The Illuminated Shadow


As in life, so in art. Sometimes small clues may lead to large discoveries. Mark Rothko’s signature style canvases and works on paper from 1950 onward have eclipsed his prior output in the public eye. In terms of originality, beauty and sheer presence, that verdict is justified. Nevertheless we may miss the bigger splash, so to speak, by not paying attention to the ripples. These metaphors are apt since around 1940 Rothko created a little work titled… Seascape. Perhaps it is not a set piece that would make many waves, either for its size or style per se. Yet the female bather literally points – with the diagonal vector that her arm and leg describe – to the future and a major theme running throughout Rothko’s art. For many, it has been hidden in plain sight. Shadow. Now flash forward a neat two decades from Seascape. To fully grasp the importance of Untitled (1960) from the Macklowe Collection is to behold a prime example of Rothko’s apotheosis – as subtle as it is intense – of light and shade.

Mark Rothko, Seascape, c. 1940. Private Collection. Art © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Indeed, exploring shadows strikes to the very heart of picture-making itself. In a nutshell, the ancient Greek term for depicting illusions of reality was in fact skiagraphia – shadow painting. Reinforcing this idea, the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder claimed that painting originated when one Gyges of Lydia saw his shadow cast by the flames of a fire and instantly drew its outline on the wall in charcoal. It was even the so-called “first art historian”, the Florentine Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), who amplified this legend.[1] Still, enough of stuffy art history.

Mark Rothko, Thru the Window, 1938/1939. Image © National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Art © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Instead, Rothko tells it like it is in another diminutive vignette rendered on gesso board, which he significantly named Thru the Window (1938/1939). There, rectangular outlines frame a fanciful self-portrait, a woman in the window projected in plunging perspective and a blank maroon canvas on an easel. Mindful of Vasari’s allusion to a predecessor, the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti – who invented a modern perspective system with his notion of the picture as a window – Rothko had conjured in microcosm a painting about painting and the self. Add to these ingredients the artist’s early, intimate knowledge of Plato. [2] The celebrated Platonic allegory of the cave presents the somber human condition as a mysterious site involving muted radiance, shadow and substance, presence and absence, silhouettes and depth. [3] Then complete the equation with the fact that perhaps Rothko’s first drawing limned a gloomy location underneath the viaduct at Riverside Drive near 125th Street on Manhattan’s upper West Side. [4] The sum total? That the essential parts are in place for what the mature Rothko would regard as the “human drama”.

Sideline and pulverize those figures over the next decade or so and the dramatis personae become abstract shapes enacting their play with color and luminescence alone upon the canvas’s stage. Their brilliant display unfolded for around five years or slightly more until the scenery changed. Enter “the dark pictures” and Rothko is in the mood to dim the lights and heighten the tension for his audience. His strategy is the chiaroscuro (in Italian, literally light/dark) from which Untitled pulls a tour-de-force pictorial performance. Not barnstorming, just great theater. No wonder the younger Rothko hailed the ancient Greek author Aeschylus as an inspiration in the early 1940s for his myth-based tableaux. However, by 1961 he avowed that “as I have grown older, Shakespeare has come closer to me than Aeschylus”.[5] Inwardness had replaced epic spectacle. We have the script for the 1960 Macklowe painting. Contemplative and brooding, it is a Hamlet or Prospero to the Agamemnon and Electra of Aeschylus’s tragic trilogy, the Oresteia (458 BC). That this trophy has never before been shown in public means that its appearance now is a special premiere. I, for one, think it more than rises to the occasion. But expect real gravitas, not flashy fireworks.

Much has been made of a certain remark that Rothko wrote on February 1 of the year that he executed Untitled. Responding to an enquiry from the then-Tate Gallery in London (Tate would of course ultimately prove home to his Seagram Murals), the artist replied, “I wish I could help you with a statement for your catalogue. I can only say that the dark pictures began in 1957 and have persisted almost compulsively to this day.” [6] Without questioning Rothko’s honesty, his claim may be clipped and tailored for public consumption. To recall the novelist D. H. Lawrence’s canny dictum, trust the tale, not the teller. Otherwise, Rothko’s last thirteen years’ activity can look too much like just a long day’s journey into night rather than a summation.

In fact, Rothko alternated between refulgent and tenebrous effects throughout his career. What could be more prophetic than another two small, very early studies? Firstly, a rendering of trees and a path or, more likely, pond. Second, A view from the area of West 136th St. toward Columbia University. The artist inscribed on the former’s verso, “SKETCH IN THE SHADE JULY 1925”. On the back of the latter, he wrote “SKETCH DONE IN FULL SUNLIGHT AUG 1925”.[7] This exceptional specificity coming from a secretive person could suggest that Rothko laid special store on the polarities at stake. Even more tantalizing in hindsight is that Sketch in the Shade has a light blue sky and rather cheerful yellow-green foliage, whereas its pendant (they are identical in size) is quite sober. The images seem to express, albeit in the raw, Rothko’s fledging awareness that lightness and darkness are opposing values on a single scale. Upon closer scrutiny Seascape’s daylight seems oddly subdued, its main accent being the contrasts between the lit and shaded sides of the female nude. It is as though Rothko intended to relume shadow (note the red touches throughout the grey and brown tonalities). Two corollaries follow.

