Property from the Eastman Family Collection
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With its hovering red and orange forms appearing to float against their soft red background, Untitled is the embodiment of Mark Rothko's vision. The discreet contrasts lead to a complex visual impression and reaction. In Untitled, Rothko has created a work that introduces us to the sublime, to the rawest and most profound emotions and anxieties of human existence. He has removed all elements that could obstruct the picture in the mind of the viewer, creating something pure, an experience that invokes feelings of the transcendental.
Over a decade before Untitled was painted in 1961, Rothko had emptied his canvases of overt signifiers, of the figures and signs that had formerly, to his mind, tapped into the timeless myths that themselves were the product of the elemental forces of existence, of humanity, of nature. The human element in his pictures had first been reduced to a symbol or a character, then was reduced from that, pared back to a point of universal significance, a simple hovering colored shape. With their indistinct, blurring edges, the three blocks of color in Untitled are the barest, simplest, purest distillation of the figures of his former work. The human figure has not departed from Rothko's canvas, but has instead taken on a new, universal form. In Untitled, the viewer is presented with a vision from which any overly specific element has been removed in order to create a sense of awe and wonderment that is concerned with the human condition, rather than any isolated shards of autobiography. This extreme simplification of the human form reflects Rothko's self-proclaimed tendency to be more profoundly moved by works of art that concerned a solitary figure, yet also reveals the extent to which the figurative had remained, albeit in a spectral guise, within his works. For while he believed that actual depictions of humans were redundant, they are nonetheless the direct though distant forebears and source of the forms in Untitled. Rothko himself hinted both at this and at the profound relevance of his paintings to life when he stated that, "Abstract art never interested me; I always painted realistically. My present paintings are realistic" (Mark Rothko, quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago and London, 1993, p. 330).
Untitled was painted in the wake of, and shows the influence of, one of Rothko's most famous commissions-- that for the murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York's Seagram Building. The tale of this commission, and of Rothko's final decision to return his fee and participate in it no longer, has become the stuff of artistic legend. The paintings that upon which he had already worked are now dispersed throughout the world, most famously perhaps in the group housed in the Tate Museum in London, which he himself donated. Rothko's experience on the Seagram commission was decidedly mixed. While in many ways ending on a sour note, with the artist disgusted at the concept of the rich and famous spending fiendish sums on elaborate meals while his paintings hung over them, the experience of painting on this vast scale was a dream come true. Rothko was given a new impetus, a new sense of the potential of his paintings.
Even before he rejected the commission, he revealed his new understanding of the power and impact of his own pictures by conceiving them as weapons designed to instil discomfort in the viewer or diner: "I accepted this assignment with strictly malicious intentions. I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room" (Rothko, quoted in Ibid., p. 376). The dark, forbidding appearance of those works, with heavy bars of color designed to weigh down oppressively, would provide a counterpoint to the luxury of the surroundings, transforming it into a zone of contemplation, not indulgence. His idea of conjuring an atmosphere of foreboding was perverse and sadistic in that he wanted to spoil the meals of the clientele, and yet at the same time was true to his longstanding desire to instil awe in his viewer. For the first time, Rothko had been given a chance not only to arrange paintings relative to one another in an exhibition, but to paint them relative to one another in order to create an entire environment. He had been given a new form and means of control. This concept would come to inform the way that he painted even individual works such as Untitled from this point, as well, of course, as his later mural commissions for Harvard and for the de Menil Chapel in Houston.
In a sense, then, the Seagram project provided Rothko with faith in the effectiveness of his paintings to create the atmosphere that he desired, to evoke some of the ingredients that he considered key to his works: "A clear preoccupation with death. All art deals with intimations of mortality" (Rothko, quoted in Mark Rothko 1903-1970, exh.cat., London, 1987, p. 87). This was in part achieved through the shimmering, scumbled edges of the fields of color in his paintings. Combined with his deft use of color, this resulted in a visual effect that gave the impression that various components in his paintings were advancing towards or receding from the viewer, like closing walls or opening windows. In Untitled, this is emphasized by the difference between the top and bottom fields of red, so subtly contrasting with the background against which they appear almost suspended, and the warm orange center. This sense of the picture playing with the space of the viewer-- rather than with any internal sense of space-- came to be increasingly important to Rothko following his initial work on the Seagram pictures and his subsequent voyage to Italy. There, he saw again the staircase designed for the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana at San Lorenzo in Florence, and realised how much it must have marked him when he first saw it in 1950:
"After I had been at work for some time, I realized that I was much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo's walls in the staircase of the Medicean Library in Florence. He achieved just the kind of feeling I'm after-- he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall" (Rothko, quoted in Breslin, op.cit., 1993, p. 400).
