Toward the final years of Rothko’s life, after completing the two commissions whose magisterial brilliance cemented his status as one of America’s most revered and vital abstractionists—the Seagram Murals, and the Rothko Chapel paintings commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil—the artist devoted significant focus to exploring the absolute limits of painting on paper. Having already achieved triumphant international success, Rothko nevertheless would not tire in his quest to push his art beyond the bounds of the picture. The shift in his practice from canvas to paper in the late 1960s characterized the epitome of Rothko’s incessant artistic probing, as he recorded in his notes that, “…to whom a certain medium becomes too easy and who runs this risk of becoming too skilled in that medium, to try another which presents more difficulties to them.” (Ibid., p. 56) In conversations with Robert Motherwell, Rothko referred to this new group of paintings as “a different world from myself.” (Dore Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 189)
Until his death in 1970, the trajectory of these later years in Rothko’s life proved to expose the artist’s rawest and most pronounced sensitivities, a magnified introspection that provided the emotional catalyst for his palette progressing towards hauntingly darker hues. While the works from this period are famously characterized by their ominous darkness, Untitled from 1969 demonstrates the complexities of Rothko’s colors: the chromatic range of blues, blacks and greys shift before the eye like the ocean and sky at night, the twilight glimmering from behind the two bands like the irridescent moon peering in through Henri Matisse's 1913 French Window at Collioure. Pushing the bounds of painting using his distinctive economy of forms, Rothko's abstract fields of pigment here evolve before the eye into landscape; content and form merge seamlessly through the temporal experience that is the deep spatial immersion of the viewer. 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 quoted in David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 73) The bars of rich sumptuous blues concurrently imply a cavernous abyss while surging forward, a dynamic optical experience resulting in a brooding majesty that places the work at the pinnacle of the artist’s late oeuvre.
A stunning paradigm of Rothko’s determination to elicit human emotional response in each of his paintings, Untitled emits a serene aura that stirs the viewer into trance-like contemplation, a wholly pure and directly unique effect for each individual but one that mirrors Rothko’s immense introspection at the time of execution. Through the work, we enter into both a personal relationship with the artist and a deeper understanding of our own selves, our companion in the ever-expanding reflective surface of the paper. A sensation of rich, somatic absorption that is unparalleled by any other artist’s work, Rothko’s painting causes us to sink deeper into our own minds. “The interior realm was where Rothko wished to or perhaps could only live, and what he hoped to express. The ‘theater of the mind,’ as Mallarmé called it, was immensely dramatic for Rothko. His darkness at the end did allude to the light of the theater in which, when the lights are gradually dimmed, expectation mounts urgently.” (Ashton, Ibid., p. 189) Through his technique of layering thin washes of paint over another, often allowing colors from bottom layers to show through their above coats of pigment, Rothko’s painting seems to conceal a hidden light source emanating from its very core. Twinkling through and around the elegant planes of color, the present work achieves an incandescent dimensionality that is reminiscent of Rembrandt or Caravaggio’s divine virtuosity for rendering natural light in flat oil paint. Michael Butor wrote of this series of Rothko’s works that “one of the most remarkable of Rothko’s triumphs is to have made a kind of black light shine.” (Ibid., p. 189) Indeed, it is almost as if this extraordinary painting is brilliantly illuminated from within: a translucent vessel of pure color and light.
Twenty years before he executed the current work Rothko wrote, “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space.” (Mark Rothko, ‘The Romantics Were Prompted,’ 1947, in Clifford Ross, ed., Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, New York, 1990, p. 167) The present work is a quintessential example of the deeply metaphysical experience that Rothko asked of the highest forms of abstraction—a simultaneously expansive yet intimate theater of the sublime. We do not purely look at this painting; we are actively engulfed in its waves, situated as actors within its epic expanse.
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