(Exh. Cat., New York, American Federation of the Arts, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, 1984, p. 54-55)
Illuminating the room in a captivating shimmer of chromatic vibrancy and incomparable painterly finesse, Mark Rothko’s Untitled of 1969 is an indisputably dazzling embodiment of the artist’s legendary color-field compositions. Emerging from a saturated ground of blazing scarlet, two fields of varied tonality, one a pearly white and the other a glowing orange, radiate the steady heat of glowing embers; built up of innumerable delicate strokes, these luminescent multiforms emphatically attest to the singular mastery of light, color, and form achieved by the artist in his revered corpus of works on paper. A rare, exquisitely vibrant example from a period characterized by a predominantly somber palette, Untitled exemplifies Rothko’s work in a medium that bore an increasingly profound significance in the twilight years of his legendary career when, tirelessly seeking to broaden the horizons of his prodigious practice, he focused his energies upon exploring the absolute limits of painting on paper. Conjuring the radiant sublimity of his most esteemed monumental canvases, Untitled is amongst the most emphatic embodiments of Bonnie Clearwater’s description of the late works on paper: “Although, as previously noted, Rothko never abandoned bright colors in his works on paper, the vibrant late works on paper contain a force not experienced in the earlier small works…These late creations, with their dense unmodulated surfaces, do not flicker with light; rather, they generate a strong, constant glow.” (Exh. Cat., New York, American Federation of the Arts, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, 1984, p. 54-55)
An exquisite, jewel-like summation of the artist’s signature strategies, Untitled represents the breathtaking culmination of Rothko’s career-long pursuit of aesthetic transcendence through the conflation of pure color and light. While predominantly known and revered for his corpus of towering abstract canvases, Rothko produced a number of exceptional paintings on paper throughout the entirety of his career which, in their subtly variegated hues and inherent luminosity, rank amongst the richest orchestrations of color within his prodigious output. Remarkable illustrations of paper's unique capacity to both absorb and reflect light, the vibrant hues of the late works are infused with an unprecedented vitality. Describing the significance of the medium within his oeuvre, Clearwater reflects: “throughout his career, [Rothko] produced many lesser known works on paper which share characteristics with his canvases while exhibiting their own special qualities. These works….are essential to a fuller understanding of Rothko’s career. Together with the canvases, the works on paper chart the artist’s quest for an elemental language that would communicate basic human emotions and move all mankind.” (Ibid., p. 17) In the late 1960s, after completing the two commissions whose magisterial brilliance cemented his status as one of America’s most revered abstractionists—the Seagram Murals, and the Rothko Chapel paintings commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil—Rothko pursued the intricate subtleties of painting on paper with unprecedented focus. Evincing the artist’s incessant artistic probing, Rothko described the impetus behind this shift in his practice from canvas to paper with the following: “…to whom a certain medium becomes too easy and who runs this risk of becoming too skilled in that medium, to try another which presents more difficulties to them.” (Ibid. p. 59)
Against the ground of sumptuous crimson, the richly painterly forms of Untitled suggest both fevered motion and ethereal tranquility, emanating a bewitching tension that invites the viewer to lose him or herself completely in the diaphanous fields of unadulterated hue. Dominating the upper region of the canvas, the pulsating, feather-like edges of the glowing white rectangle push out into the red depth that surrounds them, resulting in a sense of undeniable movement and compositional vitality; in stark contrast, the glowing orange of the lower area subtly structures the composition, blending seamlessly with its red background and statically asserting its foundational presence. The work's resultant dynamism necessitates the viewer's constant attention and provides an elegant visual manifestation of the artist’s 1953 statement: "Either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say." (Mark Rothko in 1953, cited in James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1998, p. 301) Here, chromatic resonance is attained through the meticulous aggregation of translucent veils of brushed pigment, with especially close attention paid to the spaces between forms and the edges of the canvas. Both despite of and due to their stark disparity, the two color fields equilibrate: the shimmering, incandescent purity of the one is countered by the headier glow of the other as they reverberate over scarlet ground. Amongst the most spectacular manifestations of the artist’s work on paper, Untitled emanates a luminescent vibrancy utterly impossible to reproduce in illustration; to the viewer, bathed in its heady glow, it is almost as if this extraordinary painting is brilliantly illuminated from within, transformed from mere pigment into a translucent vessel of pure color and light.
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