Exhibition banner for Mark Rothko at Tate Modern

As his work appeared in a growing number of exhibitions throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Rothko took increasing pains to control how it was displayed. At Sidney Janis Gallery in New York in 1955, for example, he created a very dense hang, with two large canvases on either side of a doorway, crowding the space. Rothko was keen to establish an intimate rapport between his work and the viewer which, to some degree, mirrored his own relationship to his work during the process of its making. ‘To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience’, he once said. ‘However, you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.’

In the late 1950s, Rothko began darkening his palette to counter the perception that his work was decorative. Four Darks in Red 1958 belongs to a group of works which immediately precedes the Seagram commission. The composition of this painting is consistent with Rothko’s signature style of stacking vertical fields of colour in layers on a monochrome background. However, the colour is more subdued – a range of reds, maroons and blacks that clearly relates to the murals’ chromatic spectrum. Importantly, it was his most colourful work that Rothko described as ‘tragic’ while he resisted descriptions of his later, darker works in those terms.