For its vibrant coloration, transcendent aura, tonal variation, and pivotal date of execution, Blue Over Red stands as a superb and iconic example from the incomparable painterly oeuvre of Mark Rothko. Painted in 1953, Blue Over Red marks the apex of the Rothko’s most critical period of development in the first half of the 1950s, during which the artist pioneered his signature mode of abstraction. Testifying to the importance of this period in Rothko’s career, ten of the sixteen paintings the artist executed in 1953 reside in permanent museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Formerly in the collection of Harold Diamond, Blue Over Red is one of just seven masterpieces by Rothko that Diamond owned at various points in his lifetime; of those seven, three are now in museums: the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Ho-Am Art Museum in Seoul. Held in the same private collection for over a decade, the present work emerges not only as an iconic touchstone of Rothko’s oeuvre, but also as an incontrovertible masterpiece of twentieth-century art. Presenting the mesmerizing summation of the artist’s signature methods, the positively radiant canvas of Blue Over Red heralds the spectacular union of color and form that has defined Rothko’s singular and enduring legacy in the history of art.
1953 marked a pivotal year of transformation for the artist that resulted in some of his most revered canvases; one year prior, in 1952, Rothko moved to a new studio on 53rd Street, just steps from the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps most significant to Rothko’s embrace of pure color as vehicle to an emotional experience was Henri Matisse, whose own practice had so radically redefined the relationship between form and color only decades prior; as Robert Rosenblum noted: “…it dawned on many of Rothko’s admirers that his dense seas of color might not have existed without the example of Matisse, a point the artist himself acknowledged by entitling a painting of 1954 Homage to Matisse. And clearly, the presence at the Museum of Modern Art of such masterpieces as Matisse’s Blue Window and Red Studio could provide the most solid and beautiful touchstones for any artist who would explore the possibility of creating paintings from resonant color alone.” (Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko: 1903-1970, 1987, p. 22) Rothko’s descriptive titling of the present work, Blue Over Red, further underscores the artist’s commitment to color and serves as tribute to Matisse’s two masterpieces, both of which would have been easily visible to the artist at his new location next to the Museum of Modern Art. From Matisse’s abstracted interiors and exteriors, Rothko pushed further, dissolving the edges between passages of color until they billowed into one another as feathered whisks that veritably breathe with life upon the surface of the canvas, and indeed, Rothko considered his paintings, with their multiple containers of color to be living things: “They are unique elements in a unique situation. They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion. They move with an internal freedom, and without need to conform with or to violate what is probable in the familiar world. They have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms.” (The artist in “The Romantics Were Prompted,” Possibilities 1, Winter 1947-48, p. 84)
Indeed, these paintings of the early 1950s astonish in their supple surfaces, the melding of diaphanous veils of color, and complex compositions that both retain an architectural program, yet vault into pure abstraction. Rothko conjures an emotional tension through his strategic use of color, the uplifting and warming glow evoked by orange and red contrasted sharply with the blue band; although the painting comprises overwhelmingly blazing hues, the blue asserts itself intensely, existing ‘over’ the fields of red and orange. Such elemental colors harbor primal connotations of light, warmth, and the natural world, but inasmuch as they invoke liveliness and light, they also insinuate the inevitable cycle of dawn and dusk. Of this chromatic dance, Anfam espouses: “In the 1953 Blue Over Red, irregular textures reiterate symmetry. Not only is the leftward lateral lemon strip unique, but it is also uniquely glossy and its reflective grain is mimicked in the light weave of the canvas that shows through the extreme thinness of blue above. The latter also has an asymmetrical gold surround that is wider on the left, as though it were a shadow – except of course for its brightness – cast by the dark bar from an external, rightward light source. The blue leaps out in inverse proportion to how the orange rectangles at top and bottom are instead scarcely distinguishable from the orange ground.” (David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 85)
Executed in a richly saturated palette of orange, red, and yellow, dramatically offset by one luminous blue band, Blue Over Red exemplifies the incandescent splendor for which Rothko has become best known. Comprising a conflation of sumptuous color and blazing light, the present work confronts us as the summation of its creator’s deeply philosophical practice, wherein he staged some of the most moving, transcendent, and utterly breathtaking unions between material and support ever realized within the grand, centuries-long tradition of oil painting. Three radiant zones of color, simultaneously drawn together and held apart by the nearly imperceptible boundaries of gold pigment, dominate the canvas. Cast against this smoldering background of fiery embers, a brilliant band of royal blue anchors the composition in the painting’s upper register, creating a magisterial chromatic concert with the exact complementary color of vivid orange beneath it. The thickest of the yellow bars is situated at almost exactly the halfway point across the canvas, creating an elegant and sophisticated horizon that separates the pulsating expanses of color above and below. Hazy in their edges, yet easily readable as rectangular forms, these zones of pure color reveal varying methods of execution; as noted by Irving Sandler: “Rothko built up his rectangular containers of color from lightly brushed, stained and blotted touches which culminate in a chromatic crescendo.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Pace Gallery, Mark Rothko: Paintings 1948-1969, 1983, p. 8) Here, Rothko attains that ‘chromatic crescendo’ through the meticulous aggregation of translucent veils of brushed pigment, with especially close attention paid to the gaps between forms and the edges of the canvas itself. The accumulated layers of pigment concurrently hover indeterminately as three-dimensional floods of chroma in front of the picture plane, while also reinforcing the materiality of the painted object through the insistence of paint soaked into the canvas weave. These thin laminae of color succeed in evoking a degree of luminosity, gesturing to the brilliantly captured light of Rembrandt, whom Rothko deeply admired. Conflating the starkly rendered light and dark suffusing Rembrandt’s still iconic paintings with the color-laden canvases of Matisse’s canon-shattering practice, Rothko reshaped both of his forebears’ artistic innovations to create the blazing paintings that rank among the most important works of the twentieth century.