Now, having revisited the site, the vestibule-- with columns sunk into the walls so that they appear to be pushing into the world of the viewer and with mock windows, bricked up, adding to the sense of enclosure, captivity and restriction-- became an overt source of inspiration for Rothko. This deliberately stifling area in San Lorenzo, placed deliberately before the open space of the library and its implied enlightenment, would become a touchstone for the artist, reflecting his own artistic intentions. In this light, Untitled, along with Rothko's other classic abstract pictures, aims to prompt in the viewer the revelation that, "The problem of living in this world is to keep from being smothered" (Rothko, quoted in Ibid., p. 329). What he is revealing is the suffocating awareness of despair and tragedy that should lead to a shift in the understanding of the viewer, to an enlightenment.
Rothko was influenced by religious art and architecture in creating his paintings, and he himself was often moved by impressive buildings or by the paintings of the artists of yore. In Florence, he had been particularly marked by the paintings by Fra Angelico in the monastic cells of San Marco. He was moved by the omnipresence of the pictures within the lives of the monks, and also of the scale of each work within the tiny cells. Each day, a moment in Christ's life would be the ever-present backdrop to the life of the monk, be it the crucifixion, the flagellation, the agony, or the betrayal. Similarly, he was awestruck when he visited the formidable ancient ruins of the Temple of Hera in Paestum a couple of years before he painted Untitled. When some Italians heard that he was an artist, they ingenuously asked whether he had come to paint the temple; Rothko replied to the girl who had translated the question for him: 'Tell them that I have been painting Greek temples all my life without knowing it' (Rothko, quoted in Ibid., p. 399).
This answer was a reflection not only of the crisp rectangular architecture of the Greek temple, but also of the interest in conveying a sense of the momentous sublime and the terrifying awe of existence-- this had been the shared aim of Fra Angelico, of Michelangelo and of the architects of the Greek temples. However, Rothko was all too aware that the age in which he lived-- the era of existentialism, with the world still torn by the visible scars of the Second World War-- was more secular than those of his predecessors:
"I'm of the generation that has nothing to conceal from itself. Our forebears had a kind of humanity influenced by religion, property, morality, and above all by illusions, and they used all this paraphernalia to conceal from themselves the tragic situation that each of us must ultimately face in our own solitude" (Rothko, quoted in Ibid., p. 285).
Rothko aimed at a revelation that was spiritual, not religious. Essentially, he considered the imagery of religion to be redundant, even bankrupt, in the modern world, and had sought his own novel universal means of conveying a universal message, of inducing a universal sensation.
It was this interest in the universal, in myths, in the fundaments of our existence, that had led to Rothko's love of Shakespeare, Schiller, Nietzsche, Homer, Greek art, Fra Angelico, temples. These were the people and objects that inspired a similar sense of awe in the viewer, reader, listener. Another key member of this small canon of past confederates in the search to tap into the immortal forces of life was the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. While he was painting, Rothko would often fill his studio with tunes from Mozart, immersing himself in a deep artistic sensibility, bathing himself in the atmosphere of the sublime. While the music played, he would commit, from a tiny distance of about a foot and a half, darting brushstrokes to the canvas.
These frantic little dabs of color-- which add that distinctive shimmering blur to Untitled, filling it with a sense of shifting energy and shimmering translucence-- were applied in veil upon veil of colour. This appears to owe a great deal to Rothko's earlier acclaimed experimentation, during the 1940s especially, with watercolor, with the sense of luminosity that that medium could convey. In oils such as Untitled, Rothko would thin his paint to a deliberate extreme in order to convey a sense of the ungraspable, the insubstantial. These would themselves be applied to a canvas that had initially been treated not with the usual primers but instead with a glue in which the artist himself had mixed pigments that he would subsequently match with the ground. In the case of Untitled, this ground is seen in the soft red of the edges, of the background. The layers of paint have been superimposed, adding to the vibrant, even vibrating feeling of the surface. This perfectly exemplifies Rothko's desire to give the impression of "breathing" his colors onto the canvas. There is little trace in the overwhelming appearance of the hovering, monolithic forms of Untitled of the tiny buzzing movements with which Rothko created it. And yet these movements are integral to Rothko's own mystique concerning his art. For while he stood close to the canvas, absorbed by its colours, he would dab dab dab pulling these forms into existence. He would move with great speed in an almost automatic manner that he considered assisted him in harnessing the forces that he sought to capture. By looking into himself, not into his own fleeting feelings but into the fact and underlying nature of his existence, he could glimpse, channel and convey the eternal. "Intuition," he explained, "is the height of rationality. Not opposed. Intuition is the opposite of formulation. Of dead knowledge" (Mark Rothko quoted in Ibid., p. 330). Intuition allowed Rothko to tap into living knowledge, lending Untitled its emotional power.