“There is a need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to sit quietly in his rocking row-boat in mid-sea, absorbed in contemplation.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, translation by Francis Golffing, New York, 1956, pp. 33-34)
“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being."
Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1962, chapter 11
“Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.”
Mark Rothko, "The Romantics were Prompted…,” Possibilities, New York, No. 1, Winter 1947-48, p. 84
As we stand enraptured by the stunning resplendency of Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Yellow and Blue) we bear witness to what can only be described as an unequivocal masterpiece of twentieth-century art history. A glowing aurora of shimmering color and light, the present work confronts us as the summation of its creator’s deeply philosophical practice, wherein he staged some of the most moving, transcendent, and simply breathtaking unions between material and support ever realized in the grand tradition of oil paint on canvas. Rothko once described his ideal vision for his paintings: “It would be good if little places could be set up all over the country, like a little chapel where the traveler, or wanderer could come for an hour to meditate on a single painting hung in a small room, and by itself.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Mark Rothko: A Consummated Experience Between Picture and Onlooker, 2001, p. 22) Executed in 1954, at the chronological apex of the celebrated period of Rothko’s career referred to by David Anfam, author of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, as the anni mirabilis, Untitled (Yellow and Blue) is a triumphant archetype of this artistic ideal: its radiant surface and towering scale elicit a visual and somatic experience that is prodigious and undeniable, compelling us to surrender to a sense of pure contemplation in the face of its painterly authority. For Rothko, art was capable of provoking in the viewer an existential sense of awe and wonderment for the sublime miracle of existence, and in Untitled (Yellow and Blue), as we stand suspended in its sea of meditative calm, we behold that capacity wholly and perfectly achieved.
By the time he painted Untitled (Yellow and Blue) in 1954 Mark Rothko was fifty-one years old and had been working as a painter for thirty years. From figurative paintings in the 1920s and 1930s that reflected the realist trend dominant in American art, and perpetuated by figures such as Thomas Hart Benton, in the wake of World War I and through the Great Depression; through a series of canvases in the 1940s that looked to Europe and staged an exploration of biomorphic forms drawn from Miró, Picasso, Dalí, and Rothko’s other Surrealist predecessors; to the Multiform paintings begun in 1947 and representing the artist’s ultimate and unequivocal disavowal of the figurative, Rothko wrestled with the singular goal that had expanded in his mind to become all-consuming: to access an alternative realm, to transcend his worldly existence, to release himself and his viewers from what he perceived to be the devastatingly chaotic experience of everyday life. When he ultimately composed the first mature iteration of his legendary corpus, in 1949, Rothko succeeded in making his art the instrument of his inner life; his paintings ceased to be material expressions of artistic drive and transformed into gateways to the sublime.
These vessels of pure color and light, Rothko’s towering theses on the absolute limits of abstraction, were overwhelmingly engrossing for him in his creation of them as they are all-encompassing of our senses as we stand in awe in front of them. As Dore Ashton writes, “His greatest fund of emotion was lavished primarily on what he made – paintings. Those paintings were to be his passport to a more luminous world, not encumbered by our nouns and adjectives, our interpretations that always fall short. They were prepared by careful thought, nurtured by well-fondled ideas, but, as he said, ‘Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur.’ To leave the world in which ideas and plans – so quickly superseded by emotions – occur was essential to Rothko. …He had deep needs to fulfill, many of them incapable of being brought to the threshold of language.” (Dore Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 3) Rothko’s progression, pursued with dogged determination over decades of experimentation and refinement and with an unerring conceptual and philosophical consistency, was not a quest for material success but instead a visceral, undeniable, and deeply personal calling. Untitled (Yellow and Blue) is a paean to the utterly absorptive process of its execution, whereby Rothko conferred upon its luscious, vigorous surface his own desire, as elucidated by Stanley Kunitz, “to become his paintings.” (Stanley Kunitz, interview with Avis Berman, December 8, 1983, Archives of American Art)
Rothko executed twenty paintings in 1954, of which seven are today in the permanent collections of prominent museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Art (Orange and Tan); the Yale University Art Gallery (Untitled); The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (No. 9 (Dark over Light Earth/Violet and Yellow in Rose)); the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (No. 11/No. 2 (Yellow Center)); The Phillips Collection (The Ochre (Ochre, Red on Red)); The Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (Untitled); and the Essen Folkwang Museum (White and Brick on Light Red (White, Pink and Mustard)). This seminal year also saw Rothko’s first one-man exhibition in a major US museum, at the Art Institute of Chicago. Organized by one of the foremost champions of the avant-garde and post-war art in America, the Institute’s visionary first curator of modern painting and sculpture Katharine Kuh, this exhibition was a definitive testament to Rothko’s preeminence amongst the giants of Abstract Expressionism that were his peers and contemporaries. In the months leading up to the exhibition, and in preparation for its installation as well as the publication of an accompanying catalogue, Rothko and Kuh corresponded at length in a series of letters. In a manner entirely consistent with his artistic philosophy and aesthetic predispositions, Rothko was highly involved and invested in all aspects of the planning, approaching each detail with the same level of conceptual rigor that informed the physical execution of each and every painting he made.