By the time he painted Blue Over Red, Rothko had been working as a painter for thirty years, building an inimitable practice that reflected styles and sources as disparate as the realist trend in American art and such Surrealist masters as Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí in Europe. Rothko first committed himself entirely to abstraction in 1947 when he began his series of Multiform paintings, a natural bridge between the biomorphic and organic forms of his Surrealist-inspired works and the flooded fields of color that would dominate what have become his most exceptional and iconic gateways to the sublime. Although Rothko’s abstraction was entirely unparalleled, his search for transcendence through a conflation of light and color was rooted in historical precedent; indeed, from the Romantic landscape painters J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich to the Luminists Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, the grand legacy of prior artists in search of a transcendent experience profoundly informed the new type of painting Rothko initiated in mid-century New York. Rothko’s arrival at his mature style, which in retrospect reads as the inevitable conclusion of his quest for a reinvigorated abstraction, was the result of a calculated and concentrated purge and stripping away of compositional superfluity in an effort to privilege the pure experience of the painting itself. The distinct zones of color that make up the dreamlike Multiforms here coalesce into an impenetrable totality, wherein all elements engage in a choreography of endlessly flickering light and color. Blue Over Red stands as the crowning achievement of Rothko's declaration in 1948: “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 between the idea and the observer…To achieve this clarity is, ultimately, to be understood.” (The artist quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 15 Americans,¸1952, p. 18)
Following the crucial turning point of 1949-50, when Rothko resolved an abstract archetype out of the preceding Multiform paintings, the artist entered what David Anfam, the editor of Rothko’s catalogue raisonné has called the ‘anni mirabilis,’ the first half of the 1950s, during which the artist developed his mature and signature style. At the precipice of a decade during which Rothko would redefine the very essence of his brand of abstraction, he wrote the following words: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.” (The artist quoted in “Statement,” Tiger’s Eye, New York, December 1, 1947, p. 44) Rothko thus asserted a fundamental equation between the artwork and its beholder, whereby the true potential of his painting could not exist without the presence of the viewer; indeed, it is the viewer and his or her visual experience that completes the artwork, a tenet beautifully embodied in Blue Over Red. In an oft-cited letter that Rothko co-authored with peers Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, these titans of Abstract Expressionism stated: “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” (Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko (in collaboration with Barnett Newman), “Letter to the Editor,” The New York Times, June 13, 1942, section 2, p. 9)
A veritable treatise upon the absolute limits of painterly abstraction, the luminous canvas of Blue Over Red transmits an aura of the ethereal that is enthrallingly immersive, engulfing the viewer entirely within its utterly captivating compositional dynamism and chromatic intensity. As succinctly summarized by Robert Rosenblum: “…he was, after all, not only a seeker of spiritual truths, but first and foremost an artist who loved to paint beautiful pictures; and indeed, within his career, we often sense a struggle between a desire to create sheerly seductive paintings, in the nineteenth-century tradition that would make the cult of beauty a religion in itself, and a need to check these sensuous urges with the impulses of an artist-monk who had taken vows of pictorial chastity.” (Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko: 1903-1970, 1987, p. 29) Blue Over Red reveals Rothko’s deft painterly ability both to create ‘sheerly seductive paintings,’ while also preserving his so-called ‘vow of pictorial chastity,’ replacing the subject matter in art with a meditative, all-encompassing experience of existential awe, wonderment, and the ever-elusive sublime.
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