- Mark Rothko
- Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange)
- signed and dated 1955 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
- 81 1/2 x 60 inches
Marlborough A.G., Liechtenstein/Marlborough Gallery, Inc., New York (acquired from the above in 1970)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon (acquired from the above in October 1970)
David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, cat. no. 525, p. 404, illustrated in color
Rothko's challenge, to both himself and his audience, was to engage not only the eye, but also the mind and the spirit; Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) is a particularly moving exemplar of this ambition. The composition is compartmentalized in two principal rectangular fields of lustrous orange, each surmounted by a pale yellow band and stacked in Rothko’s archetypal formation on a field of glowing saffron gold. Each zone is indeterminately bordered by feathered edges that forge an exceptionally vibrant occupation of the pictorial space. While the overtly optimistic connotations of this ebullient palette immediately instigate a positive and even inspirational response, as with all great paintings by the artist there is no single aspect to this work’s character and the viewer may concurrently sense a deeper, more portentous tone, the duality of which invests this work with a supreme sophistication. In a 1959 Life magazine article, Dorothy Seiberling described one of the artist’s paintings and touched on his mystifying method: “Just as the hues of a sunset prompt feelings of elation mingled with sadness or unease as the dark shapes of night close in, so Rothko's colors 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 colors.” (Dorothy Seiberling, ‘Abstract Expressionism, Part II,’ Life, November 16, 1959, p. 82) Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) reverberates both optically and intellectually, engaging us with the artist's desire to create an aesthetic language that exceeds the very boundaries of painting, encompassing a transcendent, deeply affecting relationship between the viewer and the canvas.
What is particularly exceptional about the present work are the articulate areas of defined brushstrokes that punctuate the surface of the color fields. Different varieties of orange are interspersed atop the primary zones of color, exposing the application of paint and imbuing the work with a heightened tactility revealing the artist’s process. David Anfam wrote specifically of Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) in the Catalogue Raisonné of the artist’s work, devoting in-depth analysis to this undeniably unique masterpiece of Rothko’s oeuvre: “Catching or absorbing the light, the polyphony of texture abets the disparate, rather small-scale rhythms of the brushwork. For although the size and sweep of Rothko’s canvases might lead to the supposition that they were realized with a concomitant breadth of touch, the reality is otherwise. Unified as the yellow-oranges of a 1955 Untitled (cat. no. 525) may aspire to remain, their almost monochromatic consistency is belied by the ubiquitous errant strokes, marks and incidents (witness those bordering the second field from the top) that disclose the artisanal, edgy manner in which they must have been applied. Dan Rice’s memory that Rothko wielded a ‘very busy brush’—though spoken with the Seagram murals period in mind—remains the canny final word in this regard… Rothko chose to brandish a comparatively small brush… By turns dulled or luminescent, silken or granular, still and firm or pulsating and mottled, the surfaces approximate a membrane—inherently unpredictable insofar as it is a layer or integument and prey to the tension, malleability and transience that affect any sheer covering.” (David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 84)
Rothko's revolutionary abstract paintings are deeply seeded in a profound art historical appreciation, as he both looked to the past for inspiration and forged ahead into an uncharted future. The artist’s profoundly sophisticated understanding of the possibilities of color was shaped in part by the influence of the work of Henri Matisse. Indeed, it is apparent from the articulate modules of incandescent color in Matisse's radical Le Bonheur de Vivre from 1905 that the painter was pivotal in encouraging Rothko to explore the possibility of creating paintings from powerful hues alone. Rothko also deeply admired the French painter Pierre Bonnard, and no doubt would have attended the artist's 1948 memorial show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Bonnard's paintings have a rich painterly effect that is in sympathy with the optical importance of Rothko's own brushstrokes that illuminate his canvases, and he drew on both Bonnard's rich palette and his treatment of light. His fascination with the effects and nature of light can also be traced to the Luminists – a tradition in American painting that dominated the third quarter of the Nineteenth Century. The principal tenets of Luminism were centered on the authority of light – works by artists belonging to the movement, such as John Kensett, confront the viewer with an empty vista that is focused more on colored light itself, rather than more concrete attributes of landscape. The blinding gold sunlight in Kensett's 1872 Sunset on the Sea, for example, is a potent metaphor for the unseen world or spirit. Light in these paintings became a primal source of energy, an idea that was central to the art of Mark Rothko and is encapsulated absolutely in the present work.
As conclusively demonstrated by Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), Rothko’s contribution to Art History readily overwhelms categorization to any singular dogma or style, including that of the colorist tradition. Following his retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1961, Rothko greatly appreciated Robert Goldwater’s essay in reviewing the show, which provides compelling insight to the role of color within the artist’s work: “Rothko means that the enjoyment of color for its own sake, the heightened realization of its purely sensuous dimension, is not the purpose of his painting. If Matisse was one point of departure… Rothko has since moved far in an opposite direction. Yet over the years he has handled his color so that one must pay ever closer attention to it, examine the unexpectedly joined hues, the slight, and continually slighter, modulations within the large area of any single surface, and the softness and the sequence of the colored shapes. Thus these pictures compel careful scrutiny of their physical existence… all the while suggesting that these details are means, not ends.” (Robert Goldwater, ‘Reflections of the Rothko Exhibition,’ Arts, March 1961, pp. 43-44) Eventually Rothko’s remarkable achievement was to create paintings that announce their own unique materiality and create an exalted viewing experience: Rothko’s feat, as defined by Robert Rosenblum, was “to provide a transcendental image that would take us beyond history.” (Robert Rosenblum, "Notes on Rothko and Tradition," in Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, 1987, p. 21) Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) summons the full and unreserved vigor of the painter’s mind, wrenching the viewer from our corporeal environment and unearthing universal truths about humanity.