His comments and specifications are illuminating and indicative of the very nature of his indelibly iconic practice. By way of instructing Kuh on how best to hang his monumental works, Rothko ultimately revealed a deeply rooted concern as to how his pictures were considered and perceived: “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.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko: 1903-1970, 1987, p. 58) Furthermore, in a subsequent letter referencing the text that was to be published in the exhibition catalogue, Rothko provided some personal and vulnerable insight into his struggle to arrive at a linguistic description of his paintings that would accurately describe the purpose and phenomenal import that he had conferred upon them: “From the moment that I began to collect my ideas it became clear that here was not a problem of what ought to be said, but what it is that I can say. The question and answer method at once presented insuperable difficulties: for the question imposes its own rhetoric and syntax upon the answer regardless of whether this rhetoric can serve the truth, whereas I have had to set for myself the problem of finding the most exact rhetoric for these specific pictures.” (the artist in a letter to Katharine Kuh, July 28, 1954 in Miguel López-Remiro, ed., Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 92) Like viewing the inner workings of a complex machine, our knowledge of Rothko's anxieties, spoken genuinely in the same year that he created Untitled (Yellow and Blue) by a man who today is essential to any comprehensive understanding of modern art history, provides us with an indelible appreciation for Rothko’s paintings beyond the immediate and utterly visceral visual response we have as privileged viewers of their supreme majesty.
Soaring to a stunning eight feet in height, Untitled (Yellow and Blue) broadcasts its allure on a greater-than human register; engulfing the viewer’s entire experience; and situating us as actors within its epic expanse. An apparent paradox typifies the artist’s ambition and contributes to his desire to commune directly with his canvases, 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, Tate Gallery, Op. Cit., p. 85) Of course, scale is absolutely fundamental to the nature of Rothko’s work, identified as such by Clement Greenberg even in 1950: “Broken by relatively few incidents of drawing or design, 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.” (“'American-Type’ Painting” (1955) cited in Clifford Ross, ed., Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, New York, 1990, p. 248)
Through the seamless flow of color and light an atmosphere of the ethereal emanates as if from within Untitled (Yellow and Blue). As we become fully subsumed within its luminous surface, our perception of physical boundaries or demarcations of material space dissolves and we are overcome by a sense of endless continuity, as if standing at a precipice reaching outwards toward an ever-receding, boundless horizon. Incandescent zones of brilliantly hued pigment, simultaneously distinct and inextricably intertwined, pulsate with a tangible energetic intensity that takes absolute hold of our vision, pulling us under in a wave of pure artistic bravura. An ocean of radiant lapis blue churns in the lower half of the composition, threatening to surge forth from its predetermined rectangular structure and pour into the shimmering fields of golden yellow that surround it. As witnesses to this inimitable masterwork, we are afforded the opportunity to travel through the subtle variants of tone and contour that comprise the intricate landscape of its surface, apprehending the subtly perceptible strokes of Rothko’s brush that imbue each area of Untitled (Yellow and Blue) with an ineffable breath and inexorable vivacity. Infused with an otherworldly glow, these iridescent tones harbor primal connotations of light, warmth, and the Sun; yet, in line with a perennial balance that characterizes the very archetypes of the artist’s corpus, there is a concurrent tension struck between the uplifting emotions conventionally evoked by warm golden hues and something implicitly more tragic. Inasmuch as the dazzling yellow, made endlessly dynamic by the sheer underlayers of red and blue pigment that give it an exquisite complexity, invokes the Sun it also implicates the inevitable cycle of dawn and dusk, of rise and set, of 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.” (the artist cited in David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 88), and with its suggestion of an unobtainable horizon and an infinite, unbreakable cycle, this work harbors something that is indescribably portentous.
