Precipitously balanced between figuration and abstraction, Mark Rothko’s luminescent Untitled from 1947 is an incandescent testament to the artist’s arrival at his inimitable and innovative union of color, form, and light, an achievement that firmly established his central position within the canon of twentieth-century art. The present work brilliantly showcases Rothko at a breakthrough moment in his career, when he would transition fully from figuration to his iconic canvases of pure color. These multiform paintings underscore the critical transformation Rothko underwent in the late 1940s, evoking his earlier paintings, while simultaneously prefiguring the large-scale canvases and rich passages of color that have come to define the artist’s practice. Acquired directly from The Pace Gallery in 1990, and not exhibited publicly since, the present work emerges from a distinguished collection as a spectacular exemplar of the very best paintings of Rothko’s career.
Rothko began a period of growth and creativity with his first show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century in January 1945 and a one-man show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Dreams and the subconscious, touchstones for the Symbolist and Surrealist artists who would influence Rothko, inspired the artist during his early years as he sought to create his own style that would solve the problem of controlling pictorial structure. Like his contemporaries Giorgio di Chirico and Adolph Gottlieb, Rothko also looked to classical myth and literature as a means by which to address the crushing existentialism following World War I and carrying through to World War II. David Anfam writes: “Gilbert Murray’s Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy was published in 1940. Nothing could have been more timely. In this, the first full year of the war, Murray drew transhistorical parallels between archaic myth and modern cataclysm – parallels that would become the core of the theses put forward by Rothko and Gottlieb in such statements as their 1943 letter to the New York Times which justified myth as a modern response to the recurrent cycles of human tragedy. When Rothko that year cited the Aeschylean theme inspiring The Omen of the Eagle, he did so with words taken from Murray’s book.” (David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 47)
Throughout the late 1940s, Rothko’s Surrealist-inspired anthropomorphic forms gradually dematerialized, becoming ever more ephemeral and losing any hints at representation. The multiform paintings of 1947 herald the primacy of untethered hues and soft washes of color in a brilliant integration of light and color, the actualization of which presaged the grand canvases of the 1950s; 1947 was also the final year in which Rothko used descriptive titles, after which he favored the all-pervasive Untitled. Rothko’s elimination of descriptive titles was just one element of the rejection of sign as the central motif for painting, a tenet Rothko shared with Still and Newman, as the artists sought to purify their art by reducing the aesthetic elements to their most basic essence. The present work announces Rothko’s triumph in merging shape with color, in the absence of the painterly traditions of line, narrative, and spatial perspective. A large biomorphic passage of silvery gray dominates the center of the canvas, spreading outward in thick brushstrokes of varying tonalities such that, upon closer inspection, lighter and darker hues reveal themselves, testifying to Rothko’s deftness in carefully manipulating the saturation of his oil paint. Surrounding the central gray mass are passages of pearly white, deepest mauve, and bright orangey coral, all of which billow up against the organic silver shape in lightly feathered flickers. A dark forest green anchors the upper right hand corner of the canvas, against which bright goldenrod and light pink emerge from the creamy ivory paint. Light lavenders, lemon yellow, and rich black punctuate the dynamic composition in varying applications of paint – dry brushy strokes alongside deeply saturated forms of color.
1947 was an important year in Rothko’s storied career, proving to be a turning point both for the artist’s technical and stylistic progression, as well as marking a departure from the influences of myth and Surrealism. For its essential position within Rothko’s oeuvre, Untitled remains as a brilliant triumph of the artist’s transformative and pivotal push in achieving his reductive, sublime, and transcendent paintings.
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