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MARK ROTHKO

THE DECISIVE DECADE

1940–1950

DAVID ANFAM

BRADFORD R. COLLINS

HARRY COOPER

RUTH FINE

CHRISTOPHER ROTHKO


Mark rothko

The Decisive DecaDe

1940–1950

Bradford r. Collins, editor

2 the Decisive DecaDe chapter 3

david anfam

Harry Cooper

rutH fine

CHristopHer rotHko

xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxx xx

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12 the Decisive DecaDe chapter 13

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BeyonD pessimism:

roThko’s nieTzschean QuesT,

1940–49

Bradford r. Collins

It was many years ago that I encountered ... The Birth of Tragedy of Nietzsche. It left

an indelible impression on my mind and has forever colored the syntax of my own

reflections on the questions of art. 1

—Mark rothko

There is the danger that in the course of this correspondence an instrument will be

created which will tell the public how the pictures should be looked at and what to

look for. While on the surface this may seem an obliging and helpful thing to do,

the real result is the paralysis of the mind and the imagination. (And for the artist a

premature entombment.) Hence my abhorrence for forewords and explanatory data.

And if I must place my trust somewhere, I would invest it in the psyche of the sensitive

observers who are free of the conventions of understanding. 2

—Mark rothko

Mark rothko woulD Not have approveD of the explanatory guide to his paintings of the 1940s that

you are about to read. Throughout his career Rothko regularly insisted that no such explanations

were necessary, that his works clearly communicated with the “sensitive” observer. In

most of these instances, however, his assertion was in response to evidence to the contrary, to

someone who badly misunderstood what he believed he was communicating. During the last

46 the Decisive DecaDe chapter 47

Rothko 2nd pages for color.indd 46-47 3/2/12 5:21 PM


cat 36.

Milton avery

(1893-1965)

Girl with Cello, 1958

oil on board,

23 3/4 x 19 5/8 inches

Gift of Robert Y. Turner

Columbia Museum of Art,

Columbia, South Carolina

© 2012 Milton Avery

Trust / Artists Rights

Society (ARS), New York

Image courtesy of the

Columbia Museum of Art

cat 1.

Mark rothko

(1903-1970)

Untitled (man and two

women in a pastoral

setting), c. 1940

oil and graphite on

canvas, 28 ½ x 36 inches

National Gallery of Art,

Washington, Gift of The

Mark Rothko Foundation,

Inc., 1986.43.53

© 1998 Kate Rothko

Prizel & Christopher

Rothko / Artists Rights

Society (ARS), New York

Image Courtesy

National Gallery of Art,

Washington.

28 the Decisive DecaDe chapter 29

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cat 12.

Mark rothko

(1903-1970)

Aquatic Drama, 1946

oil on canvas,

36 x 48 inches

National Gallery of Art,

Washington, Gift of The

Mark Rothko Foundation,

Inc., 1986.43.10

© 1998 Kate Rothko

Prizel & Christopher

Rothko / Artists Rights

Society (ARS), New York

Image Courtesy

National Gallery of Art,

Washington.

92 the Decisive DecaDe

chapter 93

cat 11.

Mark rothko

(1903-1970)

Personage Two, 1946

oil on canvas,

56 x 32 ¼ inches

National Gallery of Art,

Washington, Gift of The

Mark Rothko Foundation,

Inc., 1986.43.12

© 1998 Kate Rothko

Prizel & Christopher

Rothko / Artists Rights

Society (ARS),

New York

Image Courtesy

National Gallery of Art,

Washington.

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94 the Decisive DecaDe chapter 95

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fig 18.

Mark rothko

(1903-1970)

Untitled, 1968

acrylic on paper

mounted on hardboard

panel, overall 18 1/16 x

11 7/8 x 1 7/16 inches

(45.88 x 30.16 x 3.65)

Gift of The Mark Rothko

Foundation, Inc. NGA

1986.43.265

© 2003 Kate Rothko

Prizel & Christopher

Rothko / Artists Rights

Society (ARS),

New York

Image courtesy of the

National Gallery of

Washington

paint across the sheet after it was applied further

enriches monochromatic works, for example, Untitled,

1944/46 (cat. 30).

During this 1944 to 1946 period Rothko’s

work became more fully involved (as a primary

intention) with the process of painting itself. The

methods he used and the marks he made were first

and foremost in response to the evolution of the

image per se rather than to any a priori situation.

