The simple two-field composition of the Brown and Gray works on paper constitutes another significant development in Rothko’s late work. He asked his studio assistants to staple and tape large sheets of pre-cut paper to wooden boards that could then be placed on an easel. Once the painting process was completed, the tape was removed revealing an edge of unpainted paper around the brown upper and the grey lower sections. Though it is unclear whether this edge was a part of Rothko’s thinking from the outset, some way into the series he began to stress its conceptual importance.
Rothko began work on the series in late 1968. Earlier in the year he suffered an aortic aneurysm that forced him to stop working altogether for several weeks. During the summer, when he had sufficiently recovered to return to his work his doctors recommended that he limit himself to formats no larger than forty inches in height, resulting in a prolific production of exuberantly colourful works on paper. The reduction in colour of the Brown and Grays is, therefore, a conscious element of Rothko’s sense of them as a separate series. Almost uniform in format, every adjustment to the fields’ proportions, their tonal hue or the gestural brushwork reveal themselves as meaningful painterly gestures within the self-imposed limitations of the composition’s simple structure.