Mark Rothko

Light Red Over Black


Not on display
Mark Rothko 1903–1970
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2306 x 1527 x 38 mm
Purchased 1959


Light Red Over Black is a large oil painting on a rectangular, vertically oriented canvas. As is suggested by the work’s title, the painting consists of two large black rectangles enclosed by a thick, vivid scarlet border, recalling the structure of a window. The unmodulated paint of the scarlet section contrasts with the blurred rectangles it surrounds. These areas of black paint have been sparsely applied and blended with blue pigment, creating pulsating, hazy forms that give the canvas a sense of movement and depth.

This work was painted by the abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko on a single sheet of tightly stretched cotton duck canvas. The canvas was primed with a base coat of red, made from powder pigments mixed into rabbit-skin glue. Onto the base layer Rothko added a second coat, which he scraped away after application to leave a thin coating of colour. The central black rectangles have a velvety blue-black base, ‘modified with small amounts of cobalt violet and possibly manganese blue’, according to curator and art historian Bonnie Clearwater (Clearwater 2006, p.179). These areas were painted in fast, broken brushstrokes using a large commercial decorator’s brush, a technique that created the muddied edges between the blocks of colour. The glue within the red paint shrank as it dried, giving the surface of the painting its matte finish.

Rothko is best known as a pioneer of colour field painting, alongside fellow American artists Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, among others. This movement was characterised by simplified compositions of geometric shapes in unbroken colour. Rothko began creating such works in 1946, initially working in vibrant colours, and this early approach to colour field painting is represented in the Tate collection by Untitled c.1950–2 (Tate T04148). In the latter half of the 1950s the palette of Rothko’s paintings became more muted and sombre, as the artist observed in 1960: ‘The dark pictures began in 1957 and have persisted almost compulsively to this day’ (quoted in Alley 1981, p.657). As the hues in Rothko’s work darkened, he also began to concentrate on the interplay between light and depth, as can be seen in Light Red Over Black, which uses the opaque frame of the border to form a contrast with the texture of the enclosed rectangles. This created the impression of moving planes and recessions, as observed by Clearwater:

In Light Red Over Black, Rothko paired two black regions; the top one is painted more densely and uniformly with defined edges, while the bottom black is more thinly painted and allows more of the red field below to bleed through. The diffused top and bottom periphery of this form creates an atmospheric effect. Consequently, the top black area appears to recede in depth and expand at its sides, whereas the black at the bottom projects forward.
(Clearwater 2006, p.133.)

Light Red Over Black was exhibited in the US pavilion at the twenty-ninth Venice Biennale in 1958 and was acquired by Tate the following year. After the acquisition of Light Red Over Black Tate went on to develop a close relationship with Rothko and acquired a further thirteen of his paintings, including nine from his well-known ‘Seagram Murals’ series of the late 1950s (Tate T01031 and T01163T01170).

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.657.
Bonnie Clearwater, The Rothko Book, London 2006, pp.133; 167.
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.

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Display caption

In his mature work, Rothko abandoned specific reference to nature in order to paint images with universal associations. By the late 1940s, he had developed a style in which hazy, pulsating rectangles float within a vertical format. He explained that these shapes 'have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognises the principle and passion of organisms'.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Mark Rothko 1903-1970

T00275 Light Red over Black 1957

Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 91 5/8 x 60 1/8 (232.5 x 152.5); the paint surface also extends around the stretcher
Purchased from the artist through the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1959
Exh: XXIX Biennale, Venice, June-October 1958 (US pavilion 19)
Repr: Studio, CLIX, 1960, p.107 in colour; John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery (London 1966), p.262; Ronald Alley, Recent American Art (London 1969), pl.9

Rothko's earlier abstract pictures were light in tone and often vivid in colour, then he changed to working in darker tones. As he wrote to the compiler on 1 February 1960: 'The dark pictures began in 1957 and have persisted almost compulsively to this day'.

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.657, reproduced p.657


Tate Papers

Psychosis and the Sublime in American Art: Rothko and Smithson: The Sublime Object

This paper addresses the work of Mark Rothko (1903–1970) and Robert Smithson (1938–1973), and, referring to the philosopher ...

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