Mark Rothko

Black on Maroon

1959

On display at Tate Modern

Artist
Mark Rothko 1903–1970
Medium
Oil paint, acrylic paint and glue tempera on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 2667 x 4572 x 38 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969
Reference
T01163

Summary

Black on Maroon is a large unframed oil painting on a horizontally orientated rectangular canvas. The base colour of the painting is a deep maroon. As is suggested by the work’s title, this is overlaid with a large black square, which in turn encloses a narrower maroon square, suggesting a window-like structure. The black paint forms a solid block of colour but the edges seep slightly, blurring into the areas of maroon. Different pigments have been used within the maroon, blending shades of crimson and oxblood colour. This changing tone gives a sense of depth in an otherwise abstract composition.

Black on Maroon was painted by the abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko. He is best known, alongside fellow Americans Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell, as a pioneer of colour field painting. The movement was characterised by simplified compositions of unbroken colour, which produced a flat picture plane. Black on Maroon was painted on a single sheet of tightly stretched cotton duck canvas. The canvas was primed with a base coat of maroon paint made from powder pigments mixed into rabbit skin glue. The glue within the paint shrank as it dried, giving the painting’s surface its matt finish. Onto the base Rothko added a second coat that he subsequently scraped away to leave a thin coating of colour. The black paint was then added in fast, broken brushstrokes, using a large commercial decorator’s brush. With broad sweeping gestures Rothko spread the paint onto the canvas surface, muddying the edges between the blocks of colour, creating a sense of movement and depth.

In early 1958 Rothko was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Rothko was interested in the possibility of having a lasting setting for his paintings to be seen as a group. He wanted to create an encompassing environment of the sort he had encountered when visiting Michelangelo’s vestibule in the Laurentian Library in Florence in 1950 and again in 1959:

I was much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo’s walls in the staircase room of the Medicean Library in Florence. He achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.
(Quoted in Breslin 2012, p.400.)

Rothko started work on the Seagram commission in a large new studio, which allowed him to simulate the restaurant’s private dining room. Between 1958 and 1959 Rothko created three series of paintings, but was unsatisfied with the first and sold these paintings as individual panels. In the second and third series Rothko experimented with varying permutations of the floating window frame and moved towards a more sombre colour palette, to counter the perception that his work was decorative. Black on Maroon belongs to the third series, in which the blocks of colour within the works had become more defined. By the time Rothko had completed these works he had developed doubts about the appropriateness of the restaurant setting, which led to his withdrawal from the commission. However, this group of works is still referred to as the ‘Seagram Murals’.

The works were shown at Rothko’s 1961 retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, and in 1965 Norman Reid, then Director of Tate, approached Rothko about extending his representation in the gallery’s collection. Rothko suggested a group of paintings from the ‘Seagram Murals’, to be displayed in a dedicated room. Rothko’s first donation, the earlier Black on Maroon 1958 (Tate T01031), came in 1968. The following year Reid provided Rothko with a small cardboard maquette of the designated gallery space to finalise his selection and propose a hang. (This maquette is now in Tate’s Archive, TGA 872, and is reproduced in Borchardt-Hume 2008, pp.143–5.) Rothko then donated eight further paintings in 1969, including this one, and of these eight, four are titled Black on Maroon and four Red on Maroon (Tate T01163T01170). The ‘Seagram Murals’ have since been displayed almost continuously at Tate, albeit in different arrangements, in what is commonly termed the ‘Rothko Room’ (for installation views see Borchardt-Hume 2008, pp.98, 142).

Further reading
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, London 1991.
Achim Borchardt-Hume (ed.), Rothko: The Late Series, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2008, reproduced pp.126–7.
James Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 2012.

Phoebe James
May 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Technique and condition

Black on Maroon is painted in mixed media on a single piece of cotton duck. The fabric is stretched over a delicate strainer made of thin wooden bars, braced with internally sprung cross-bars. This apparently flimsy structure maintains a good even tension in the large expanse of cloth. The artist and his assistant prepared the cotton duck by applying, very quickly, a layer of maroon paint made from powder pigments mixed into animal skin glue.

Onto this coloured base, Rothko built up the maroon base colour in thin layers. These increased the intensity and depth of the red by allowing the lower layers to influence the overlying maroon. At the same time, a black figure was painted in glue tempera, but in a different position from the one now visible. Originally the black vertical bars lay closer to the edge. This earlier position may be just visible to the naked eye despite the artist applying a thick coat of opaque maroon paint on top. Black glue tempera paint was selected for its mattness. Thick islands of impasto create accents at each corner and at the centre of the bars where Rothko smeared on dabs of black with a stiff brush, and stippled whipped peaks of paint onto the flat surface. Fine rivulets of dilute maroon paint run across the black bars; just visible as glossy lines.

In the mid 1960s, before it was selected for the gift to the Tate, this painting was lined and the maroon background was varnished. It is in good condition.

Mary Bustin
August 2000

Catalogue entry

Mark Rothko 1903-1970

T01163 Black on Maroon 1959

Inscribed 'MARK ROTHKO | 1959' on back of canvas (in reverse direction to the arrows indicating the top)
Oil on canvas, 105 x 180 (266.5 x 457)
Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969
Exh: Mark Rothko, Museum of Modern Art, New York, January-March 1961 (works not numbered, repr. as 'Mural, Section 3, 1959'); Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, October-November 1961 (40, repr.); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, November-December 1961 (40); Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, January 1962 (40); Kunsthalle, Basle, March-April 1962 (41); Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome, April-May 1962 (41, repr.); Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, December 1962-January 1963 (36)

See the note on T01031. This picture was included in Rothko's retrospective exhibition as 'Mural, Section 3' and was reproduced in the catalogues the other way up (the same way as the signature). The direction of the paint dribbles confirms that it was executed that way up, at least in part. However, the arrows indicating the top point in the reverse direction, so he seems to have later changed his mind.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.662, reproduced p.662


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