Exemplifying Mark Rothko's legendary language of abstraction via the sublime aura of its golden surfaces, Untitled of 1955 affords a visual and somatic experience beyond compare. Executed at the height of the artist's creative powers, it is archetypal of his very best painting. Following the crucial turning point of 1949-50, when he resolved his inimitable dialect of abstraction out of the preceding multiform paintings, Rothko entered what David Anfam calls the anni mirabilis: the first half of the 1950s during which his mature mode of artistic expression pioneered unprecedented territory. Untitled of 1955 embodies a pinnacle of achievement during this classic period and crystallizes the conceptual and philosophical enquiries interrogated by Rothko during the preceding decade. Indeed, this vast painting stands as definitive verification of Rothko's vital role in shaping the course of twentieth-century Art History, and is also intrinsic to the international artistic revolution of the post-War epoch.
At over 90 inches in height, the scale of Untitled is monumental, broadcasting its allure on a greater-than human register, engulfing the viewer's experience, and situating us as actors within its epic drama. This apparent paradox typifies the artist's ambition, declared in 1951: "I paint very large pictures...precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience...However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command" (Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko 1903-1970, 1987, p. 85). Of course, scale is fundamental to the nature of Rothko's work, identified as such by Clement Greenberg in the year of this painting: "their surfaces exhale color with an enveloping effect that is enhanced by size itself. One reacts to an environment as much as to a picture hung on a wall" (in "'American-Type' Painting", 1955 cited in Clifford Ross, Ed., Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, New York, 1990, p. 248). In the preceding year Rothko had written to instruct the hanging of an exhibition: "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" (Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op Cit, p. 58). Indeed, describing "Rothko's desire to envelop the spectator with art that overcame its ambient space", Anfam cites a 1955 show at the Sidney Janis gallery where "the stature of the pictures and their siting – wedged into the spaces – is instructive. They seek to displace their environment" (David Anfam, Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 73). In this manner and in keeping with the most revered works of his canon, Untitled creates its own exclusive province of inimitable sensation for the viewer to enter. Nevertheless, even within Rothko's output the present work remains extremely rare: each of the four paintings executed in 1955 to exceed or equal the height of Untitled are today housed in prestigious museum collections; respectively the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.; and the San Francisco Museum of Art.
The canvas is dominated by two shimmering zones of light that are simultaneously drawn together and held apart by a horizontal band of lustrous orange, which is quietly echoed in a softer edge towards the foot of the painting. This central strip provides tonal contrast to the luminous seas of color above and below so that the composition operates around the identifiable focus of a central horizontal axis. Pushing out towards the uppermost boundaries of the canvas, a warm yet slightly citrus yellow expanse pulsates above a more introspective, almost square field of whites below. Rothko applied paint material in diverse fashions; the rectangles, or objects, being achieved either by paint being spread out from the centre, or by an outline being filled in, or by strokes being applied in parallel until the form was completed. Chromatic resonance is reached through the build up of translucent veils of pigment, with attention committed to the spaces between forms and the edges of the canvas. Both despite of and due to their differences, the two principle color fields equilibrate in Untitled: the lure of one is immediately countered by the irresistible pull of the other as they reverberate over the fractionally warmer ochre ground. The layers of pigments hover indeterminately as three-dimensional floods of color in front of the picture plane, while also reinforcing the materiality of the painted object through their saturation of the canvas weave.
Through form, surface, texture and color Rothko has struck a perennial balance that captures the viewer's constant attention. There is also a tension struck between the uplifting emotions conventionally evoked by warm golden hues and something implicitly more dramatic, or even tragic. Such elemental colors harbor primal connotations of light, warmth and the sun, but they also implicate the inevitable cycle of dawn and dusk, of rise and set, and their own continual demise and rebirth. Rothko once stated to David Sylvester: "Often, towards nightfall, there's a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration – all of these at once. I would like my painting to have the quality of such moments" (Ibid, p. 88), and with its suggestion of an unobtainable horizon and an infinite, unbreakable cycle, Untitled possesses something unknowably portentous.
While much contemporary commentary cited Rothko's oeuvre as radically dislocated from precedent, subsequent perspective readily posits his oeuvre an eminent historical location. From J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich and Claude Monet to the Luminists, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse; predecessors concerned with the pure effects of color from decades past informed Rothko's new painting in mid-century New York. Perhaps foremost among these was Matisse, whose own practice had radically redefined relationships between form and color, and as Robert Rosenblum has pointed out: "it dawned on many of Rothko's admirers that his dense seas of color might not have existed without the example of Matisse, a point the artist himself acknowledged" (Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op Cit, p. 22). That Matisse died on 3rd November 1954, the year before the present work's execution, inevitably impacted Rothko's work. Soon after this sad event a discernible shift occurred, as elucidated by Anfam: "The output of 1955, the year after Rothko's departure from Betty Parsons (in favor of Janis) and the termination of his teaching job at Brooklyn College, emerges as critical" (David Anfam, Op Cit, p. 88). These eventful months witnessed accelerated experimentation in brushwork, composition and, most importantly, color, including Rothko's first serious use of the darker hues that so famously came to define much of his later work. That the brilliant luminosity of Untitled emerged during this time compounds its significance within Rothko's career.
