fig. 1
Mark Rothko

In a lecture at the Pratt Institute in 1958 Mark Rothko explained that ‘it was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes’. He remarked that, like others of his generation, he was unable to use the figure without mutilating it, and once he refused to do so he was forced to find an alternate means of expression.1 Quoted in Dore Ashton, ‘Art: Lecture by Rothko’, New York Times, 31 October 1958, p. 26L.

Rothko’s search for a new uncontaminated language for painting is the subject of the National Gallery of Victoria’s recently purchased Untitled (Red)2 Untitled (Red) 1958, oil on canvas, 208.4 x 124.5 cm, purchased at auction from Sothbey’s, 20 May 1982. Provenance: Waddington Galleries; Alister McAlpine Collection; Beyeler; Sotheby’s. At the present writing Waddington Galleries were unable to give any further information as to the painting’s provenance (telephone conversation, October 1982, between the author and Waddington Galleries, London). The painting has been exhibited several times in America and Europe. The following labels are randomly attached to the picture’s frame: Galerie Beyeler, Basle Exhibited ‘America, America’ October–December 1976 Cat. No. 50. Galerie Melki, 55 rue de Seine, Paris 6 No. 315. Jean Paul Ledeur, Paris 61 rue Raymond Losserand. Andre Chenue & Fils, No. 47. Robert Elkon 1063 Madison Avenue ‘Six American Painters’ October 1977 Date ca .1958. Marlborough Untitled, oil on canvas 5197. The canvas has been relined; the condition of the painting is good. 1958 (fig. 1). It is characteristic of the best of the artist’s work of the fifties, by which time he had ruthlessly stripped painting of all illustration and narrative. Rothko substituted a simple composition of colour bands, weightlessly suspended over a luminous coloured ground. Of this highly reductive pictorial statement Rothko required much: that it communicate the initial religious experience felt by the artist as he made it, and that it embody human emotions and human drama which Rothko professed to be the central focus of his work. Colour, by imposing itself on the spectator, and by actively drawing him into its pictorial space, was to bear the burden of metaphysical content.3 Two recent articles discuss colour as a vehicle of content in detail. See Ε R. Firestone, ‘Color in Abstract Expressionism: Sources and Background for Meaning’, Arts Magazine 55, 7 March 1981, pp. 140–43; and A. Gibson, ‘Regression and Color in Abstract Expressionism: Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still’, Arts Magazine 55, 7 March 1981, pp. 144–53. Ann Gibson, op. cit., p. 149, points out that ‘Color in their work [that of Newman, Rothko and Still] provides the atmosphere in which the intuitive transcendental leap which bypasses traditional symbolism, can take place’. This experience, what Dore Ashton has called ‘the state of being moved’4 Dore Ashton, ‘Beyond the Arabesque: Rothko’, A Reading of Modern Art, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, 1969, p. 29., is what is offered and contained in Rothko’s work. 

Until the purchase of Rothko’s Untitled (Red) in May 1982, the Gallery possessed no major work by an artist of the New York School.5 The Australian National Gallery in Canberra is the only other public collection in Australia to hold paintings by Mark Rothko. They are: Multiform 1948, (assigned date), oil on canvas, 155.0 x 118.7 cm. Provenance: Artist’s Estate, Pace Gallery, New York. Purchased 1981. Untitled (Brown, Black on Maroon), 1957, oil on canvas, 233.0 x 193.0 cm, signed and dated on the reverse side of the canvas, upper left: ‘Mark Rothko, Maroon on oil, 1957’. Provenance: Artist’s Estate, Pace Gallery, New York. Purchased 1981. Yet American painting of the fifties and sixties has left visible traces in the art of this country. That impact was especially pervasive in the sixties, as ‘The Field Exhibition’, held in 1968, demonstrated.6 ‘The Field Exhibition’ was held between 21 August and 28 September 1968, and was the exhibition which inaugurated the opening of the National Gallery of Victoria. Forty artists showed their work. For the first time contemporary Australian Abstract painting was brought together and acknowledged in a large-scale show, one which summed up an important direction which the art of the decade had taken.

