Mark Rothko

Untitled

1969

On display at Tate Liverpool

Artist
Mark Rothko 1903–1970
Medium
Acrylic paint on paper
Dimensions
Support: 1730 x 1235 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Mark Rothko Foundation 1986
Reference
T04149

Summary

Untitled is a large painting on paper featuring two rectangles in different tones of brown. The lighter, lower rectangle shows the horizontal sweeps of a broad brush, while the upper rectangle contains vertical marks in a deeper tone, applied with a drier brush. These two fields are divided by a thin, pale, horizontal line. The shapes almost fill the frame, and are edged only by a white border of unpainted paper, which was uncovered when the tape that fixed the paper to a board during painting was lifted. The work is inscribed with the artist’s name and date on the verso.

This work was painted in 1969 by the abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko. He is best known, alongside fellow Americans Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, as a pioneer of colour field painting. This movement was characterised by simplified compositions formed from geometric shapes in unbroken colour. Although Rothko worked in vibrant hues in his early work, made during the late 1940s, later the palette became more muted and sombre, as can be seen in his well-known ‘Seagram Murals’ series of the late 1950s (Tate T01031 and T01163T01170), which Rothko executed in shades of dark maroon, plum and black. In 1968 Rothko suffered an aneurysm of the aorta and on medical advice began working on a smaller scale, which precipitated many works on paper and a further paring back of form and palette. In earlier canvases, rectangular areas of colour hovered over saturated fields of pigment, whereas in the paintings on paper, such as Untitled 1969, the rectangles became the ground itself, while the paper’s white edge served to emphasise both the flatness of the surface and suggest the possibility of depth.

Curator Bonnie Clearwater explained that this austerity in Rothko’s work was not accompanied by a loss of creative intensity:

Rothko painted very rapidly, and on a good day he could produce fifteen works on paper. Although in poor health he painted with great energy, moving his whole body, not just his wrist. Some of these works seem to have materialised effortlessly, the grays applied with a single sweep of the brush. Such works contrast with more labored paintings on paper which Rothko could not resist revising and editing.
(Bonnie Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York 1984, p.52.)

Untitled belongs to a series of works on paper that are often referred to as the Brown and Gray series. These paintings are characterised by a colour field divided into two unequal areas. In each case the darker tone is positioned above the lighter tone, a configuration Rothko imposed to prevent the works from being read as landscapes. The Brown and Gray paintings on paper anticipate the 1969–70 Black on Gray works, a series of around twenty-five paintings on canvas that formed the last major group Rothko made before his death. Rothko employed similar tones and configurations in this final series, but whereas in the paper works the white margin was created by the removal of masking tape, in the works on canvas he painted against a white canvas and, according to critic Brian O’Doherty ‘abandoned a life-long habit of “turning the corner”, of painting around the edge of the stretcher to give the canvas enough objectness to hold its place on the wall’. (Brian O’Doherty, Mark Rothko: The Dark Paintings 1969–70, exhibition catalogue, Pace Gallery, New York 1985, p.6.)

Untitled was gifted to Tate in 1986 by the Rothko Foundation, alongside Untitled c.1946–7 (Tate T04147) and Untitled c.1950–2 (Tate T04148). These works represent the different periods in Rothko’s career and were given to the museum to supplement the existing holding of Light Red Over Black 1957 (Tate T00275).

Further reading
The Tate Gallery 1984–86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982–84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.262–3.
Oliver Wick and Ernst Beyer (eds.), Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, 1930–1969, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Bayeler, Basel 2005.
Achim Borchardt-Hume, Rothko: The Late Series, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2008.

Phoebe Roberts
December 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Display caption

This is one of a group of paintings on paper which Rothko made after a period of illness in 1968, when he was too weak to work on his customary large-scale canvases. Despite his poor health, he apparently painted these works with great energy, moving his whole body, not just his wrist. His sweeping brushstrokes are clearly visible in the two rectangles of colour which make up this painting. It has been said that Rothko placed the darker colour at the top of the painting in order to prevent it being read as landscape, a reference which he wished to avoid. The white border, which was left by the tape Rothko used to fix the paper to a board when painting, was for him an integral part of the work.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

