Although not related to a commission, Rothko clearly recognised the Black-Form paintings as a coherent series and numbered them sequentially No. 1 to No. 8, with No. 5 curiously appearing twice. Yet they were never shown as a series during his lifetime. These works mark a complete break with his colour field paintings of the 1950s, not only for their radically different deployment of colour – or non-colour as some may argue – but also because they did away with the hovering fields and soft feathered edges that had become Rothko’s trademark. Unlike some of his peers though, Rothko did not use tape to achieve these new, much more defined edges.
At first glance, these paintings may appear solid black. However, prolonged contemplation reveals the slow build-up of the surface through multiple layers and the close attention Rothko paid to gradations in tone and texture. Rather than annihilating colour and light, the Black-Form paintings appear almost luminous as their surfaces absorb and reflect light. The paintings invite the viewer to look more closely, introducing an element of duration and physical self-awareness into the process of perception. This is further strengthened by the arrangement of the paintings surrounding the viewer, a notion that became increasingly important to Rothko and others during the late 1950s and 1960s.