STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE: THE BLEMA AND H. ARNOLD STEINBERG COLLECTION
An illuminating vision executed in a captivating shimmer of chromatic dynamism and peerless painterly finesse, Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue) from 1969 is an indisputably dazzling embodiment of the artist’s legendary abstractions. Emerging from a flickering ground of azure blue, two fields varying in tonality – one a striking crimson and the other a rich burgundy – radiate a steady heat. Built up of innumerable delicate strokes and thin washes, these luminescent forms emphatically attest to the artist’s mastery of light, color, and form. A rare, exquisitely vibrant example from a period characterized by a decidedly somber palette, Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue) exemplifies Rothko’s work in a medium that bore an increasingly profound significance in the twilight years of his career when, tirelessly seeking to broaden the horizons of his artistic practice, he focused his energies upon exploring the absolute limits of painting on paper. Conjuring the radiant sublimity of his most esteemed monumental canvases, Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue) is among the most striking embodiments of Bonnie Clearwater’s description of these works on paper: "…Rothko never abandoned bright colors in his works on paper, the vibrant late works on paper contain a force not experienced in the earlier small works…These late creations, with their dense unmodulated surfaces, do not flicker with light; rather they generate a strong, constant glow." (Exh. Cat., New York, American Federation of the Arts, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, 1984, pp. 54-55)
An exquisite summation of the artist’s signature practice, Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue) represents the breathtaking culmination of Rothko’s career-long pursuit of aesthetic transcendence through the conflation of pure color and light. While predominantly known and revered for his corpus of towering abstract canvases, Rothko produced a number of exceptional paintings on paper throughout his career that, in their subtly variegated hues and inherent luminosity, rank among the richest orchestrations of color within his output. In the late 1960s, Rothko experienced a period of intense creativity during which he produced some of his most profound and sublime paintings. Under doctor’s orders not to lift heavy canvases, Rothko turned to the lighter and more versatile medium of paper. Although not able to paint directly onto canvas, Rothko reached an apex in his artistic ambition, producing a series of works on paper as emotionally stunning as his best-known canvases. Paper, with its paradoxical ability to both reflect and absorb light, in many ways reinvigorated the artist’s quest to create nuanced luminosity within a reductive composition. Describing the significance of the medium within Rothko’s oeuvre, Clearwater notes: "These works…are essential to a fuller understanding of Rothko’s career. Together with the canvases, the works on paper chart the artist’s quest for an elemental language that would communicate basic human emotions and move all mankind." (Ibid., p. 17)
Against the velvety ground of cobalt paint, the rich, painterly forms of Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue) suggest both feverish movement and tranquil repose, emanating an enthralling tension that invites the viewer to lose him or herself completely in the diaphanous fields of unadulterated hue. Dominating the upper register of the composition, the feathered edges of the scarlet form push into the oceanic depth of blue, creating a sense of movement. In stark contrast, the deeper, more meditative passage of maroon subtly structures the painting, grounding the more ethereal scarlet form above with a solid weightiness. The work’s resultant dynamism necessitates the viewer’s constant attention and provides an endlessly engaging experience. Here, Rothko attains chromatic resonance through the meticulous aggregation of translucent veils of brushed pigment, with especially close attention paid to the spaces between forms and edges, as well as the spaces between the forms themselves. Despite the disparity in tone between the red rectangles, the two color fields equilibrate: the incandescent light of one is countered by the weightier density of the other as they hum quietly over the navy ground. Among the most spectacular examples of the artist’s works on paper, Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue) emanates an ethereal luminescence utterly impossible to reproduce in illustration.
The present work elicits a sensation of deep somatic absorption and introspection, causing the viewer to sink into an even deeper reverie, a pensiveness that Dore Ashton elegantly describes: "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 [Stéphane] 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." (Dore Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 189) Through the artist’s prototypical layering of thin washes of paint over one another, often allowing colors from initial layers to flicker through the subsequent coats of pigment, Rothko imbues the present work with an incandescent luminosity. As the rich warm tones hover over the indigo ground, the viewer is transported into a deeply contemplative state archetypal of Rothko’s most accomplished chromatic compositions.
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