Mark Rothko 1903-1970

T04149 Untitled 1968

Acrylic on heavy cartridge paper 1730 x 1235 (68 x 48 1/2)
Inscribed ‘48 x 68 2089.69' and ‘MARK ROTHKO 1969' on back across top in another hand and ‘2089.69' t.l., t.r. and b.l. in another hand
Presented by the Mark Rothko Foundation 1986
Prov: The artist until 1970; ...; Mark Rothko Foundation by 1984 Exh: American Art at Mid-Century: The Subjects of the Artists, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, June 1978-Jan.1979 (8, repr. in col., as ‘Brown and Gray'); Mark Rothko 1903-1970, Tate Gallery, June-Sept. 1987 (82, repr. in col.), Fundación Juan March, Madrid, Sept. 1987-Jan. 1988 (44, repr. in col.), Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Jan.-March 1988 (63, repr. in col.); Mark Rothko: The Seagram Mural Project, Tate Gallery Liverpool, May 1988-Feb. 1989 (16, repr. in col.)
Lit: Eliza E. Rathbone, ‘Mark Rothko: The Brown and Gray Paintings' in E.A. Carmean Jr and Eliza E. Rathbone, American Art at Mid-Century: The Subjects of the Artist, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 1978, p.263, pl.29 (col.) and fig.20; ‘American Art at Mid-Century. Master drawings and watercolours', Washington Post Magazine, 21 May 1978, p.38; Paul Richard, ‘Seven abstract American heroes', Washington Post, 11 June 1978, pp.K 1-2; Nicholas Ashford, ‘Tate to be given Rothko paintings', Times, 4 May 1984, p.6; Michael Brenson, ‘Rothko Foundation gives 1,000 works to 19 art museums', New York Times, 4 May 1984, pp.A1 and C.28; Paul Richard, ‘19 museums to get Rothkos', International Herald Tribune, 5 May 1984, p.4; Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, pp.81-2 repr; Jeremy Lewison, ‘Mark Rothko Oggi', Carte d'Arte, vol.1, Nov.-Dec. 1987, p.15, repr. p.12 (col.).

T04149 is a painting on paper in light and dark brown from a series of approximately thirteen works often referred to as the series of ‘brown and gray' paintings. In all these paintings the colour field is divided into two unequal areas with the darker tone above the lighter one.

Rothko's work of the fifties was principally keyed in bright colours but towards the end of the decade he resorted to sombre tones to paint the murals destined for, but never installed in, the Seagram Building, New York (T01031, T01163-T01170). These were executed in red and maroon, sometimes with black. In addition the wall-size paintings he made for the Institute of Religion and Human Development in Houston, Texas 1965-6 were in deep crimson, plum and black. The Seagram murals had in effect heralded a change of palette, for a number of paintings in the early sixties are painted in rich, dark colours.

T04149, like the other ‘brown and gray' paintings in the series, was painted after the Houston murals were completed and was begun after the artist suffered an aneurism of the aorta in May 1968. Rothko was too weak to work on large canvases and turned almost exclusively in this period to creating paintings on paper, an action not unlike that of Matisse in the fifties who had resorted to making paper cut-out works when he was too infirm to paint.

Rothko's assistant, Oliver Steindecker, prepared the sheets of paper for him, as Bonnie Clearwater has described:

Rothko would instruct Steindecker to cut approximately twenty sheets of paper from a large roll which would then be taped onto the easels surrounding the room. Most of the easles were the walls that had been constructed for the chapel commission; he also painted on large plywood panels. Rothko painted very rapidly, and on a good day he could produce fifteen works on paper. Although in poor health he painted with great energy, moving his whole body, not just his wrist. Some of these works seem to have materialised effortlessly, the grays applied with a single sweep of the brush. Such works contrast with more labored paintings on paper which Rothko could not resist revising and editing (Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York 1984, pp.52-4).


T04149 is painted with a broad brush. The paint was applied to both sections with horizontal sweeps of the brush but in the upper section Rothko added vertical marks with a relatively dry brush in a deeper tone, the lighter tone showing through. A light coloured horizontal line divides the principal fields.

After completing a painting Rothko would remove the tape to reveal a white border of unpainted paper. He considered this border to be an integral part of the painting. According to Clearwater, ‘The white border ... must have appealed to him for it became a characteristic of his late works' (ibid., p.51).

Although the sombre palette of these late works on paper has been explained by some critics as reflecting Rothko's depression following his illness, the fact that he used darker colours some ten years earlier would seem to deny this assertion, which remains unsubstantiated. In addition Rothko's very last works, made after the ‘brown and gray' series, were painted in bright colours. Indeed there appears to be little to suggest any specific meaning for these works, since Rothko himself foresaw that works of this configuration might be read as landscape and it was to prevent such a reading that he placed the darker colour above the lighter tone (Brian O'Doherty, ‘Rothko's Endgame' in Mark Rothko: The Dark Paintings 1969-70, exh. cat., Pace Gallery, New York 1985, p.5). This is not to deny the importance of the subject in these or any other of Rothko's paintings. Any vestigial image that remained in Rothko's abstract paintings after 1948, however, had been eliminated in the Houston murals.

Where, in earlier paintings, a rectangular area of colour hovered above a field of colour, in the ‘brown and gray' paintings the rectangular figure was eliminated and became the ground itself. The white margin both emphasises the flatness of the surface and suggests the possibility of depth. In the elimination of the figure in these late works and in the abutment of one tone against another, Rothko comes close to the effect of certain paintings by Barnett Newman.

The ‘brown and gray' paintings on paper anticipate the last major series of paintings on canvas which Rothko made before he died. Rothko employed similar tones and configurations in these last paintings but where, in the paper works, the white margin was created by the removal of masking tape, in the paintings on canvas he painted against a white canvas. His previous practice had been to apply a wash of colour to the canvas against and with which to work. Clearly his experience with the white margin in the works on paper was considered to be successful.

It is worthy of note that both Pollock and Rothko created a series of dark works towards the end of their lives (see entry on Jackson Pollock T03977).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.262-3


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