- Mark Rothko
- No. 6 (Yellow, White, Blue Over Yellow on Gray)
- signed and dated 1954 on the reverse; numbered #5102.54 on the stretcher
- oil on canvas
- 94 1/2 by 59 3/4 in. 240 by 151.8 cm.
Estate of the artist (#5102.54)
Marlborough A.G., Liechtenstein/Marlborough Gallery, Inc., New York
Baron Leon Lambert, Brussels (acquired from the above in 1972)
Christie’s, New York, May 5, 1987, lot 8
Gallery Urban, Nagoya, New York and Paris (acquired from the above)
Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 1991)
C&M Arts, New York (acquired from the above in 1994)
Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Alter, Pennsylvania
C&M Arts, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Zurich, Kunsthaus Zurich; Berlin, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Neue Nationalgalerie; Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf; Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van-Beuningen; London, Hayward Gallery, Mark Rothko, March 1971 – March 1972, cat. no. 35, p. 61, illustrated in color (titled Yellow, White, Blue over Yellow on Gray)
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Landscapes and Horizons, October – December 1987, cat. no. 36
Art in America 75, April 1987, p. 35, illustrated in color
David Anfam, Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, pp. 72-73 and cat. no. 505, p. 388, illustrated in color
Since my pictures are large, colorful and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls. This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are intimate and intense, and are the opposite of what is decorative.
(Mark Rothko, 1954)
Mark Rothko is universally regarded as one of the preeminent artists of his generation; closely identified with the New York School, his art, like Jackson Pollock’s and Willem de Kooning’s, remains one of the most celebrated dialects of the collective Abstract Expressionist language. For nearly half a century, Rothko developed an impassioned form of abstract painting; one that transformed painted color into emotive experience. The 1940s saw him adopt a biomorphic style close to that of his fellow Abstract Expressionist, Arshile Gorky. Gradually, Rothko became increasingly reductive, paying rigorous attention to formal elements such as color, shape, balance, depth and composition. From the early 1950s, until his death in 1970, Rothko made a series of works in which any suggestion of figuration was abandoned in favor of superimposed rectangular shapes of color, with cloudy edges, that possessed an evanescence and incandescence unique to his art. Bathed in a painterly mist, these indeterminate forms project their hues out of the pictorial space, inviting the viewer to contemplate the space he has created, leading them to extreme states of feeling. No. 6 (Yellow, White, Blue over Yellow on Gray) is a seminal example of Rothko’s enterprise. Executed in 1954, a time many consider the zenith of Rothko’s creative powers, the present work displays Rothko’s elimination of all elements of Surrealism or mythic imagery, providing us with a nonobjective composition of amorphous forms for which the artist is so championed – here, three soft-edged, luminescent rectangles of lemony yellow, milky white and ultramarine blue stacked weightlessly on top of one another, floating horizontally against a gray ground. The effect, as in all his work, but especially with this particular painting, is utterly mesmerizing.
In the spring of 1954, Rothko left the Betty Parsons Gallery and joined Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning at the Sidney Janis Gallery. In April 1954, Katherine Kuh, the Curator of Modern Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, approached Rothko and proposed that he inaugurate a series of solo exhibitions at the Art Institute. His exhibition, Recent Paintings by Mark Rothko, held in Chicago from October 18th to December 31st in the Gallery of Art Interpretation at the Art Institute, was the first one-man show Rothko had received at a major American museum. Kuh and Rothko exchanged a number of letters about his work, and this correspondence was intended to be used as the basis of a pamphlet to accompany the show. The brochure was never produced, however, as Rothko did not want to guide the viewer’s experience of his work (“While on the surface this may seem an obliging and helpful thing to do, the real result is the paralysis of the mind and the imagination” Mark Rothko’s letter to Katherine Kuh, July 14th, 1954). Crucially, Rothko was very involved in the selection of works for this important exhibition and, as David Anfam notes, “… much effort went into the selection and its arrangement. Rothko used number-titles for all the pictures, which were hung around three walls (the east one had windows), on both sides of a free-standing partition and, in one case, suspended from the ceiling of an off-white room measuring 50 [by] 41 ½ feet”. (David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 72). Rothko even prescribed the color of the walls: ‘slightly off-white’, as Katherine Kuh wrote in her letter to Rothko on July 8th, 1954. Only eight canvases were selected by Rothko and Kuh: two works from 1951; one from 1952; two from 1953 and three paintings from 1954. All were insured by the Art Institute whilst on exhibition; the present work for $2,000. Four of these works now grace the walls of the Tehran Museum of Art; The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. One painting belongs to the artist’s son; another to his daughter. Only the present work and one other from this exhibition remain in private, anonymous collections.
David Anfam conjectures that the ensemble of these eight paintings “… must have been unforgettable: an ambience not unlike what John Elderfield describes with regard to Symbolist aesthetics as ‘disembodied light in an unlocatable space’ – and, in the words of the press release (which perhaps contains leads from Rothko himself transmitted via Kuh), one that ‘avoids the traditional center of interest, always stressing instead the flux and flow of light and color’.” (Ibid.) Many of the works were conspicuously tall and narrow (the present work included) serving to stress an upright, anthropomorphic aspect to their display. Anfam suggests that the keynote to this exhibition was a ‘magisterial somberness’, evident in the dark plum-black of No. 4 (1953, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) or the midnight-green of No. 7 (1953, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D. C.). This exhibition was the first to powerfully speak of Rothko’s move away from a sunny spectrum of reds, yellows and oranges, to weighty, darker, more challenging hues. Anfam notes that even “… the light fields of No. 6 [the present work] were in fact locked within a marginal black aureole”. (Op. Cit., p. 73). This shift in palette and mood is linked to Rothko’s desire to envelop his viewer with his art; to provide not an object in space, but the very space itself. Indeed, Rothko asked Kuh in a letter dated 25th September, 1954 to ensure that his larger pictures be installed in such a way “… so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture.” (see Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Mark Rothko, 1998, p. 345). Kuh, in an earlier letter on July 18th, 1954, wrote “I think what happens to me when I am enjoying your paintings is less a thinking [her underline] than a feeling process. I seem to enter them – not just be looking at them.” As such, this famous exhibition and the extraordinary paintings included in it wonderfully reveal the conscious expansion of size, scale and seriousness made by Rothko with his art at this crucial juncture in his career.