Mark Rothko’s place among those other artists of the generation of Abstract Expressionists – Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still and Wilhem de Kooning, to name only a few – has been acknowledged since the mid-fifties, when his work received recognition in exhibitions in the United States and Europe.7 Between 1 January and 22 February 1958 Rothko exhibited eleven paintings in a one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York. In a brief review an Art News reviewer listed the titles of four of the paintings. Two of those mentioned were dark pictures: Browns, Purple Brown. The remainder were lighter in treatment, and closer, therefore, to the National Gallery’s Untitled (Red). In the same year Rothko also represented the United States in the 29th Venice Biennale. He exhibited in London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 13 March–19 April 1958, and the Museum of Modern Art in ‘The New American Painting’, 19 April 1958–8 September 1959. This exhibition travelled to eight European countries. For a list of reviews of these exhibitions, see P. Selz, Mark Rothko, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961, p. 42. Like them, he was determined to find a new content for art, one which could speak directly to the spectator without reverting to the outworn modes of the past. He made clear his determination to invest his art with spiritual content. 

As a founding member of ‘The Subjects of the Artists’, the Eighth Street School established to encourage discussion among artists, Rothko showed an intense interest in the role that a new kind of meaning might play in painting. Simultaneously defending both Abstraction and its content he and Adolf Gottlieb wrote in a letter to the New York Times in 1943: There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.’8 The letter was written to the New York Times critic, Edward Alden Jewell. The statement was written with the help of Barnett Newman, and was published on 13 June 1943. It is reprinted in full in D. Waldman, Mark Rothko, 1903–1970: A Retrospective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 39. 

Even when it seems least evident to the viewer, subject matter in Rothko’s work has a central place. This is nowhere more true, and more allusive, than in the Abstract pictures of the 1950s. 

This is the dilemma that we share with the artist: what we see – colour alone – is merely a material manifestation of what is to be spiritually communicated. Although colour was his primary vehicle of expression, Rothko was irritated and dismayed when he was described solely as a colourist:

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.9 Conversation between Rothko and Selden Rodman, in S. Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York, 1957, pp. 93–94. 

While Rothko himself would have shunned the use of the word mystical, it is a term which brings us closer to the experience which he had hoped to communicate to the viewer. Equally he would have resisted any attempts to label him as a painter at the extreme end of a tradition of romantic landscape painting, where the experience of the sublime was the emotion communicated. Yet it is precisely in this domain that Untitled (Red) resides. Such a conceptual leap is made immediately when the painting is hung in the company of another great picture of the landscape sublime – that of J. M. W. Turner’s late Val d’Aosta, since 1973 also part of the collection of the National Gallery.10 For a full discussion of J. M. W. Turner’s Val d’Aosta, see M. Butlin, ‘A Newly Discovered Masterpiece by J. M. W. Turner’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, Melbourne, 1975, pp. 2–10. 

The structure of Rothko’s earlier work shows how much his initial concept was related to the landscape, or some sort of backdrop against which his figures could move. In pictures of the early forties the horizon line is either extremely low, as in Phalanx of the mind,11 Phalanx of the Mind 1944, oil on canvas, 54 x 35 , Estate of Mark Rothko, illustrated in Waldman, op. cit., no. 33. or placed at the very top of the painting. In either case these neutral grounds provided a shallow space for his biomorphic shapes. At about the same time Rothko began to float his figures in a watery space, where forms seemed to divide, multiply and grow. Significantly these works were often executed in watercolour, a medium ideally suited to the aquatic nature of his subjects. Like the Surrealists Rothko used the free-floating atmosphere of the underwater world as a metaphor of the unconscious. One thinks, for example, of Louis Aragon’s hallucinatory description of a shop window of canes and umbrellas which metamorphosed into a marine world, complete with beckoning mermaid.12 L. Aragon, Paris Peasant, trans. S. W. Taylor, Pan Books, London, 1971, pp. 36–37. 

In 1945 Rothko was still not ready to relinquish the figurative shapes which floated across the foremost plane of his paintings. He admired the way in which the Surrealists had ‘established a congruity between the phantasmagoria of the unconscious and the objects of daily life’.13 ‘Personal Statement’, in A Painting Prophecy–1950, David Porter Gallery, Washington, D.C., quoted in Waldman, op. cit., p. 49. But in three years’ time he had loosened his grip on these objects, and, by 1950, the reduction to the format of coloured bands was complete. The spectator was now the actor who replaced the swimming biomorphs.

