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Description

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) Untitled signed and dated 'MARK ROTHKO 1954' (on the reverse) oil on canvas 87½ x 69 3/8 in. (222.3 x 176.2 cm.) Painted in 1954.

Artist or Maker

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

Exhibited

New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim,
Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline
, February-May 1996, p. 284 (illustrated in color).

Notes

Property of a Distinguished Private Collector


Painted in 1954, the shimmering Untitled dates from the beginning of Rothko's classic period. The vast and absorbing fields of color hover before the viewer, appearing almost to move, to contain their own energy. With an incredible economy of means, Rothko has created a discreetly luminous work that blends tension and energy with the spiritual, the tragic and the sublime.

Rothko's quest in his paintings was for a means of expressing the fundamentals of the human condition; partly because of this and partly as a result of his own religious and artistic background, he developed a fascination with myth and mythology. In these, he saw potential keys to the great universal and unifying forces and feelings of existence. In the 1930s and early 1940s, his paintings were filled with increasingly abstract glyphs and creatures that hinted at a swirling haze of hieratic meanings, stories, characters and emotions, that remained elusive yet that constantly evoked a narrative that lurked beyond our grasp and beyond our ken. Unlike the elements that filled the works of Miró, whom Rothko greatly admired, these were not intended as personal emanations but instead as a way of conjuring up the spirit of the timeless myths of humanity. Rothko sought to capture a quality that was spiritual, not merely religious.

Rothko's works began to take a new direction following his introduction to perhaps the most enigmatic of the Abstract Expressionists-- Clyfford Still. In 1943, they met for the first time. A few years later, Rothko managed to secure, over successive summers, a teaching position at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and was thus able to spend more time with Still, who was also based there. It is an irony of the legends of the Abstract Expressionists that one of the most formative relationships in the movement occurred so far from the Cedar Bar and the Bowery. For it was with the trailblazing example of Still's full-blown abstraction, and his personal support, that Rothko found the kudos to escape entirely the directly figurative. Still's works centred on an interest in abstraction, in part a reduction of the human figures that had peopled some of his earlier works. This verticality, to Still, represented life, perhaps influenced by the experience of his parents on a homestead in the flat prairies of Alberta: "For in such a land a man must stand upright, if he would live. Even if he is the only upright form in the world about him" (C. Still quoted in T. Kellein, "Approaching the Art of Clyfford Still," Kellein, ed., Clyfford Still 1904-1980, Buffalo, 1992, p. 14).

The vertical elements in Still's paintings represented a solid clutch on life, a celebration of the pioneering spirit of mankind, a cry for freedom. Sometimes they are jagged flashes of color, streaks of light, or fragile and tenuous threads that appear to struggle to remain in existence. Still's paintings were emanations from his own psyche, deeply autobiographical, even diaristic, records of his emotional state, resulting in a deep bond with his works that would result in his reluctance to let them leave his control. In looking into himself, discarding the artistic idioms and constructs of culture and society, he created a pioneering new visual language that tapped into raw forces of life aligned with those that intrigued Rothko. Like Still, Rothko shared a sense that these elemental forces could be discerned best in one's own self, referring to his own works-- in terms of which Still might have approved-- as "skins that are shed and hung on a wall" (Mark Rothko quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago and London, 1993, p. 306).

Still and Rothko, during the time of their friendship-- which tragically went the same way of so many of the great Abstract Expressionist alliances when the artists became successful during the mid-1950s-- often commented on each other's works, writing letters, critiques and introductions, the one often promoting the other. Rothko's own words on his friend can be read equally as an analysis of Still's paintings or of his own:

"Bypassing the current preoccupation with genre and the nuance of formal arrangements, Still expresses the tragic-religious drama which is generic to all Myths at all times, no matter where they occur. He is creating new counterparts to replace the old mythological hybrids who have lost their pertinence in the intervening centuries" (Rothko, 1946, quoted in Mark Rothko 1903-1970, exh.cat., London, 1987, p. 82).

