Executed at the kernel of the artist’s halcyon era, No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) is archetypal of his very best painting and its appearance here at auction, after three decades residence in a prestigious private collection and inclusion in comprehensive major exhibitions, marks an historic moment. Following the crucial turning point of 1949-50, when Rothko resolved an abstract archetype out of the preceding multiform paintings, the artist entered what David Anfam, the editor of the Rothko catalogue raisonné, has called the anni mirabilis: the first half of the 1950s, during which the artist’s mature mode of artistic expression pioneered truly unprecedented territory. The present work is critical and integral to this spectacular outpouring of innovation and is one of just twelve canvases that Rothko created between 1950 and 1955 on a scale to exceed nine feet in height. Indeed, the scale of this painting is absolutely fundamental to the most authentic experience of Rothko’s vision, whereby we become participants in his all-encompassing canvases, rather than mere spectators. A number of other constituents of this esteemed body of paintings are today housed in the some of the most prestigious museum collections of the world such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
At the precipice of a decade during which Rothko would redefine the very essence of Abstract Art, he wrote the following words in a published statement: “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) Rothko thus asserted a fundamental equation between the artwork and its beholder, whereby the true potential of his painting could not exist without the presence of the viewer. When Rothko asked Katherine Kuh to describe her reactions to his paintings she wrote of the ones she had seen, including the present work: "for me they have a kind of ecstasy of color which induces different but always intense moods. I am not a spectator - I am a participant." (letter July 18, 1954). Rothko’s statement that it is the experience of a painting that completes the artwork; and Kuh’s concept of becoming a participant in Rothko’s art rather than a mere spectator stand as two core tenets that make the present work a masterpiece of his oeuvre. For our experience of No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) as participants in its stunning drama brings it to life, and may give new dimensions to our life. 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)
At over 113 inches in height, the scale of No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) is sheer and monumental: broadcasting 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, 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, The Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko: 1903-1970, 1987, 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) Indeed, Rothko wrote to Katherine Kuh to instruct the hanging of the 1954 Chicago exhibition, of which the present work was such an important climax: “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.” (Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op. Cit., p. 58) Indeed, describing “Rothko’s desire to envelop the spectator with art that overcame its ambient space”, David Anfam cites as example the 1955 show at the Sidney Janis Gallery that this work was also included in and where “the stature of the pictures and their siting – wedged into the spaces – is instructive. They seek to displace their environment.” (David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 73)
Three shimmering zones of color, which are simultaneously drawn together and held apart from each other by ethereal and imperceptible boundaries, dominate the canvas. The brilliant royal blue anchors the composition and works in magisterial chromatic concert with its exact complimentary color of vivid orange that pushes towards the uppermost limits of the canvas. The central royal red strip is tonally equivalent to the luminous sea of orange above it, yet works as an elegantly sophisticated horizontal axis that our eye is drawn to, between the two larger pulsating expanses. Rothko applied paint in diverse fashions; the rectangles, or objects, being achieved either by paint being spread out from the center, or by an outline thereafter being filled in, or by strokes being applied in parallel until the form was completed. As noted by Irving Sandler, “Rothko built up his rectangular containers of color from lightly brushed, stained and blotted touches which culminate in a chromatic crescendo.” (Exh. Cat. New York, Pace Gallery, Mark Rothko: Paintings 1948-1969, 1983, p. 8) Here chromatic resonance is attained through the meticulous aggregation of translucent veils of brushed pigment, with especially close attention paid to the spaces between forms and the edges of the canvas. Both despite of and due to their differences, the color fields equilibrate: the lure of one is immediately countered by the irresistible pull of the other as they reverberate over the fractionally paler ground. The layers of pigments concurrently hover indeterminately as three-dimensional floods of color in front of the picture plane, while also reinforcing the materiality of the painted object through their saturation of the canvas weave.
Through form, surface, texture and color Rothko has struck a perennial balance that lures the viewer's constant attention. There is also a certain tension struck between the uplifting emotions conventionally evoked by warm golden hues and something implicitly more tragic. Such elemental colors harbor primal connotations of light, warmth and the Sun, but inasmuch as they invoke the Sun they also implicate the inevitable cycle of dawn and dusk, of rise and set, and their own 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.” (in David Anfam, Op. Cit., p. 88), and with its suggestion of an unobtainable horizon and an infinite, unbreakable cycle, this work harbors something that is indescribably portentous.
While much contemporary commentary cited Rothko’s oeuvre as radically dislocated from historical precedent, subsequent perspective readily posits his oeuvre an eminent historical location. From 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 from decades and centuries past informed the new painting Rothko initiated in mid-century New York. Perhaps foremost among these was Matisse, whose own practice had so radically redefined relationships between form and color, and as Robert Rosenblum has pointed out: “it dawned on many of Rothko’s admirers that his dense seas of color might not have existed without the example of Matisse, a point the artist himself acknowledged.” (Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op. Cit., p. 22)
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)
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