A veritable treatise upon the absolute limits of painterly abstraction, the luminous canvas of Untitled, 1960 transmits an aura of the ethereal that is enthrallingly immersive, engulfing the viewer entirely within its utterly captivating compositional dynamism and chromatic intensity. The three clearly distinct—yet inextricably intertwined—zones of radiant color imbue the canvas with a tangible magnetic charge that draws the viewer ever, irresistibly inward. Cast against the rich field of deep charcoal, a velvety expanse of creamy white anchors the bottom of the painting; built up of innumerable washes of hue, the feathery edges of the white passage bleed gently into whispers of crepuscular gray. A deep maroon rectangle floats above the flickering ivory form, the borders of each color commingling slightly in vaporous whisks of paint at an elegantly executed horizontal axis. Crowning this triumvirate of thrumming color is a shimmering zone of lighter crimson hue, whose soft edges only marginally distinguish it from the more saturated red below in a manner that both balances and, simultaneously, undermines the stability and distinction between both fields of color. The rich warmth of the saturated, sensuous reds is perfectly counterbalanced by the veins of cool, iron gray that flicker through, creating a painting that appears simultaneously to emit and absorb light. In the artist’s own words: “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) The dramatic and elegiac confluence of maroon, white, and gray is exemplary of the meditative colors for which Rothko is celebrated, and indeed conjures the twilight mystery the artist sought to impart in his canvases. Untitled, 1960 evokes an ineffable tension struck between the tantalizing emotions conventionally evinced by the smoldering crimson hues and something implicitly more tragic lurking from within the dark background. Inasmuch as the elemental red invokes passionate impressions of flames and light, its juxtaposition with the dark ground conjures the inevitable cycle of dawn and dusk, of rise and set, and of our own continual demise and rebirth.
One of just 19 paintings on canvas by Rothko from 1960—nearly half of which reside in museum collections—Untitled, 1960 represents a pivotal moment within Rothko’s storied career and artistic development. While Rothko had already achieved significant international acclaim by the end of the 1950s, it was over the course of the following decade that the artist would push himself to produce the most emotionally provocative, astoundingly intimate, and visually awe-inspiring works of his oeuvre. Created in the interim between the artist’s two career-defining projects of the Seagram Murals (1958-59) and the de Menil Chapel (1965-67), Untitled, 1960 crystallizes the transformative shift towards an exploration of deeper, more contemplative emotive experience that distinguishes the profound poignancy and dark beauty of the artist’s greatest masterworks. In its richly variegated palette of velvety red and maroon hue, the present work powerfully invokes the soaring canvases of Rothko’s Seagram Murals, the extraordinary mural cycle that, begun in 1958, marked the initiation of Rothko’s shift towards the refined, somber elegance of his later paintings. Initiated as a site-specific installation in the newly opened Seagram building in New York, Rothko considered the Seagram Murals to be amongst his greatest artistic achievements. Completed in 1960—the same year as Untitled, 1960—it was this commission that marked the artist’s irrevocable shift to a more elegant and mature style, in which the high-keyed colors of the 1950s works became more contemplative, the tonal differences within one canvas more subtle. While intended as a permanent installation of paintings at the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram building, upon completing the commission, Rothko refused to hang them, telling Katharine Kuh, curator of modern paintings and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, that he did not wish for his largest body of work to date to hang in a restaurant as “merely a decorative backdrop of the tastes and transactions of a society he abhorred.” (The artist quoted by Katharine Kuh, reproduced in Susan J. Barnes, The Rothko Chapel: An Act of Faith, Austin, 1989, p. 29) Recognizing the significance and sanctity of the series, Rothko instead presented nine of the monumental mural paintings to the Tate Gallery in London, seeking an environment conducive to the lingering contemplation and introspection these soaring canvases invite. Painted in the same, richly sumptuous burgundy hues as the Seagram Murals, the lustrous forms of Untitled, 1960 invoke the same hushed grace and transcendent intensity associated with these legendary masterworks; speaking in terms highly reminiscent of the present work, the artist’s son describes: “The Seagram commission pushed Rothko to create a new color scheme that was cohesive yet varied enough to stimulate the viewer…he could harness color and form to create an experiential unity whose power lay in its simplicity and its understated, unwavering presence.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Pace Gallery, Rothko: Dark Palette, 2017, p. 17)
