Technique and condition

Black on Maroon is painted on a single sheet of cotton duck stapled to a fixed strainer. Tension in the cloth is maintained by a simple, yet effective, construction of thin outer bars that are fixed at each corner, but internally sprung using bent cross members. The strainers were made by Mark Rothko's assistant of the time, Dan Rice who also stretched the cloth and, in tandem with Rothko, applied the base coat of maroon paint. This colour stain is made from powder pigments stirred into warm rabbit skin glue; it had to be applied as fast as possible to achieve an even layer of paint.

With the maroon ground established, Mark Rothko continued to paint by building up intensity of colour with a thinned layer of acrylic paint mixed from red and blue tube paint. Onto this, the dark figure was introduced slowly, layer by layer to build up form, depth, and tone with the probable result of a flickering gloss to satin presence in a matt field. What appears now as a black figure is a complex layering of rich ultramarine blue, maroon, blue-black and brown-black shades designed to give the impression of subtle warm to dark shifts, only revealing its secret structure in very bright light, and under ultra-violet illumination. A richness of form is revealed slowly as the eye adjusts to the low lighting specified by Rothko.

Well-diluted paint enabled Rothko to create thin layers that mix optically with underlying colours. The drawback of this technique is the tendency for the paint to dribble. The far-reaching intentions of one medium-rich brown-black, was cut short by the artist quickly rotating the canvas to divert the flow.

By the mid-1960s, the painting had developed a pronounced craquelure that may have prompted Rothko to send the painting to be restored. The subsequent lining, and restoration treatment, brought the painting to the state seen today. In 2000, surface dirt was removed to reveal the rich maroon and black velvet surfaces.

Mary Bustin
September 2000