend and bleed with greater subtlety on paper than canvas and this encouraged Rothko to apply his colour in rapid gestural strokes that gave a new and more dynamic expression to the surface of the work. Rothko could also exercise greater control over his medium at a smaller size, and he tended to limit the effects of pentimenti and haphazard drips, while also maintaining the symmetry between his forms and the edge of the support. This was possibly due to his different attitude to painting on this scale, as well as a desire to avoid visual distractions in the overall effect.
Untitled (Orange and Blue) shows how Rothko generally preferred tstain his small works with only two layers of paint, unlike the canvases, possibly because pigments were more likely to fuse and lose their identity on paper. The painting therefore has a directness often missing in the larger works. He has, however, allowed the under-painted layer to show through around the edges, creating a pulsating aura of colour and a sliver of a horizon line where the contrasting tones collide. For this work, Rothko gradually brought his nimbus-like forms into being through an accumulation of subtle brushstrokes that give the surface its own animated sense of life. Once completed, Rothko arranged for the painting to be mounted on a canvas support. Like his larger oil paintings, Rothko did not want his pictures framed and by this method of mounting he could more easily display the works on paper. In the 1960s he replaced his former Masonite backing boards with stretched linen or canvas and he was pleased to be told that these works would last longer and their colours would change less than if painted directly on canvas.
The stacked, loosely geometric shapes of mottled colour that hover over Untitled (Orange and Blue) offer a profound sense of tonal discord that is established by the shimmering proximity of contrasting hues. Orange and blue sit on opposite sides of the traditional colour wheel and when placed next to each other their impact is significantly heightened. Observing the effects colours have on each other was the starting point for Rothko's work and this juxtaposition of warm and cool is designed to create an illusion of radiance and dynamic visual tension. Rothko communicated to curator William Seitz that such relationships could be compared to a philosophical dialectic in which 'antitheses...are neither synthesized nor neutralized in his work but held in a confronted unity which is momentary stasis' (W. Seitz cited in B. Clearwater, Mark Rothko Works on Paper, exh. cat., New York, 1984, p. 38).
Establishing a formal and tonal dialogue at the heart of the work, this painting not only displays the full sophistication and subtlety of Rothko's brushwork, but also the extraordinarily emotive and elemental power of pure simple colour. Rothko hoped that viewers would be transported by the visual sensation of his compositions to a more spiritual plane. It was for this reason that he always stressed that the content of his painting was more important than its formal properties. Rothko saw colour and abstract form as 'performers' that could express collective primal feelings of anguish or excitement, exultation or depression, and it was through these means that he succeeded in raising painting 'to the level of poignancy of music and poetry' (M. Rothko quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p.37).