Mark Rothko: Red and white and other telling combinations

Mark Rothko: No. 9 (White and Black on Wine). Mark Rothko: No. 9 (White and Black on Wine). Sold for $16,359,500 via Christie's (May 2003).

Immediately identifiable, Mark Rothko’s paintings not only carry his pioneering distinctive color field style that was to propel him towards an uneasy fame in later life. But for Mark Rothko red and white, among other highly saturated hues, often provided a window into the artist’s state of mind.

Best known for his color field paintings depicting irregular and painterly rectangular areas of color from 1949 to 1970, Rothko is primarily associated with the American Abstract Expressionist movement of modern art. This status was cemented by his inclusion in the 1952 “Fifteen Americans” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which included works by Jackson Pollock and William Baziotes.

Characterized by a sense of space, and a vibrant and expressive use of vivid blocks, the searing colors that Rothko deployed across a range of styles including abstractionism, surrealism and multiform, would seemingly almost melt into an iridescent natural light, or draw you into the darkest depths of despair and anguish. There was little middle ground.

Mark Rothko in 1959 (age 55).

Mark Rothko in 1959 (age 55). (Image via Wikimedia Commons).

Whatever the style of painting though, burning bright or deep dark colors brought an encapsulating expressionism to every Rothko artwork, but one color seemingly had a pervasive influence throughout his career: red. From his early works through to his vast expressionist canvases of vibrant energy, and the doomy, deep reds, maroons, and browns that followed before his eventual suicide in 1970, the color red showcased the light and dark in Rothko’s life.

The energy and ecstasy of vibrant reds and yellows of Rothko’s multiform period

Today, Rothko is primarily known as a pioneer of color field artistry, but his journey to artistic greatness and fame took years, even decades to hone, before he finally settled on his now well-known stripped-back style.

This style of painting that preceded his more famous work has been dubbed “multiform” by critics, although Rothko never referred to them this way. Instead, Rothko felt they were images of human expression that possessed an organic structure that couldn’t be defined. Devoid of a landscape or a human subject, the hazy blocks of vivid color possessed a life force of force of their own – and it was the color, not the form that conveyed this.

Vivid shades of red and splashes of white fought for attention as Rothko sought to bring people to tears through his paintings. “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” he declared. “And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions.”

Rothko became enraptured by Henri Matisse’s Red Studio and credited it as an inspiration

To describe Rothko’s feelings as towards Henri Matisse’s Red Studio as a mere fascination, infatuation, or even obsession might seem needlessly dramatic, but none of these emotions truly conveyed his association with the painting. In fact, his feelings went much deeper than a simple fondness for a piece of art. Instead, he felt saturated by the piece, almost uncontrollably enveloped.

When The Museum of Modern Art purchased it in 1949, Rothko stood in front of it almost every day for months, entranced. According to Bonnie Clearwater’s, The Rothko Book, Rothko said that looking at the painting, “you became that color, you became totally saturated with it as if it were music”.

Enchanted and enraptured by Matisse’s painting, it seemingly prompted an awakening in Rothko that through the use of color, paintings could take hold of their viewer and help them see more in the painting than merely a simple color. The influence of Red Studio is apparent in Rothko’s work that followed, as he similarly set about using large blocks of color and shapes, with his No. 21 providing an interesting basis for comparison.

By 1958, darker red offers a window into Rothko’s state of mind

The spiritual expression of Rothko’s work was paramount to his being as an artist and with the help of funding from Texas oil millionaires and art collectors, John and Dominique de Menil, he started building a geometric, postmodern, and windowless chapel in 1964 to house his increasingly dark and brooding artwork.

The sixties might have been a swinging time for many flower power hippies, but as Rothko’s health deteriorated and he continued to lead an unhealthy lifestyle of drinking and smoking, the expressions of his work became increasingly dark, as his bright reds, yellows and oranges were subtly and slowly transformed into dark blues, greens, grays and blacks.

This steady transition from the vibrant and energetic red, yellows and whites the decade before is stark. This was reflected in the chapel where a monochrome triptych in soft brown hung with the aim of surrounding the viewer with an imposing vision of darkness, as Rothko’s concern for the transcendent grew, hence the chapel. The chapel was finally opened in 1971, but Rothko never got to see it.

Rothko posthumously breaks sale records with Orange, Red, Yellow

Rothko’s finances were tight well into his middle age and he died before his paintings grew exponentially in popularity, and perhaps most significantly in price.

In his lifetime, he saw art collector Richard Feigen sell one of his paintings to the National Gallery of Berlin for $22,000 in 1967, but that figure pales in comparison to the figure achieved for Orange, Red, Yellow in 2012. It set a new nominal value record at a public auction for a post-war painting, elevating it on the list of most expensive paintings ever, when it sold for close to $87 million. The sale surpassed the $72.8 million spent on White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) in 2007.

Red was once again a feature of the painting in his trademark color field style, which by this point he had been using for over a decade. Following his formula, it was soft in tone and made up of static compositions alongside subtle color harmonies.

Rothko’s Red swaps the canvas for the stage

Having fled Russia for Ellis Island in 1913 to avoid the Russian Imperial Army draft, learnt American as his fourth language, dropped out of Yale, led a chaotic personal life fuelled by addiction, and redefined the western world’s expectation of art, it’s clear that Rothko’s life mirrored the highs and dark depths of his artwork.

So, it was no surprise when a play based on his life was produced in 2009. And it was no surprise what is was called: Red. John Logan’s play focused on the Seagram Murals that Rothko was commissioned to produce for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building and his decision to refund the lucrative fee and donate the paintings to the Tate Modern, as he disliked the thought that his paintings would be decorative objects for wealthy diners.

The play naturally starred actors suited to the title with Alf(red) Molina and Eddie (Red)mayne in the starring roles. It opened in London to excellent reviews and in 2010 Red opened on Broadway, where it won six Tony Awards, including Best Play. What Rothko would have made of it all is open to debate.