This work is being considered for inclusion in the forthcoming Mark Rothko Online Resource and Catalogue Raisonné of works on paper, compiled by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Saturated fields of color are exquisitely orchestrated in the large-scale, sumptuous expanse of Mark Rothko’s Untitled, a masterful painting of 1969. Distinguished by its heady palette of vibrant, high-powered red and a luminous field of golden yellow, Untitled unleashes the cataclysmic drama of its two opposing forces across the surface of its formidable expanse. Painted in 1969, the work belongs to a celebrated series of paintings that Rothko created in the last year of his life. Having suffered an aortic aneurism in 1968, Rothko was advised by his physicians to limit himself to small-scale works on paper no larger than 40 inches. Rather than diminish the artist’s creativity, however, the series had the opposite effect. By late 1969 Rothko was painting on large-scale sheets of paper in a wide variety of media, producing some of his most significant work. Though Rothko’s Black on Gray paintings are widely regarded as his final contribution to the field of modern art, Rothko created at the same time lively, high-keyed paintings that demonstrated the vitality and exuberance of this great, albeit tragic, last period. “Some of his richest color orchestrations appear in a number of works on paper from these years,” writes Bonnie Clearwater. “These late, vibrant paintings… contain a force created by the inks that illuminate the paper’s field, an effect not experienced in his earlier works on paper… they generate a strong, constant glow” (B. Clearwater, The Rothko Book, London, 2006, p. 166).
Untitled envelops the viewer in its expansive field of luxurious color, gesturally applied in wide swathes of the brush that actively display the physical workings of the artist’s hand. In one of his most profound color pairings, Rothko creates a lavish, unmodulated field of highly saturated red alongside its counterpart, a brushy field of golden yellow. Rendered in the sparest of means, Rothko creates an utterly operatic drama that unfolds over the course of the canvas in these hovering clouds of color. Rothko’s yellow expanse sings with the glowing quality of its exquisitely rendered layers, whereas the formidable expanse of red evokes the flaring, hot-tempered emotion of passions left unchecked and libidinous desire in its purest form. Beneath this sumptuous expanse, Rothko creates an altogether luminous field of fiery yellow that’s flushed by the softly blazing red undertones underneath. Typical to his working method, Rothko has first applied a subtle under layer of thinly washed pigment to the paper sheet, heating up the yellow passage and saturating the red area with an inner luminosity. The softness of this muted under layer is contrasted to the lively and exquisite brushwork along the periphery, which Rothko executes in emphatic, gestural strokes. “Here, in the most dramatic fashion since the early 1950s,” writes the artist’s son, Christopher Rothko, “the action of the brush has reasserted itself, lending an almost primordial energy largely absent from the classic paintings of the previous decade. Resulting at least in part from the interaction between paint...and paper, the brushwork moves very much to the fore, imparting a sizzle to the edges of rectangles and a spontaneous kinetic sweep through its thin washes of color” (C. Rothko, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, Cambridge, 2015, p. 212).
Perhaps the most erudite of all the Abstract Expressionists (with the possible exception of Barnett
Newman) and certainly one of its most vociferous champions, Mark Rothko was specific and distinct in his pronouncements about his work. As an artist whose generation experienced first-hand the atrocities of the Second World War, Rothko acknowledged that the fabric of humanity had been irrevocably altered by the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust and the devastation of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rothko and his fellow Abstract Expressionists acknowledged that a radical type of non-representational art could be the only means of expression moving forward into an unknowable and forever changed world. In his prodigious writing on the subject, Rothko pontificated the message of this fundamentally new abstract language. Devoid of any recognizable imagery, symbolism or historical narrative, Rothko unleashed the intrinsic force of painting’s essentials. In Untitled, pure fields of color envelop the viewer with the directness of their application, in complete harmony with Rothko’s espoused philosophy. In its large-scale zones of brilliant, mesmerizing color, Rothko’s painting--and those like it--envelop the viewer with the scope of its internal drama, making for a wholly new, participatory viewing experience, and therefore unlike anything created in the history of modern art. In Untitled, Rothko demonstrates these principles, which he had spent decades perfecting. Then as now, the force of Rothko’s painting beckons the viewer with the uncanny physical effect of its large scale and impressive execution, eliciting a corporeal, bodily sensation infused with a spiritual, almost metaphysical quality—a potent illustration of the sublime effect that the artist had long sought to convey.
Aside from their glorious celebration of the physical and emotional effect of pure color, perhaps the most significant contribution imparted by Rothko’s evocative and otherworldly canvases is their softly glowing inner light. Indeed, in Rothko’s final series of works, the particular quality of its inner light reaches its fullest expression. In Untitled, the general brightness of the upper field belies the intensity and depth of the dark red paint that Rothko employs; he somehow conveys the deep richness of the “essence” of red itself while permeating it with a particularly bright and sparkling brilliance. This is due in part to Rothko’s chosen medium of thinly-applied veils of pigment layered over bright, white sheets of paper. Indeed, in these late works on paper, Rothko deliberately chose paper as his preferred material in order to exploit its inherent bright, white quality. In her essay detailing Rothko’s works on paper from this late period, curator Bonnie Clearwater describes this phenomenon as “radiance...which results from light reflecting off the white paper and through the translucent ink” (B. Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York, 2008, p. 55). Though he used paint rather than ink in Untitled, the whiteness of the paper sheet works in tandem with Rothko’s diaphanous veils of color to impart a soft, subtle glow.
Even in Rothko’s darkest canvases of 1969, viewers have puzzled over the inner luminosity that permeates even the darkest void. As a great admirer of Rembrandt, Rothko was keen to impart the softly illuminated light so highly developed by the skilled artist, and its exquisite effect is given a final flourish in Untitled, along with others in Rothko’s penultimate series. Visitors to Rothko’s studio during this last great period described its effect: “Soon we were encompassed by these...darkening walls of light. It was a very spiritual luminosity that emanated from these backgrounds. It was not a real light and did not suggest any perspective. It had no source. Without shadows or brightness, it shone out of the colored background as a still, pure light from within the picture” (W. Hartmann, quoted in A. Borchardt-Hume, “Shadows of Light: Mark Rothko’s Late Series,” in A. Borchardt-Hume (ed.), Rothko: The Late Series, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, p. 18).
The four-foot expanse of Rothko’s majestic field of lavishly-applied color and the sumptuous surface of Untitled and similar paintings belie the inner turmoil that plagued the artist during the final turbulent years of his life. Having separated from his wife in early 1969, Rothko settled permanently into his 69th street studio shortly thereafter, where he would live out the remainder of his days. It was there that Rothko withstood the challenges of his ailing health as a solitary man, turning to his art for solace and release. He painted nearly every day, working on multiple paintings at a time. Turning increasingly inward, Rothko brought many paintings out of storage and began a retrospective cataloguing of his life’s work. All the while, he kept on creating the lush arrangements of glorious color whose masterful arrangement and tenderly brushed surfaces only a seasoned veteran could produce. Common knowledge may indicate that Rothko produced only dark or dour paintings during this last fruitful year, although Christopher Rothko has recently written about the flourishing of vibrant colors in increasingly potent combinations during this important era: “My father’s paintings on paper had become larger and more exploratory seemingly with each passing week in 1969,” he writes. “Swelling to as large as seven by five feet, they ranged from somber blacks and burgundies to saturated blues and greens and truly electric purples and yellows. He was experimenting with a wide variety of new pigments and many variations on his familiar rectangular format. …They are among my father’s most personal utterances” (C. Rothko, op. cit., Cambridge, 2015, p. 209; 217).