It is well documented that Rothko was fixated with the literary work of Friedrich Nietzsche, above all his seminal opus The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music written in 1872. Nietzsche's ideas of how the tension between Apollonian and Dionysian forces dictates the terms of human drama were important to the advancement of Rothko's philosophy. Furthermore, Rothko's vast tableaux have often been discussed in the lexicon of the saturating effects of music. David Sylvester's review of the 1961 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition in London provides an apt response to Untitled in these terms: "These paintings begin and end with an intense and utterly direct expression of feeling through the interaction of coloured areas of a certain size. They are the complete fulfillment of Van Gogh's notion of using colour to convey man's passions. They are the realisation of what abstract artists have dreamed for 50 years of doing – making painting as inherently expressive as music. More than this: for not even with music...does isolated emotion touch the nervous system so directly" (in New Statesman, 20 October 1961 cited in Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op Cit, p. 36).
Excepting a letter to Art News in 1957, from 1949 onwards Rothko ceased publishing statements about his work, anxious that his writings could interfere with the pure import of the paintings. However, in a 1958 talk at the Pratt Institute, he repudiated his critics and denied any perceived association between his art and self-expression. He insisted instead that his corpus was concerned rather with the entire human drama. While he drew a distinction between figurative and abstract art, he nevertheless outlined an underlying adherence to the portrayal of human experience. Discussing the "artist's eternal interest in the human figure", Rothko examined the common bond of figurative painters throughout Art History: "they have painted one character in all their work. What is indicated here is that the artist's real model is an ideal which embraces all of human drama rather than the appearance of a particular individual. Today the artist is no longer constrained by the limitation that all of man's experience is expressed by his outward appearance. Freed from the need of describing a particular person, the possibilities are endless. The whole of man's experience becomes his model, and in that sense it can be said that all of art is a portrait of an idea" (the Pratt Institute lecture cited in Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op Cit, p. 87). The magnificent Untitled naturally holds no figurative content within its paint layers and the force of its abstraction is well beyond the means of literary description. It does, however, epitomize a critical chapter in the artist's life's work and is finally best served, perhaps, by Rothko's own notion of the portrait of an idea; the idea being an inexpressible sensation of the human drama itself.
Oil on canvas
Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, June 1970 - March 1971 (on loan)
Boston, Boston City Hall, The New York School, March - April 1971
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, October 1975 – October 1978 (on loan)
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mark Rothko 1903 – 1970: A Retrospective, October 1978 - September 1979, cat. no. 122, illustrated in color
Beijing, Zhongguo Meishuguan; Shanghai, Shanghai Bowuguan; American Paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, September - November 1981, p. 32, illustrated
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, A Private Vision, February - April 1982, p. 35, illustrated in color
Portland, Portland Museum of Art, May - September 1984
South Hadley, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, An Architect's Eye, September - November 1985, p. 17, illustrated in color
London, The Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko 1903 - 1970, June - September 1987, cat. no. 49, p. 138, illustrated in color
Madrid, Fundación Juan March, Mark Rothko, September 1987 - January 1988, cat. no. 25, illustrated in color
Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Mark Rothko 1903 - 1970: Retrospective der Gemälde, January - March 1988, cat. no 39, p. 151, illustrated in color
South Hadley, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Collective Pursuits: Mount Holyoke Investigates Modernism, April - May 1993, p. 59, illustrated in color
Indianapolis, Indianapolis Museum of Art; Columbus, Indiana, Columbus Gallery, American Traditions: Art from the Collections of Culver Alumni, December 1993 - March 1994, p. 303, illustrated in color (inverted)
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Reflections on Monet, September 1998 - January 1999
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Side by Side, 1999
Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Mark Rothko, "A consummated experience between picture and onlooker", February-April 2001, cat. no. 31, p. 110, illustrated in color
91 5/8 x 69 in. 232.7 x 175.3 cm.
Kenworth Moffet, Morris Louis in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 1979, p. 7, illustrated
Jean Shinoda Bolen, The Tao of Psychology: Synchronicity and the Self, New York, 1982, illustrated in color on the cover
Camilo Franco, "O humano sobre o home con fondo de cór", La Voz de Galicia, 22 October 1987, p. 4, illustrated
Julio Trenas, "Rothko y la 'Escuela de Nueva York'", Jano 804, January – February 1988, p. 106, illustrated
David Anfam, Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 1988, cat. no. 523, p. 402, illustrated in color
Estate of the artist (no. 5004.55)
Marlborough A.G., Liechtenstein/Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Inc., New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1969