Rothko’s absolute authority over color, surface, texture and composition was never more commanding than in his paintings from the 1950’s. This was a decade in which Rothko created some of the most important, beautiful and tragic images of the Twentieth Century. Experimentation in the balance of these elements, and the proportion of weight or suspension given to each cloudy field of color, created a majestic series of sensual, enigmatic masterpieces of gripping presence. No. 6 (Yellow, White, Blue over Yellow on Gray) is amongst the most sensational of them all. This superlative painting reverberates, optically and intellectually; engaging us with the artist’s desire to create a pictorial language that went beyond the very boundaries of painting, encompassing a transcendent, deeply affecting relationship between the viewer and the object. Rothko’s challenge, to both himself and his audience, was to engage not only the eye, but also the mind and even the spirit. Seeking to evoke Edmund Burke’s notion of the ‘Sublime State’ - one of vastness, oneness and infinity - Rothko hoped to achieve in his painting what he called a moment of clarity: “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity; toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea; and the idea and the observer … To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.” (Mark Rothko, “Statement on his Attitude in Painting”, The Tiger’s Eye, 1949).
The reductive power of Rothko’s canvases, built upon the elimination of line in favor of a blurred demarcation of color forms, is powerfully felt in the present work. Here, veils of rich blue, opalescent white and citrus yellow are layered on top of a deep gray ground, stretched to the perimeter of the canvas, allowing the ground to frame the dazzling interaction of color within. Such color juxtapositions achieve an alchemy of optical mystery, with the evanescent vapors of blue, yellow and white evoking a myriad of contradictory responses. Here, a sense of illuminating light contrasts with the artist’s achieved obscurity; within the apparently monolithic voids, a sense of organic presence prevails. To come back to Edmund Burke, “… extreme light … obliterates all objects, so as in its effects exactly to resemble darkness”. In the same paradoxical manner, Rothko’s saturated colors transcend above and beyond the decorative, into the metaphysical realm and the tragic Void.
The breathtaking quality of the oscillating color forms has always been the most accessible and the most seductive element of Rothko’s expression. Katherine Kuh considered Rothko’s paintings to have “… a kind of ecstasy of color” (letter to Rothko, July 18th, 1954). We see here a communion of color that unites each and every tone together into a unified whole. The impact of color, here layers of yellow, white and blue thrust to the front of the picture plane by the charcoal frame surrounding them, is immediate. It is striking, almost physical at first glance. Interestingly, Rothko objected to any simplistic view of vibrant color. Pulsating yellows and whites bounce with life and joy and yet, ironically, there is a deeper, more somber tone (lurking in the blues and grays) which one begins to feel the more time one spends in front of the picture. The chromatic contrasts he presents us with display a dissonance that is both ethereal and disquieting. Another formal contradiction lies in the monumentality of Rothko’s canvases. These large format surfaces surprisingly allow for the most intimate experience between the viewer and the object. Yet, for all of that, one still feels that one is experiencing the Void, is actually ‘in’ the painting and that the artist has come close to the ‘visual infinite’. Rothko’s complex relationship with color was shaped by the influence of Henri Matisse’s pure, flat color (he would paint Homage To Matisse in 1954 [The Edward R. Broida Trust]) and the thin veils of flat color in his friend Milton Avery’s work.
Rothko’s technique allowed him to create these dazzling surfaces. Oil paint seems to have been soaked into the present work, achieving a finish akin to the effects of watercolor bleeding into paper. Rothko fleshes out his color bands with feathery, liquid brushstrokes that further define these passages as densely painted areas. Such brushwork serves to establish the amorphous, evanescent forms that appear to float on top of each other. It is as if we witness a miasma of form and color that has been extracted from some primordial soup. Rothko’s rectangular shapes hover on the subtly diffused canvas, lending each shape a halo-like effect that serves to simultaneously radiate out and recede in to the picture plane. A combination of opaque and translucent layers of paint come together to continually add and subtract the density of painted ‘weight’ on the support, further engendering a sense of movement within the abstract composition. A beautiful equilibrium between colors is achieved and one that chimes perfectly with the shape of the canvas. The artist has calibrated these color fields in relation to the proportions of the internal forms and the overall scale of the canvas. White and yellow fizzes against the gray ground, and is anchored by the dark blue field below it. Color literally moves, and its movement is articulated not by the artist's brush, but by our ocular reception of the painting. We move it around because we are drawn in so deeply by its scale and by the sensitivity of its painted surface. A shimmer prevails overall, one that makes the velvety tones of the surface literally breathe.
No. 6 (Yellow, White, Blue over Yellow on Gray) is an astonishing example of Mark Rothko’s theories on painting and his craft. The emphasis on rich color heightens our senses, yet this joyous chromatic celebration is underpinned by his ability to create a temporal and spatial vacuum which draws the viewer in, forcing them to contemplate the work and themselves in a quasi-spiritual manner. This achievement draws Rothko’s work far away from the boundaries of mere decoration, and subsequently enhances the powerful concept at play here. We are not presented with an empty pattern, merely to satiate the eye, but rather with a portal into another dimension into which each individual viewer can project their own feelings and emotions.