I n 1962, when the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reached out to Mark Rothko, it wished to add a contemporary example from his oeuvre to its permanent collection. The artist obliged, and the museum selected Untitled, 1960, one of only 19 paintings on canvas that Rothko made that year. The radiant work captures an important moment in the artist’s career and heralds the spectacular union of colour and form that came to define his singular and enduring legacy.
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 his most emotionally provocative and visually inspiring works. 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 crystallises Rothko’s transformative shift towards an exploration of a deeper, more contemplative emotive experience. It is this exploration of emotions that gives the artist’s masterworks their profound poignancy and dark beauty.
In a 1959 Life magazine article – just one year before the present work was executed – Dorothy Seiberling described Rothko’s almost mystical 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 colours 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 colours.” Untitled is among the finest manifestations of Rothko’s desire to create an aesthetic language that transcends the limitations of painting: to create an experience of pure colour, spirit and light.
Greg Morrison is assistant editor of Sotheby’s magazine.
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