In colour and composition Untitled (Red) is closely related to other paintings of the fifties. It was exhibited in 1977 in ‘Six American Painters’ at the Robert Elkon Gallery in New York. At that time it was dated as being c. 1958, although in its warm palette it would appear to be closer in spirit to works around 1953–55.14 In its warm palette it is similar to the Ochre and Red on Red 1954 in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; illustrated in Waldman, op. cit., no. 118. See also nos 110 and 113 for others of comparable size, format and colour of the period. We should not be too tempted to interpret the high-keyed colour as signalling light-heartedness, or even joy. In 1958 Dore Ashton made the following remarks when she referred to the dark red and black pictures which Rothko had begun in the same year:

I suspect that in part Rothko struck out with exasperation at the general misinterpretation of his earlier work – especially the effusive yellow, orange and pinks of three years back. He seems to be saying in these new foreboding works that he was never painting luxe, calme and volapte if we had only known it.15 Dore Ashton, ‘Recent Show at the Sidney Janis’, Art and Architecture 75, April 1958, p. 8. 

What he was painting was an experience which had its historical roots in Romanticism. The sobriety of that mysterious presence, which both invites and evades scrutiny, links Rothko in spirit to Freidrich and Turner, rather than to Matisse and Bonnard. Unlike the French, Rothko could never accept the sheerly pleasurable or sensual as the proper subject of art. And yet Matisse had opened the door for Rothko.16 In 1954 Rothko painted Homage to Matisse. At this time he either gave his pictures numbers or left them untitled. By entitling his tribute to Matisse, he noted the special relationship which he had to the French painter; illustrated in Waldman, op. cit., no. 107. He had abolished pictorial clutter and detail, and he had reduced objects to their essentials. In The Red Studio 1911 Matisse floated everyday objects in a red field, thus introducing the notion that colour could create the full sensation of space. Appearances in Matisse’s work are often felt before they are identified, and this is also true of Milton Avery, the American painter for whom Rothko also expressed enormous admiration. With Rothko the object itself can never be fully identified. It must be felt. 

In ‘Notes of a Painter’ Matisse had observed that ‘a work of art must carry in itself its complete significance and impose it upon the beholder even before he can identify the subject matter’.17 Η. Matisse, ‘Notes of a Painter’, in A. Barr, Jr, Matisse, His Art and His Public, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1951, p. 102. Rothko carried Matisse’s idea of the work of art as imposition to its logical extreme. He abandoned the object so entirely that only sensation, which demands the full participation of the viewer as experiencing subject, remains. In releasing his hold on a world which could be grasped, he gained access to a world which could only be imagined, felt, experienced. The impact of Rothko’s art has to do with ‘all of it and not anything that could be said about it. . . that is its meaning’.18 Η. Bloom, ‘Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics’, Self Containing Artifacts: The Experiences of Seventeenth Century Literature, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1972, p. 393. 

Rothko’s art is marked by its continuity. It may be fairly stated that from 1950 he painted but one picture, albeit in many variations. He took the watercolour technique from his earlier experience in painting aquatic themes and transferred it to oil painting. Like other paintings of the fifties Untitled (Red) is thinly stained, and lightly brushed with oil paint diluted with turpentine. There is little sense of the artist’s hand; gesture is suppressed, there are few traces of drawing or texture. Rothko has intentionally blurred the edges of his colour bands. There is the sense that the personality of the artist has been erased, obliterated. 

Rothko also expressed the desire of creating a state of intimacy with the viewer. Paradoxically this was to be achieved through the large scale of his pictures, which engulf the viewer. A large picture, Rothko explained, ‘creates an immediate transaction. It takes you into it.’19 Quoted by D. Ashton, New York Times, 31 October 1958, p. 26L. While the viewer is pulled into the painting, it resists full interpretation and participation because the artist’s traces have been effaced. There is the sense of intimacy and invitation, countered by abstraction and absence. 

