Contemporary Art

Mark Rothko's Late-Career Turn to Paintings on Paper

Mark Rothko's Untitled (Red on Red) and Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue), both from 1969, are highlights of the upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 16 May in New York. The works come to auction from the Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection.

D uring the period of Abstract Expressionism American artist Mark Rothko was nearly synonymous with color-field painting, along with Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. He was known for his works which present blurred zones of color on ever-increasing canvases. Thanks to his layering and blurring of the impasto, his hues seem to glow as he focused on color as the primary conveyor of meaning. His shimmering veils of intensely luminous paint in soft-cornered forms of uninterrupted color provided an avenue through which to express the universal reality of existence.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue)
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue). From the Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection.

Rothko suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life, but in the 1960s with his health deteriorating, he withdrew further into solitude. He worked on paper and canvas throughout the 1950s and 60s, but in early 1968 he suffered an aortic aneurism which significantly limited his ability to work. Doctors suggested that he stop drinking, smoking, and working on a scale larger than forty inches high; Rothko, ignoring the first two pieces of advice and accepting the third, turned to mostly works on paper from mid 1968 onward. Most of his works from these final years present gradually muted colors and reduced color palettes, such as Untitled (Brown and Gray), 1969. Often the rectangle zones from this period occupy the entire picture plane rather than floating before any reference to a ground. Even his few paintings from the period present considerable reduction and somber effects such as Untitled (Black on Grey), 1970.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red on Red)
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red on Red). From the Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection.

However, Untitled (Red on Red) and Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue), both from 1969, seem to recall the lively internal structure of his earlier works, with clear contrast and blurred outline between rectangle and the space that surrounds it. Although both works present a relative reduction in palette, the incandescent effect of the colors of his earlier paintings seems apparent in these two works on paper, particularly in Red on Red. The gestural application of the paint is made more explicitly visible than in other works from the period, which contributes to the relatively exuberant quality established by the color. Rothko’s suicide the following year came after a series of personal blows which were exacerbated by his physical limitations; Red on Red and Red and Burgundy Over Blue exemplify how the color and form with which he experimented throughout his career appeared on paper during the tumultuous final years of his life.

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