For nearly thirty years, from the time that it was acquired directly following Rothko’s death in 1970, Untitled (Yellow and Blue) held an esteemed place within the renowned collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Foremost among the leading patrons in the arts for much of the Twentieth Century, Mr. and Mrs. Mellon lived according to the noblest ideals of refinement and understatement. Paul Mellon’s father, the banker, industrialist, and philanthropist Andrew W. Mellon had effectively founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1937 with a gift of one hundred and fifteen paintings from his personal collection as well as the funds to construct the museum’s building, designed by John Russell Pope. Following his father’s death, Paul Mellon took stewardship over the project, presenting the completed building to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 and thereafter serving as the National Gallery’s president, board chairman, and honorary trustee. When Mrs. Mellon married Paul in 1948 she brought her distinctive passion and discerning aesthetic predisposition to the Mellon family’s art collection, redefining its scope to include artists like Mark Rothko who were operating at the very forefront of artistic innovation at mid-century. Mrs. Mellon's deep reverence and love for the arts combined with and extended Paul Mellon’s own overwhelming generosity; in 1966, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Gallery, an exhibition of the Mellon’s vast trove of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings was held and the paintings subsequently donated to the museum. Five years later, the Gallery’s burgeoning collection of Modern Art required additional space and Mr. Mellon commissioned I. M. Pei to design a new East Building that, together with his sister Ailsa Mellon Bruce, he funded. Over the course of six decades until his death in 1999, Mr. Mellon donated nine hundred and thirteen works to the National Gallery.
In a life and a world comprised of truly beautiful, personally meaningful, and historically significant works of art, Mrs. Mellon had a particular admiration for and predisposition towards the paintings of Mark Rothko. In the critical year following the artist’s death, she acquired a total of nine large-scale paintings from his estate including Untitled (Yellow and Blue): No. 2/No. 7/No. 20, 1951; Untitled (Blue, Green and Brown), 1952; No. 20 (Yellow Expanse), 1953; No. 14 (White and Green in Blue), 1957; Untitled (White and Orange), 1955 and Untitled (Red, Black, White on Yellow), 1955, both subsequently donated to the National Gallery; and Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), 1955, and Untitled, 1970, both sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014 as part of the auction celebrating masterworks from her collection. Widely admired for her sophistication, expertise, sensibility, and intelligence, Mrs. Mellon was an indubitable champion of the arts who, with an unerring eye amassed a collection rich in historical import and sheer beauty of which Untitled (Yellow and Blue) was a privileged part.
While much contemporaneous commentary cited Rothko’s oeuvre as radically dislocated from historical precedent, subsequent perspective readily posits his corpus an eminent historical location. The theoretical foundations of Rothko’s aesthetic revolution conformed to the predominating rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism in the mid-Twentieth Century – absolutism, themes of purging and beginning art anew, and other extremes of theory and practice were similarly espoused by Rothko’s now-heroic compatriots of the New York School such as Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – yet his influences span the centuries that preceded him. From Giotto, 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 and light informed the new painting Rothko initiated at mid-century in New York.
Written in the late 1930s, but not published until nearly seventy years later by the artist’s son Christopher, Rothko’s extensive writings, thoughts, and inspirations reveal a profound reverence for and intellectual involvement in early Italian painting, particularly that of Giotto di Bondone. During a series of trips to Italy Rothko was able to experience Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, wherein he studied and admired the artist’s ability to organize space and narrative action by means of color. Indeed, the brilliant lapis zone of Untitled (Yellow and Blue) bears a direct likeness to the stunning blue ground that covers the walls and arched ceiling in the chapel. Without question, Rothko was in awe of Giotto’s artistic sensibilities and writes at length of his colorism: “the use of color for its own sensual ends as well as for its structural ends had greatly deteriorated since the time of Giotto. Perspective displaced the use of the organic quality of colors, which had previously, in and of themselves, produced the tactile effect of recession and advancement.” (Mark Rothko, The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 38) Like Rothko himself, Giotto was a pioneer who broke new ground in the use of pigments, variously hued and built up through layers of accumulation so as to assume their own dimensionality independent of an artist’s structuring line or invocation of perspectival space. Rothko continued, “It is Giotto’s color…that produced the great effect of his tactility. All the tactile painters have used color with a knowledge of its tactile qualities. This is in contrast with the illusory painters whose illusion of recession is achieved by the graying of color as it recedes into the distance. The tactile painters, in other words, achieve their tactile quality by means of color value. Color, however, intrinsically possesses the power of giving the sensation of recession and advancement.” (Ibid., p. 59) What is made clear by Rothko’s deep consideration and analysis in these passages, written in the earliest stages of his career, is that he had already arrived at a direction and purpose for his art – his was to be a corpus of tactile paintings; he was to use color in its purest form to generate atmospheric qualities, illusions of boundless depth – over a decade before happening upon the aesthetic revelation of how to transform this fundamental concept into its material manifestation.