Compared to other pictures executed in 1958 Untitled (Red) is a medium-sized canvas. In the same year Rothko was busy on a series of large-scale murals which had been commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building. Three sets of murals were executed, although none of them were delivered. As he worked on them over the year they became increasingly tenebrous, ranging from orange and brown in the first set, to the final group of maroon and black. It has been said that Rothko was disappointed and insulted when he saw the space proposed for the murals, and that he consequently refused to hand them over. The first group were sold separately, the second abandoned, and the third series were given by the artist to the Tate Gallery, where they hang as a group at the present time.20 For a full discussion of Rothko’s work in series see Ε. E. Rathbone, ‘The Brown and Gray Paintings’, American Art at Mid-century: The Subjects of the Artist, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1978, pp. 242–69.

At the very heart of Rothko’s art lies a dialectic between the material object and immaterial belief which was to find its expression in form. Rothko was not asking the question ‘What is painting?’, so much as he was struggling to demonstrate the absolute, ‘the existence of the invisible in the visual’.21 J. F. Lyotard, ‘Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime’, Artforum 20, April 1982, pp. 64–69. Like the 19th-century painters of the landscape sublime, Rothko dissolved the material into a dynamic and luminous expression of transcendental experience. In his late work, such as the Gallery’s Val d’Aosta, Turner did much the same. Turner, it should be added, remained a realist, even in his most abstract works.22 Butlin, op. cit. p. 4. His late unexhibited oil paintings, as Martin Butlin has pointed out in his discussion of Val d’Aosta, were pictures awaiting specific details and subject matter. It was Turner’s habit to introduce both on the varnishing day before the opening of the exhibition. What we see through the diaphanous light of Val d’Aosta is an incomplete mountain scene. The spectator would have been filled in later. 

 

For Rothko the spectator alone makes the picture visible. He is not painted into the final composition, rather he becomes part of it by being subsumed into it. An 18th-century commentator wrote of the sublime ‘that it produces a sort of internal elevation and expansion; it raises the mind much above its ordinary state; and fills it with a degree of wonder and astonishment which is certainly delightful: but it is altogether of the serious kind.’23 Η Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 2nd edn, London, 1787, p. 58, quoted in A. Wilton, Turner and the Sublime, British Museum, London, 1981, p. 10. 

Rothko was particularly sensitive to the placement of his pictures, and to the company which they kept. The vocabulary of the sublime was also his. He spoke of how ‘a picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer’.24 15 Americans, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 25 March–11 June 1952, p. 18. Like Turner, Rothko knew the special power of colour to move.

Memory Holloway, Department of Visual Arts, Monash University (in 1982).

Notes

1          Quoted in Dore Ashton, ‘Art: Lecture by Rothko’, New York Times, 31 October 1958, p. 26L.

2          Untitled (Red) 1958, oil on canvas, 208.4 x 124.5 cm, purchased at auction from Sothbey’s, 20 May 1982. Provenance: Waddington Galleries; Alister McAlpine Collection; Beyeler; Sotheby’s. At the present writing Waddington Galleries were unable to give any further information as to the painting’s provenance (telephone conversation, October 1982, between the author and Waddington Galleries, London). The painting has been exhibited several times in America and Europe. The following labels are randomly attached to the picture’s frame: Galerie Beyeler, Basle Exhibited ‘America, America’ October–December 1976 Cat. No. 50. Galerie Melki, 55 rue de Seine, Paris 6 No. 315. Jean Paul Ledeur, Paris 61 rue Raymond Losserand. Andre Chenue & Fils, No. 47. Robert Elkon 1063 Madison Avenue ‘Six American Painters’ October 1977 Date ca .1958. Marlborough Untitled, oil on canvas 5197. The canvas has been relined; the condition of the painting is good. 

3          Two recent articles discuss colour as a vehicle of content in detail. See Ε R. Firestone, ‘Color in Abstract Expressionism: Sources and Background for Meaning’, Arts Magazine 55, 7 March 1981, pp. 140–43; and A. Gibson, ‘Regression and Color in Abstract Expressionism: Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still’, Arts Magazine 55, 7 March 1981, pp. 144–53. Ann Gibson, op. cit., p. 149, points out that ‘Color in their work [that of Newman, Rothko and Still] provides the atmosphere in which the intuitive transcendental leap which bypasses traditional symbolism, can take place’.  