It was this fascination with myth, with its distillation aimed at extracting a pure and profound sensation in the viewer, that resonates throughout the greatest of Rothko's own paintings, such as Untitled. At the time he was writing those words, Rothko's pictures retained the lingering figurative element that he would so imminently shed. It is a reflection of the degree to which Rothko and Still influenced each other during this period that they wrote so extensively on each other's works and encouraged exhibitions and introductions. Indeed, it is telling that, during Rothko's breakthrough years and until the year Untitled was painted, in his bedroom hung a painting he had borrowed from Still. It appears that Still's example, his friendship and even the talismanic presence of his work provided the impetus for Rothko to take the final plunge into full abstraction. However, Rothko's interest in formulating a technique for capturing this timeless sense of the epic nature of existence had preoccupied him for years, as is clear from the letter that he and Adolph Gottlieb wrote to The New York Times in 1943: "We favour the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth" (Rothko and Gottlieb, quoted in I. Sandler, "Mark Rothko," pp. 9-20, in Ibid., p. 11). This could almost perfectly be used to describe the classic abstract paintings such as Untitled that he would be producing a decade later, in the mid-1950s.

Rothko's journey towards complete abstraction had taken some time; by contrast, the development of what has become his instantly recognisable, even iconic style developed in the space of only a couple of years, at the very end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s. At the beginning of this crucial final stage of development, he touched upon the use of the horizontal columns of color, often in groups segregated by bars of another color; these became more and more simplified, even purified, as did his increasingly subtle use of color and its contrasts. By stripping away anything superfluous and reducing his picture to a group of floating forms, Rothko aimed to tap into the hidden forces of existence and the most profound feelings of the viewer. At the same time, these blocks of color were considered a true descendent of his figuration, the distilled essence of the human figures that had occupied his earlier works. The human form, initially replaced by symbolic representations in the works of the 1930s and 1940s, was now represented by fields of gently glowing color.

The colors that appear before us in Untitled reflect the extent to which Rothko had learned from his other key influences in order to reveal the emotional turmoil that he believed underpinned human existence. These influences included those of his teacher, Max Weber, and his teacher, the arch-colorist Henri Matisse (whose death in 1954, the year of Untitled, would result in another of Rothko's paintings, Homage to Matisse). When the Museum of Modern Art in New York-- which was located close to Rothko's home and studio-- had acquired one of Matisse's most celebrated masterpieces, The Red Studio, Rothko claimed to spend hours and hours before it, absorbed by its colors. The sense of absorption that would come to characterise his own works is a form of existential reprisal of this same feeling. Rothko's colorism owes a great deal to both Matisse and his pupil, as is clear from his subtle use of streaks of lighter color framing the larger square and rectangular elements in Untitled, which appear to thrust them forwards into the domain of the viewer. They add a dancing flicker to the edges that fills the work with a gentle movement, a sense of energy.

It is precisely this quality that reveal Rothko's paradoxical adoption and refutation of Matisse and Weber's colorism. For Rothko has used a deliberately limited and constrained range of colors, many of which are similar, in order to create a tension upon the canvas. Untitled is a gently shifting arena of energy, of potential. Rothko appears to have harnessed some of the energy of the Creation, of pure life, in these fields. At the same time, despite the warmth and luminosity of the colors, the tension that he has created results in a subtle anxiety, a feeling that is accentuated by the fact that the largest block appears to force its way towards us. For Rothko was seeking to capture the profoundest and barest sensations in his work, not mere prettiness or happiness. Indeed, his pictures rely on an active disruption of color harmony, a factor that is made all the more impressive in the economic range that we see in Untitled. "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions," Rothko explained to Selden Rodman.

"Tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on-- and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you... are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!" (Mark Rothko quoted in M. López-Remiro, ed., Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven & London, 2006, pp. 119-20).

Rothko did not merely communicate, but imposed these emotions. In Untitled, his use of color results in a visual effect by which the main, square-shaped form appears to hover in front of the work itself, invading the space of the viewer, looming into our world. This is emphasised by the sheer scale of Untitled, which towers over two metres tall. It is an entire arena designed to absorb the viewer, to submit us to the gentle eddies of life and its energies. Rothko considered his greatest works those that would consume the viewer. He sought to control and even overwhelm us by placing a dizzyingly vast wall of color before us. He did not intend his pictures to be viewed from afar, but instead to be seen from close-up. In part, this has been posited as a legacy of his own myopia; in part, it is a reflection, as he asserted himself, of the fact that he himself painted his works at a short distance, about 18 inches. We are placed not only within the world of Untitled, but also into the footsteps of the artist himself. All this means that we really do experience, on a personal and private level, that which he himself experienced during the act of painting. Discussing the size of pictures such as this, he stated that:
"I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them however-- I think it applies to other painters I know-- is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it" (Mark Rothko, quoted in Mark Rothko 1903-1970, exh. cat., London, 1987, p. 85).

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