Prior to the 1970 completion of Untitled, Rothko painted eighteen works in 1969 with a nearly identical composition—these paintings bear two adjoining color zones, all possessing a generally black on gray superstructure, though some are tinted in a sepia or hazy bluish tone. This last cohesive body of paintings, referred to by Anfam as the “Black on Grays,” evoke an overwhelming sense of tragedy—meditations on finality, mortality, and closure. The dark always sits atop the light, as if a shade is being lowered in a window to obscure the remains of the day. It is as though Rothko sensed the foreboding onset of his own death, and these paintings were his one final rumination on humanity. What is most striking in this context, then, is the artist’s triumphant return to full color in the last three canvases of his life—a triumverate of rich luminescence that includes the present work. Within this chronological narrative, the sheer vibrancy and vividness of Untitled becomes an uplifting paean to the vigor and sheer brio of the painter’s soul, following a prolonged period of darkness.
Until his death in 1970, the trajectory of Rothko’s later years proved to expose the artist’s rawest and most pronounced sensitivities, a magnified introspection that provided the emotional catalyst for his palette progressing towards hauntingly darker hues. While the works from this period are famously characterized by their ominous darkness, Untitled from 1970 demonstrates the complexities of Rothko’s colors: the chromatic interplay of intense blues and verdant greens tinted by ominous blacks shift before the eye like the ocean and sky at night, the twilight glimmering from within the stacked bands like the irridescent moon peering in through Henri Matisse's 1913 French Window at Collioure. Pushing the bounds of painting using his distinctive economy of forms, Rothko's abstract fields of pigment here evolve before the eye into a partial seascape; content and form merge seamlessly through the temporal experience that is the deep spatial immersion of the viewer. Rothko once stated to David Sylvester, “Often towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration—all of these at once. I would like my painting to have the quality of such moments.” (the artist cited in David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 73) The bars of rich sumptuous blues concurrently imply a cavernous abyss while surging forward, a dynamic optical experience resulting in a brooding majesty that places the work at the pinnacle of the artist’s late oeuvre.
The upper right corner of the irridescent Untitled is punctuated by a downward vertical drip stain, freezing the moment in time at which Rothko painted the canvas forever in the present. This drip functions as a pentimenti, recording a history of the painting’s making and imbuing the canvas with a distinct temporality. The vivid blues and greens conjure the effulgent moonlight illuminating the dark roaming surface of the night sea. However, in this spectacularly subtle zone of the painting, the metaphysical is replaced for material quiddity, as the painting reasserts its own presence as a corporeal object.
Rothko’s renowned late paintings of 1969-70 are most frequently interpreted as being inseparable from his deteriorating psychological and physical state that eventually culminated with his suicide in February 1970. The increasingly somber palette and unrelenting employment of black in these late works has inevitably been integrated into a narrative about the final two years of his life. Rothko himself reportedly regarded these works—ultimately his culminating series—as his “most profound,” an opinion shared by critics such as Brian O'Doherty who referred to this period as harboring some of Rothko's “most remarkable” paintings in his essay for the 1993 exhibition of Rothko's Last Paintings in New York. Diane Waldman assessed Rothko’s last paintings as the ultimate realization of the painter’s goals, declaring the works from the end of his life as positioned firmly at the summit of his entire oeuvre. Waldman further noted, “By the end of his life Rothko had moved beyond such concepts in his painting. No longer is his art earthbound, sensual, corporeal. He had attained a harmony, an equilibrium, a wholeness, in the Jungian sense, that enabled him to express universal truths in his breakthrough works, fusing the conscious and the unconscious, the finite and the infinite, the equivocal and the unequivocal, the sensuous and the spiritual. Now he had left behind all that spoke of the carnate, the concrete. He had reached the farther shore of art.” (Diane Waldman in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, 1978, p. 69)
A sensation of rich, somatic absorption that is unparalleled by any other artist’s work, Untitled causes us to sink deeper into our own minds. As Dore Ashton eloquently wrote, “The interior realm was where Rothko wished to or perhaps could only live, and what he hoped to express. The ‘theater of the mind,’ as Mallarmé called it, was immensely dramatic for Rothko. His darkness at the end did allude to the light of the theater in which, when the lights are gradually dimmed, expectation mounts urgently.” (Dore Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 189) Through his technique of layering thin washes of paint one over the other, often allowing colors from initial layers to show through the subsequent coats of pigment, Rothko’s painting seems to conceal a hidden light source emanating from its very core. Twinkling through and around the elegant planes of color, the present work achieves an incandescent dimensionality that is reminiscent of Rembrandt or Caravaggio’s divine virtuosity for rendering natural light in flat oil paint. Michael Butor wrote of this series of Rothko’s works that “one of the most remarkable of Rothko’s triumphs is to have made a kind of black light shine.” (Ibid., p. 189) Indeed, it is almost as if this extraordinary painting is brilliantly illuminated from within: a translucent vessel of pure color and light.
A stunning paradigm of Rothko’s determination to elicit human emotional response in each of his paintings, Untitled emits a serene aura that stirs the viewer into trance-like contemplation, a wholly pure and directly unique effect for each individual but one that mirrors Rothko’s immense introspection at the time of execution. Ineffably elegant and devastatingly theatrical, Untitled lures the viewer into its seductive world and captures our gaze in its irresistible chromatic aura. The present work is a quintessential example of the deeply metaphysical experience that Rothko asked of the highest forms of abstraction—a simultaneously expansive yet intimate theater of the sublime. We do not purely look at this painting; we are actively engulfed in its waves, situated as actors within its epic expanse.
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