4          Dore Ashton, ‘Beyond the Arabesque: Rothko’, A Reading of Modern Art, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, 1969, p. 29.

5          The Australian National Gallery in Canberra is the only other public collection in Australia to hold paintings by Mark Rothko. They are: Multiform 1948, (assigned date), oil on canvas, 155.0 x 118.7 cm. Provenance: Artist’s Estate, Pace Gallery, New York. Purchased 1981. Untitled (Brown, Black on Maroon), 1957, oil on canvas, 233.0 x 193.0 cm, signed and dated on the reverse side of the canvas, upper left: ‘Mark Rothko, Maroon on oil, 1957’. Provenance: Artist’s Estate, Pace Gallery, New York. Purchased 1981.

6          ‘The Field Exhibition’ was held between 21 August and 28 September 1968, and was the exhibition which inaugurated the opening of the National Gallery of Victoria. Forty artists showed their work. 

7          Between 1 January and 22 February 1958 Rothko exhibited eleven paintings in a one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York. In a brief review an Art News reviewer listed the titles of four of the paintings. Two of those mentioned were dark pictures: Browns, Purple Brown. The remainder were lighter in treatment, and closer, therefore, to the National Gallery’s Untitled (Red). In the same year Rothko also represented the United States in the 29th Venice Biennale. He exhibited in London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 13 March–19 April 1958, and the Museum of Modern Art in ‘The New American Painting’, 19 April 1958–8 September 1959. This exhibition travelled to eight European countries. For a list of reviews of these exhibitions, see P. Selz, Mark Rothko, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961, p. 42. 

8          The letter was written to the New York Times critic, Edward Alden Jewell. The statement was written with the help of Barnett Newman, and was published on 13 June 1943. It is reprinted in full in D. Waldman, Mark Rothko, 1903–1970: A Retrospective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 39. 

9          Conversation between Rothko and Selden Rodman, in S. Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York, 1957, pp. 93–94. 

10         For a full discussion of J. M. W. Turner’s Val d’Aosta, see M. Butlin, ‘A Newly Discovered Masterpiece by J. M. W. Turner’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, Melbourne, 1975, pp. 2–10. 

11        Phalanx of the Mind 1944, oil on canvas, 54 x 35 , Estate of Mark Rothko, illustrated in Waldman, op. cit., no. 33. 

12        L. Aragon, Paris Peasant, trans. S. W. Taylor, Pan Books, London, 1971, pp. 36–37.

13       ‘Personal Statement’, in A Painting Prophecy–1950, David Porter Gallery, Washington, D.C., quoted in Waldman, op. cit., p. 49. 

14       In its warm palette it is similar to the Ochre and Red on Red 1954 in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; illustrated in Waldman, op. cit., no. 118. See also nos 110 and 113 for others of comparable size, format and colour of the period. 

15          Dore Ashton, ‘Recent Show at the Sidney Janis’, Art and Architecture 75, April 1958, p. 8. 

16          In 1954 Rothko painted Homage to Matisse. At this time he either gave his pictures numbers or left them untitled. By entitling his tribute to Matisse, he noted the special relationship which he had to the French painter; illustrated in Waldman, op. cit., no. 107. 

17         Η. Matisse, ‘Notes of a Painter’, in A. Barr, Jr, Matisse, His Art and His Public, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1951, p. 102. 

18         Η. Bloom, ‘Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics’, Self Containing Artifacts: The Experiences of Seventeenth Century Literature, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1972, p. 393. 

19        Quoted by D. Ashton, New York Times, 31 October 1958, p. 26L. 

20        For a full discussion of Rothko’s work in series see Ε. E. Rathbone, ‘The Brown and Gray Paintings’, American Art at Mid-century: The Subjects of the Artist, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1978, pp. 242–69. 

21        J. F. Lyotard, ‘Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime’, Artforum 20, April 1982, pp. 64–69. 

22        Butlin, op. cit. p. 4. 

23        Η Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 2nd edn, London, 1787, p. 58, quoted in A. Wilton, Turner and the Sublime, British Museum, London, 1981, p. 10. 

24       15 Americans, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 25 March–11 June 1952, p. 18.