Delicately variegated within layer upon layer of translucent hue, the subtle tonal variances of Untitled, 1960 lend themselves to extensive contemplation by the viewer—while captivating upon first glance, the exquisite tonal intricacies of Untitled, 1960 reveal themselves slowly, shifting with light, environment, and angle. While deeply saturated at their core, the feathery edges of the colored forms engage in subtle transactions with the charcoal ground, allowing the transitions to be absorbed with greater intimacy, increased sensitivity, and at slower rhythms. In its exploration of a deeper plane of contemplative consciousness, Untitled, 1960 eloquently presages the solemn magnificence of the famed de Menil chapel, invoking the same aura of spiritual purity, transcendental mood and profound emotion associated with that reverential space. Following Rothko’s courageous defiance of the original Seagram commission in 1960, the artist was introduced to John and Dominique de Menil, whose collection of American art already included three paintings by the artist; upon viewing the Seagram Murals, the de Menils were struck by the nuanced variances of red and somber mood exhibited by these paintings, and shortly thereafter commissioned the artist to create a series of canvases for the chapel they were to build at the University of St. Thomas—a space that would, upon Rothko’s acceptance of the project, come to be known and revered as the Rothko Chapel. The hazy, shadowy visage, color palette and date of execution of Untitled, 1960 tie it inextricably to the soaring, reverential canvases of the chapel, which would become the artist’s magnum opus; as in the Rothko Chapel, the velvety tones and veiled luminosity of Untitled, 1960 invite a deeper, longer engagement with the painting than in the effervescent canvases of earlier years, allowing the viewer to fully appreciate the fluctuating depth, ethereal boundaries, and reverberating pull of pulsating color. With especially close attention paid to the spaces between forms and the edges of the canvas, Rothko attains chromatic resonance here through the meticulous aggregation of translucent veils of brushed pigment. Of these paintings, Christopher Rothko notes of his father: “Rothko has created a landscape where we may lose ourselves; a painting becomes almost a world of its own, where we find ourselves caught up and lingering beyond our conscious intention to stay.” (Ibid., p. 42)
The velvety expanses of burgundy, maroon, and cloudy white hue hovering upon the surface of Untitled, 1960 invite the gaze to beyond, presenting a visual and somatic experience that transcends the two-dimensional boundaries of the canvas: standing before the present work, the viewer is drawn towards an experience of exultation and solemnity, absence and presence, humanity and the divine. Within the simplified space of Rothko’s purified abstraction, the immaculately balanced forms absorb and exude varying expressions of ethereal light, allowing a sense of unified wholeness to permeate the composition. In a 1959 Life magazine article—just one year before the present work was executed —Dorothy Seiberling described Rothko’s mystifying output: “Just as the hues of a sunset prompt feelings of elation mingled with sadness or unease as the dark shapes of our night close in, so Rothko’s colors stir mixed feelings of joy, gloom, anxiety or peace. Though the forms in the painting seem simple at first glance, they are in fact subtly complex. Edges fade in and out like memories; horizontal bands of ‘cheerful’ brightness have ‘ominous’ overtones of dark colors.” (Dorothy Seiberling, “Abstract Expressionism, Part II,” Life, November 16, 1959, p. 82) Widely exhibited and distinguished by an unparalleled narrative, Untitled, 1960 is profoundly moving in its poetic grandeur and stands at the apex of Rothko’s metaphysical articulations of color, light, and form. Shimmering as though illuminated from within, Untitled, 1960 is amongst the finest manifestations of Rothko’s desire to create an aesthetic language that transcends the furthest limitations of painting: to create an experience of pure color, spirit, and light.
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