“Serenity and violence = intensity. Intensity = instant of utmost opposition” (Mark Rothko cited in: Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London 1998, p. 10).
Standing before Mark Rothko’s large-scale painting on paper, Untitled, 1969, the viewer is struck by its vast and resonating sense of magnitude. In spite of its paper materiality, the work emits an aura of contemplative serenity that measures on par with the artist’s most esteemed and monumental paintings on canvas. Executed just a year before Rothko’s tragic death in 1970, the painting is rendered predominantly in a deeply penetrative black acrylic paint which has been distributed, in two void-like rectangular zones, over a searing color field of cobalt blue. This brilliance seeps out from the edges around the dark abyss and breaks through like light escaping from a vacuum, making manifest the art critic Dore Ashton’s assertion that Rothko “conjured light and he conjured shadow, as painters have always done, but he did so in the service of an ideal that transcended both, and that can only be felt and not thought.” (Dore Ashton cited in Bonnie Clearwater, Mark Rothko, New York 1984, p. 13) Rothko began his artistic career as a figurative painter, yet, in an age characterised by the futility of the Great Depression and two World Wars, he turned to abstraction in the 1940s as an unadulterated means of expression. Seeking to unearth emotion, sentiment and spirituality over rational representation and figurative form, Rothko went on to develop a visual practice that would forever change the landscape of painting.
In the last two years of his life, Rothko experienced a period of intense creativity during which he produced some of his most profound and ponderous paintings. In ill health and under doctor’s orders not to lift heavy canvases, Rothko turned increasingly to the more versatile medium of paper: he would have his studio assistant roll out a length of paper on the floor and, once it had reached the length he desired, would have a series of ten to fifteen sheets cut to approximately the same dimensions; these would then be tacked to the studio wall in a row where Rothko would begin to work on them, one by one. While unable to work on canvas of the same scale he was used to, Rothko's artistic ambition was at its apex in this late period of his life, resulting in paintings on paper as powerful, vast, and emotionally expansive as the present work. Paper, with its paradoxical ability to concurrently absorb and reflect light, in many ways reinvigorated Rothko’s quest for a harmonious and simplified pictorial language. Rothko had declared his painterly and philosophical intentions with his friend and fellow painter Adolph Gottlieb in 1943, stating: "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal.” (Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb cited in Ibid., p. 10) In these later works, Rothko’s artistic aims are potently achieved. Untitled is the very embodiment of raw and primal sensation: the vibrant incandescence of his earlier paintings has been replaced by a more nuanced luminosity comprised of reductive form, minimal color, painterly gesture and a heavier mass of dark blackness against a thin and reverberating halo of deepest blue. The tonal gradients of the painting seem to vibrate against one another with a subtle yet effervescing energy, creating a field of color that is at once enveloping and impenetrable. Of drawing together such ostensibly polarised qualities, the artist explained: "Serenity and violence = intensity. Intensity = instant of utmost opposition." (Mark Rothko cited in: Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 10)
In 1964, Rothko received a commission from Dominique and John de Menil to create a body of murals for a nondenominational chapel in Houston, Texas. Known today as the Rothko Chapel, these paintings constitute some of the most important works of Rothko’s oeuvre. He worked on them between 1964 and 1967, to create an all-encompassing environment that would convey, through the mesmerizing conflation of color and form, the pure essence of illumination and darkness. Through a dramatic elicitation of what Rothko termed the "basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom," these murals rouse in their viewers a sensation of transcendental existence. (Mark Rothko cited in Rothko: Works on Paper, New York, 1984, p. 59) The dark and mysterious palette of these works began to filter into Rothko’s other paintings from this period, and indeed the present work evokes an analogous sense of pensive introspection and reflective thought, much like Matisse in his contemplative French Window at Collioure from 1914. Characterized by its lustrous, radiating blackness, impressive scale and enveloping mysticism, Untitled encapsulates the spiritual complexity of Rothko’s mature style. Often referred to as landscapes of the mind, these works are charged with a psychological intensity that speaks to a simultaneous contemplation of religion, existential transience, and the unknown dimensions of the universe at a time of ground-breaking scientific advancements in space travel. Through his technique of layering thin washes of paint over one another, creating variations in the thickness of paint, Rothko attained distinctions of colour, even within the same monochrome field. As the French writer Michel Butor stated, "one of the most remarkable of Rothko’s triumphs is to have made a kind of black light shine." (Michel Butor cited in About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 189) With its mottled, intensely rich and iridescent surface, the present painting is situated amongst the largest and most spectacular manifestations of the artist’s work on paper.
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