Mark Rothko, No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953. Image © Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles / Art Resource, NY Art © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

One thought is that although the Macklowe Untitled should, according to Rothko’s bald confession (or crafty irony, a quality that he prized)[8] to the Tate be classed as a “dark picture”, it actually radiates in a restrained manner. For example, compare its chromaticism to a pre-1957 canvas such as No. 61. Bigger, bolder while sharing much the same palette with Untitled, is it nevertheless truly “bright”? Not altogether. Indeed, the upper and lower rectangles are veritable shadowlands. By comparison, Untitled from seven years later smolders. Having seen the work three times – first in New York twenty-two years ago, again in Manhattan last year and in London this past February – it never looks quite the same. Tellingly, too, reproductions never manage to get the color register and values exactly right. Nor could I pin them down when examining the surface with a powerful magnifying glass. It as though Rothko, ever the shrewd pictorial tactician, were playing some deadly serious game of hide-and-seek with the onlooker.[9]

At one moment, a rough flicker of rusty, blood-red-cum-maroon streaks across the lower perimeters of the composition, especially at the right corner. At another, the central deep brown is matte and immaculate with barely a trace of any brushmarks. As such, it behaves like an unmoved mover, simultaneously stabilizing the oblong presences above and below, while exerting a quiet force that compresses the one and allows the other to expand. Much lighter tints creep, barely, from beneath both the top rectangle and the middle brown. Around them – whether underneath the surfaces or simply reserved as a chromatic outer “window”, as it were – the blueness establishes a constant azure, an almost celestial envelope or atmosphere. The uppermost stratum alone approaches blackness. Yet here is also the sole expanse to hint at reflectivity: the surface scumble has the barest sheen compared to the underlayer that it does not quite hide (sometimes I thought I discerned a greenish cast, only to soon change my mind).[10] Umbra and penumbra. Completing the overall mise-en-scène, bare white canvas emerges here and there along the lateral edges as they turn over the stretcher. Abrasions? No. A condition report mentioned no such wear and tear. On the contrary, my magnifying lens revealed them to be tiny passages where Rothko had simply stopped the blue paint short of the edge. The perceptual implication is that the whole vision might pull back like a veil to disclose its hidden, utter luminosity.[11] “Paintings”, Rothko once remarked, “are skins that are shed and hung on a wall.”[12] Skins or skeins, above all, this is chiaroscuro pushed and finessed to a virtuoso pitch.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ at Emmaus, ca. 1628-29. Image © Musée Jacquemart- André, Paris / Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.

The very mention of “chiaroscuro” instantly calls to mind one of Rothko’s heroes. Rembrandt van Rijn. For example, in Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus the gloom caused by the humble domestic setting only intensifies Christ’s radiance, as it does a few select characters in The Nightwatch. As Rothko translated this antithesis, “If people want sacred experiences they will find them here. If they want profane experiences, they'll find those too. I take no sides.”[13] As for not taking sides between darkness and light, Rothko would have found a good precedent in the venerable tradition of the sublime. The intermingling of this duality reached a crescendo in the seventeenth-century English poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost. There, Milton figures the divine as “dark with excessive bright” such that even the “brightest seraphim… veil their eyes.”[14] Whether our experience of the ostensibly nocturnal Untitled (1960) proves sacred or secular, its illuminated shadows transfix us like an afterglow.[15]

© Art Ex Ltd 2022

[1] Giorgio Vasari, transl. George Bull, Lives of the Artists. Volume I (London: Penguin Books, [1568], 1987), p. 27.

[2] Plato’s name recurs throughout Rothko’s early typescript: see Christopher Rothko, ed., Mark Rothko. The Artist’s Reality. Philosophies of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004).

[3] David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas – Catalogue Raisonné (Washington, D.C. & New Haven: National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, 1998; 6th printing 2019), p. 99. There, I closed my narrative with Plato though without knowingthe aforementioned typescript.

[4] I identified this spot by sheer chance in the early 1990s while researching the catalogue raisonné. My life partner was Head of Conservation at Columbia University Libraries, so I often roamed the neigborhood (where Marcus Rothkowitz lodged when he first moved to New York).

[5] Rothko, in Peter Selz, Mark Rothko (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961), p. 12.

[6] Rothko, letter to Ronald Alley (February 1, 1960), in Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art (London: The Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981), p. 657.

[7] Anfam 1998, nos. 3 and 4.

[8] The ancient Greek eiron is a stock type who understates or gives a twist to his words.

[9] The phrase “hide and seek” occurs in at least one of Rothko’s private jottings.

[10] Even a new, expensive pair of varifocal glasses failed to fix the changefulness – to the extent where I almost decided to return them to the opticians.

[11] The diaphane as texture/covering is an ancient device, a membrane between the secular and the sacred. Think the Veil of the Temple.

[12] Rothko, in James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press), p. 316.

[13] Anon., “Stand Up Close…”, Newsweek, 57 (23 January 1961), p. 60.

[14] John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667), Book 3, lines 381, 383.

[15] When Rothko came to do the murals for the Chapel in Houston five years later, his contractual task was to “illuminate” it; Susan J. Barnes, The Rothko Chapel: An Act of Faith (Rothko Chapel: Houston, 1989), p. 48. Rothko signed the contract on 15 February 1965.

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