Mark Rothko



Not on display

Mark Rothko 1903–1970
Watercolour and ink on paper
Unconfirmed: 535 × 356 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax 2012 and allocated to Tate 2014


Untitled c.1944 is one of a small group of watercolours that Rothko made during a vital period in his work in the mid-1940s. On a base of grey and grey-blue washes, he used black ink to mark out suggestive forms that are residually figurative. Rothko’s watercolour technique has been described by art historian Bonnie Clearwater, and her general observations closely fit this work:

Using generous soft-bristled brushes he applied the watercolour [and] gouache … Before the paint dried, he would return with black ink in order to define forms or to gesture automatic lines. When introduced into areas still wet with paint, the ink would bleed, resulting in the black bursts that spot some of these works … As a final step he would frequently scratch and gouge the paper with a razor blade, the back of a brush or some other sharp implement, exposing the white paper beneath the pigment.
(Clearwater 1984, p.30.)

As well as the preliminary washes and linear elements, Untitled also shows the results of the bleeding and scratching described by Clearwater. The painting is further animated by the addition of an area of blue in the lower half, with curls and smudges of red scattered across the composition.

In the mid-1940s Rothko remained on the cusp of abstraction, to which he would devote himself from the end of that decade onwards, for the rest of his career. Early in 1945, however, he specified a desire to retain what he described as ‘the anecdote’, explaining: ‘I love both the object and the dream far too much to have them effervesced into the insubstantiality of memory and hallucination’ (Mark Rothko, ‘Personal Statement’, in A Painting Prophecy – 1950, exhibition catalogue, David Porter Gallery, Washington D.C., February 1945, quoted in Clearwater 1984, p.28). Through the means of ‘object’ and ‘dream’, Rothko was exploring ways to draw from the legacy of European surrealism – prevalent in wartime New York – something more personal, a practice that would coalesce in what his friend the painter Barnett Newman later dubbed ‘The Ideographic Picture’ (see his statement of the same name in The Ideographic Picture, exhibition leaflet, Betty Parsons Gallery, New York 1947, p.1, Tate Archive TGA 786/3/3/1/1947). During this formative moment Rothko also drew attention to a combination of cultural sources, inflecting his understanding of surrealism with mythologically loaded imagery and his reading of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872. The result was the creation of a complex and layered vocabulary of signs and organic forms that sought to convey the primeval forces and mythic characters indicated by such titles as Tiresias 1944 (collection of Christopher Rothko) and Rites of Lilith 1945 (collection of Kate Rothko Prizel).

As is often the case with Rothko’s watercolours, the absence of a title could be seen to reduce the possible allusions with which the forms of Untitled c.1944 can be associated. However, the array of vertical totemic forms, and the ovoid at the centre, are common to other watercolours that survive from this period, including Untitled (Archaic Seascape, Primeval Landscape) c.1944 (private collection). Larger related canvases, such as Ritual I 1944 and Intimations of Chaos 1945 (Walker Arts Center, and private collection, respectively; Anfam 1998, nos.232, 283), show a more explicit imagery that helps to confirm the forms in Untitled as being broadly derived from the human figure.

This moment of rapid development, which Rothko shared with both Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, was brief in its duration. However, it represented a crucial antecedent to Rothko’s biomorphic works of the following years, including Untitled c.1946–7 (Tate T04147), which shows a thinning use of oil that may derive from his watercolour practice. Furthermore, the composition and the background anticipate the horizontal planes, stacked within a vertical format, that would typify Rothko’s mature abstract works.

Further reading
Bonnie Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York 1984.
David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, London and New Haven 1998.
Mark Rothko: Works on Paper 1930–1969, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Beyeler, Basel 2005.

Matthew Gale
August 2012

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