Five centuries after Giotto, the Romantics, in an impassioned reaction against the prevailing social norms that arose as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, employed color in the emphasis and validation of the emotional intensity that results from confronting the transcendence of an uninhibited aesthetic experience. J.M.W. Turner, in his 1844 masterwork Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway, realized the unquantifiable power of the sublime when he culled an utterly affecting narrative out of pure color and light. Through the impossibly precise yet ethereally light stroke of Turner’s brush, we are willingly transported at once to the very core of this painting’s masterful surface and inwards, towards the depths of our own subconscious.
Like the Romantics who preceded them, the Symbolists considered Art as a contemplative escape from a world of strife, achieving this liberation through themes of mysticism and otherworldliness grounded always by an incisive sense of mortality. With the advent of Abstract Expressionism, this remarkable philosophical lineage was given an ever grander and more evocative visual form. As early as 1943, Rothko published a joint statement with fellow pioneers of the new Abstraction, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb: “To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks. … It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way – not his way.” (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, “Statement” in Edward Alden Jewell’s column, The New York Times, June 13, 1943) Thus, while delivering the tenets of Romanticism and Symbolism to the modern era, via a revolutionary compositional clarity and monumentality of viewing experience, Rothko conclusively asserted the paramount equation between his artwork and its beholder, whereby the true potential of his painting could not exist without the presence of the viewer. Four years later, he developed this integral relationship even further: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.” (Mark Rothko, “Statement,” Tiger’s Eye, New York, vol. 1, no. 2, December 1947, p. 44)
The artist famously stated, in what is perhaps the definitive text declaring the philosophical underpinnings to his oeuvre, “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers… They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion.” (Mark Rothko, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” first published in Possibilities, no. 1, 1947) Indeed, our experience of Untitled (Yellow and Blue) as participants in its stunning drama brings it to life, and may give new dimension to our lives. We do not look at this painting; we are absorbed into it. Indeed, being in its presence parallels a line of Nietzsche that had inspired Rothko since he had been a young man: “There is a need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to sit quietly in his rocking row-boat in mid-sea, absorbed in contemplation.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, translation by Francis Golffing, New York, 1956, pp. 33-34)
It is well documented that Rothko was fixated with the literary work of Friedrich Nietzsche, above all the German philosopher's 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 color fields. Indeed, Rothko’s vast tableaux have often been discussed in the lexicon of the immediate and saturating effects of music. David Sylvester’s review of the 1961 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition in London provides an apt response to the present work in these terms: “These paintings begin and end with an intense and utterly direct expression of feeling through the interaction of colored areas of a certain size. They are the complete fulfillment of Van Gogh’s notion of using color 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 might be interpreted as instructive or didactic and could thereby interfere with the pure import of the paintings themselves. However, in 1958 he gave a talk at the Pratt Institute to repudiate his critics and to deny any perceived association between his art and self-expression. He insisted instead that his corpus was not concerned with notions of self but 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.” (lecture given at the Pratt Institute 1958, cited in Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op. Cit., p. 87) Teeming with the sheer genius of its creator’s inimitable evocation of the sublime, Untitled (Yellow and Blue) is the singular summation of Mark Rothko’s fundamental artistic ambition as elucidated in his definitive Pratt Institute talk. A veritable treatise on the absolute limits of abstraction, the present work, in truth, involves both spirit and nature, and instills in us a profound sense of the spiritual whilst evincing Rothko’s abject faith in the critical role the artist plays in attaining the highest realm to which man could aspire: “For art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.” (Mark Rothko, “Personal Statement,” in Miguel López-Remiro, ed., Op. Cit., p. 45)
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