The following work is being considered for inclusion in the forthcoming Mark Rothko catalogue raisonné of works on paper, compiled by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Painted at height of the artist's maturity in 1959, this Untitled work was executed in the same year he completed the famous Seagram murals.
Rothko periodically worked on smaller-scale paintings on paper throughout his career, often exploring in these works possibilities unavailable in his large-scale paintings on canvas. In particular, as this picture illustrates, the use of paper as a ground enabled a swifter, bolder, more energetic and immediate application of translucent color. This allowed and indeed encouraged Rothko to continue to apply his color in rapid broad and often gestural strokes that gave a new and more dynamic expression to the surface of the work. Whereas the large canvases were 'dramas' he once remarked, these smaller works were very different, more like 'novels'.
In this composition, Rothko places a sizzling band of fiery red between two larger blocks of cooler, darker tones. He forms the two dominating rectangles of color using large and dramatic sweeps of the brush, the paths of which are left visible as an integral and important part of the surface. Rothko's painterly technique allows these blocks to reveal their origins by showing how each block is made up of layers of different colors to produce the final effect. In addition, Rothko carefully feathers the edges of each color block so that together they become powerful but largely indefinable forms seemingly radiating differing tonal energies from the heart of the work. Set over a fresh blue ground, these two rectangles of color, similar to those that dominate and distinguish the Seagram Murals, establish a strong and seemingly natural presence within this surround.
Mark Rothko considered his paintings to be experiences that should engross the viewer, rather than simply objects. The vivid palette of Untitled radiates with an intense red central band, which succeeds in Rothko's avowed goal of creating compositions of such power that, 'when you turned your back to the painting, you would feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back' (quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 275). Rothko aptly described his paintings as being both 'intimate and intense' (quoted in Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 99). This work expertly combines areas of bright optimism and warmth immediately alongside sections of more sober mood, demonstrating Rothko's masterly handling of composition.
Rothko considered these floating geometric forms arranged on the picture plane to be actual objects and not abstract. He believed that everything had its own reality: 'My new areas of color are things, I put them on the surface. They do not run to the edge, they stop before the edge... Abstract art never interested me; I have always painted realistically. My present paintings are realistic. When I thought symbols were the best means of conveying my meaning I used them. When I felt figures were, I used them' (M. Rothko, quoted in Mark Rothko, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1987, p.73). Mark Rothko's works on paper served as important laboratories where he experimented with color, the freshness and immediacy that he was looking for.
Oil on paper laid down on board
Signed and dated 'Mark Rothko 1959' (on the reverse)
Mark Rothko , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
Munich, Kunsthalle Der Hypo-Kulturstiftung and Hamburger Kunsthalle, Mark Rothko, February-August 2008, no. 80 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
37¾ x 25 7/8 in. (95.9 x 65.7 cm.)
W. Sauerländer, "Der verborgene Gott," Süddeutsche Zeitung, 8 February 2008, no. 33, p. 17 (illustrated in color).
Collection of the Artist
Private collection, Minnesota
By descent to the present owner