"When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing; no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden time, for then we had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, and consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where they can root and grow. We must all hope that they find them" (Rothko, speaking in acceptance of an honorary doctorate at Yale University, New Haven, 1969, quoted in M. Lopez-Remiro (ed.), Mark Rothko Writings on Art , London 2005, p. 157).
In late 1967 after three years of intense and exhausting work Rothko finally completed the most important project of his life; the large and profoundly moving series of black murals for the Menil Chapel in Houston. As a direct contrast to these vast and largely monochromatic black oil paintings, Rothko deliberately began to paint on a smaller scale and with the new and more direct and immediate medium of acrylics.
A few months later, in the spring of 1968 the 65 year-old artist suffered a massive aneurysm to his aorta and after his recovery was advised by his doctors never to work with the more strenuous medium of oils or on paintings of over 40'' in height again. In response to these restrictive conditions, in the summer of the year Rothko returned to the medium of acrylic that he had experimented with earlier in his career and began to explore new possibilities in a series of works executed on paper and later laid down on panel or canvas for the purpose of preservation. With its rich warm colouring Untitled of 1968 is one of most radiate examples from this dramatic and important late series of paintings.
Rothko's acrylic paintings were in many ways a re-exploration in a different medium of the profound depths of feeling Rothko had immersed himself in for the Houston Chapel murals. His central theme there had been the Passion of Christ, the finality of death and the reality of the human spirit. Working over the summer of 1968 after his own recent brush with death and with its constant threat still hanging over him, this heavy drinking, heavy smoking, hypochondriac painter who throughout his life had sought an art of transcendence, dedicated himself to his work like never before. Seeking both solace and meaning from his art, Rothko's late works seek to emulate the great tragedies of his literary heroes Aeshyllus and Shakespeare. Sombre, heavy colours predominate in most, drawing out the chthonic dionysian forces of elemental nature and confining them within the picture plane in such a way that each work conjures a sense of monumental emotion compressed into a small and unremarkable human scale.
Working on several paintings at one time by taping each work against a large plywood backboard that served as an easel, the sombre intensity of Rothko's acrylics is clearly representative of the tragic conditions of the artist's life at this time. As his biographer James Breslin has pointed out, since the spring of 1968 Rothko had experienced a series of losses. He had separated from his wife and children, left his home to live in his studio and his recent aneurysm had robbed him of his sexual potency, and prompted his doctors to insist he stick to strict diet and abstain from drinking and smoking. Rothko largely ignored the doctor's advice concerning alcohol and cigarettes and as his friend Stanley Kunitz recalled, began to move "out of the world in general. He became solely self-preoccupied. That was one of the after effects of the aneurysm, and I think he was rejecting family, Mell (his wife) and the children and everything except art" (S. Kunitz quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko; A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 505).
Art must have seemed at times to represent the sole pleasure he had left and, as Dore Ashton - one of very few critics whom Rothko respected - recalled about a visit she made to his studio in the spring of 1969, Rothko was immensely proud of his latest work. Showing her his acrylic works she recalled that 'he named the exact number with pride, as though to say, "with all my trouble, I was able to do this.' Many are very haunting. Some directly expressive of a sinking heart. Many blacks over purple, or blacks over brown in a more decisive, almost incisive line dividing the weights. He sees them as very different and asked if they surprised me. I see them as consequent to the murals" (cited in Ibid, p. 511).
Untitled with its trinity of form - two black rectangles seemingly brought to life by a radiant red rectangle shimmering with fiery energy at the centre of the work -seems as close to Rothko's concept of depicting the Passion of the Christ as any of his works from this period. With its three delicately brushed rectangles seemingly vying with one another for prominence, the work as a whole generates a tense and powerful pull on the viewer's emotions - a mystical play of epic proportions somehow fought out on this intimate and personal scale.
Untitled (Black, Red, Black on Brown)
Oil on paper laid down on canvas
THE TETTAMANTI COLLECTION
Rome, Marlborough Galleria d'Arte, Mark Rothko, February 1971, no. 3 (illustrated in colour, unpaged, and on the front cover).
Bergamo, Galleria Lorenzelli, Mark Rothko, March 1971.
Turin, Galleria Martano, Mark Rothko, April 1971.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
32¼ x 25 1/8in. (83 x 64cm.)
Marlborough Gallery, New York.
Marlborough Galleria d'Arte, Rome (RD0443).
Acquired from the above by the present owner in May 1971.