Mid 20th Century Paintings & Decorative Arts Gallery Level 2, NGV International
With, its brilliant colour chords Untitled (Red) invites the envelopment of the viewer’s senses. Rothko’s overlapping blocks of pigment seem to oscillate in constant motion, while the predominant hue – red – is elementally emotive. This aspect of art’s emotional engagement with the viewer was central to Rothko’s search for meaning within abstraction. As he told Selden Rodman in an interview published in 1957, ‘I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on – the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them, and if you … are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point’.
The acquisition of Rothko’s painting in 1982 seemed certain to cause controversy. Australia (or, more precisely, Australian journalism) was still recovering from the media furore a decade earlier over the National Gallery of Australia’s purchase for Canberra of Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles, 1952. Similar attention was focused on the National Gallery of Victoria’s acquisition of Untitled (Red) (in the inaugural year of the gallery’s new director Patrick McCaughey), leading the Age newspaper to declare, on 31 July 1982, that this was ‘the gallery’s first major abstract expressionist painting’ – a statement that overlooked Melbourne’s bold purchase in 1967 of Helen Frankenthaler’s monumental Cape (Provincetown), 1964.
Positioning Rothko within art-historical tradition, Patrick McCaughey compared the ethereal abstraction of Rothko’s lyrical, fiery canvas to the ‘vapour and air’ seen in other works in the collection by more popularly known artists, such as John Constable’s Clouds, 1822, and JMW Turner’s A mountain scene, Val ‘Aosta, c.1845. He argued, as reported by the Sun on 4 August 1982, ‘If you look at Constable’s clouds, then Turner, then Rothko, you see how he wants a picture of substances, of things that are volatile and moving. Rothko is saying colour is the way I can reach you’. Also writing in the Age on 31 July, critic Memory Holloway praised the manner in which Untitled (Red) ‘glows with Rothko’s confidence that colour could be used to create a mood both sensuous and spiritual’.
Despite some press criticism, Untitled (Red) was largely well received by the public, becoming only the third work by this radical abstract artist to enter an Australian public collection.