A paragon of Rothko’s expressive command of pigment, Untitled (Red on Red) demonstrates the artist’s profound ability to communicate spatial depth and volume through abstract form. Two rectangular panels—comprising layers of brick red and deep crimson—fill almost the entire composition and hover atop a backdrop of translucent washes of light red. Traces of scarlet pigment brim to the surface along the work’s perimeter. Viewers can feel the touch of Rothko’s brushstroke; they can sense the movement of his gesture across the modulated planes. In describing his practice, Rothko explained: “Two characteristics exist in my paintings; either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions.” (The artist cited in Ibid., p. 299) In the present work, the surface pushes outward in all directions; the loose brushstrokes that dust the edges of the panels elicit a sense of extension, as if Rothko could barely contain them in the intimately-scaled sheet of paper he selected. Jeffrey Weiss characterizes the evocation of space in Rothko’s slab-like forms by suggesting they “possess an elusive quality of plentitude or depth.” (Ibid., p. 303) Upon close viewing, the expanse of Untitled (Red on Red)’s two panels feels immeasurable.
Untitled (Red on Red) shimmers with energy, illuminating the space surrounding it. A sliver of pink from beneath the two panels peers through the thin space between them, creating the illusion of a beam of light. It blurs the panels’ lines, glistening with the brilliance of the sun’s rays as they pierce through a sea of clouds. Max Kozloff terms Rothko’s paintings ‘auto-luminous,’ for they emit “a radiance that belongs to the [work] alone rather than to the realm of representation.” (Jeffrey Weiss, “Rothko’s Unknown Space,” in Ibid., p. 304) Rosenblum describes the rectangular planes in Rothko’s paintings as “infinite, glowing voids [that] carry us beyond reason to the Sublime; we can only submit to them in an act of faith and let ourselves be absorbed into their radiant depths.” (Robert Rosenblum, “The Abstract Sublime,” ARTnews 59, no. 10, February 1961) To view the present work is to experience a perceptual transformation; meditation on its glorious planes removes viewers from their surroundings.
With its strikingly saturated hues, Untitled (Red on Red) exemplifies the drama Rothko came to attain on paper. Of the finest examples of his works on paper, the present work helps viewers “chart the artist’s quest for an elemental language that would communicate basic human emotions and move all mankind.” (Bonnie Clearwater, Exh. Cat. New York, Mark Rothko Foundation, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, 1984, p. 17) Although the works from this period are characterized by ominous tones, Untitled (Red on Red) is distinguished by its vibrancy and demonstrates the complexities of Rothko’s colors and nuances within his palette: the chromatic interplay of fiery scarlet and blazing crimson attest to the artist’s mastery of color. Untitled (Red on Red) embodies Rothko’s most significant contributions to the history of art: eliciting deep emotional responses through an irresistible chromatic aura.
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