Dry brushstrokes of intense color are countered

by watery pools of delicate hue. Individual painted

marks likewise create forms and texture depending

upon how loaded the brush was with paint when

applied to the sheet, and how much pressure the

artist exerted when placing the marks. Worked in

both vertical and horizontal formats, the earliest of

these mid-decade sheets offer suggestions of totemic

images and underwater plant life, usually superimposed

upon layered horizontal bands that by the

end of the 1940s evolved as Rothko’s major compositional

form, uninterrupted by linear incident or

mimetic shapes. Biomorphic forms with figurative

properties (as in Untitled, c. 1945, cat. 27) gave way

to swirling calligraphic totems and suggestions of

underwater life (such as Untitled, 1944/45, cat. 26).

These works present a visual parallel to aspects of

Rothko’s discussion in The Artist’s Reality of plasticity

and the importance of the viewer’s role in the

completion of a work of art. The first sentence of his

“Plasticity” chapter indicates “this book is devoted

mainly to the description of the plastic elements”

and goes on to state:

In painting, plasticity is achieved by a sensation

of movement both into the canvas

and out from the space anterior to the

surface of the canvas. Actually, the artist

invites the spectator to take a journey

within the realm of the canvas. The spectator

must move with the artist’s shapes

in and out, under and above, diagonally

and horizontally; he must curve around

spheres, pass through tunnels, glide down

inclines, at times perform an aerial feat

of flying from point to point, attracted

by some irresistible magnet across space,

entering into mysterious recesses—and,

if the painting is felicitous, do so at varying

and related intervals. This journey is

the skeleton, the framework of the idea....

Without taking the journey, the spectator

has really missed the essential experience

of the picture. 10

While Rothko refers to “canvas” in the above

paragraph, his comments equally apply to his

paintings on paper from these years, which tend to

employ multiple media although transparent watercolor

is primary among the layered hues. Opaque

watercolor touches follow sparingly, and thus function

as focal points within the fields, setting up

a rich contrast to Rothko’s magical line, directly

drawn at first in both black and color inks, but

incised as scraffito increasingly as the ideas evolve,

functioning with authority as rhythm, pattern, edge,

direction, interruption. The ambition of these middecade

watercolors expanded his approach to layering

veils of paint that eventually claimed primacy in

his work.

Central to Rothko’s paintings on paper is the

white of the sheet as it glows through the transparent

and translucent washes the artist applied in diverse

directions, using many different sizes of brushes, and

varying his hand pressure, together to create spatial

diversity within the field. Additionally, opaque white

used independently and in admixtures of various

hues adds density that transparent watercolor generally

defies. As paintings conservator Dana Cranmer

has observed, “during this period, a remarkable symbiosis

occurred between the watercolors and the oils.

Rothko approached the canvas support much as he

did the white paper support of the watercolor.” 11 As

part of his process of applying paint, Rothko increasingly

incorporated rubbing and blotting methods

that provided subtle gradations to the hues. On paper

these actions alter the manufactured surfaces of the

sheets and, thus, the ways in which they subsequently

respond to and carry the paint. Rothko rubbed or

incised with such vehemence at times that he broke

through the sheet entirely.

In early 1946, Rothko’s first exhibition since

1933 comprising solely works on paper was held at

the Mortimer Brandt Gallery in Manhattan. Eighteen

of his mid-1940s watercolors were on view,

many of which were highly enough admired to be

sold during the course of the show. Starting the

following year and for much of the rest of his life,

Rothko’s attention was more focused on canvas than

on paper. But on paper as well as on canvas, thinly

applied layers of paint create zones of color; and

works on the two substrates differ from the other

primarily because of differences in these surfaces

and the responsiveness of materials to their very different

properties, and not in his handling of them.

Size is perhaps the one major delineator—his classic

canvases reach dimensions impossible even with the

largest rolls of paper available at that time (fig. 18). 12

The importance of paper to Rothko’s oeuvre

lasted well beyond the 1940s. What have come to be

viewed as his classic compositions—two, three, or

108 the Decisive DecaDe chapter 109

fig 19.

Mark rothko

(1903-1970)

Untitled, 1969

acrylic on paper, sheet:

71 ¾ x 42 7/16 inches

(182.3 x 107.8)

Gift of The Mark Rothko

Foundation, Inc. NGA

1986.43.278

© 2003 Kate Rothko

Prizel & Christopher

Rothko / Artists Rights

Society (ARS),

New York

Image courtesy of the

National Gallery of

Washington

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cat 24.

Mark rothko

(1903-1970)

Untitled, 1950

oil on canvas,

43 x 49 ½ inches

National Gallery of Art,

Washington. Gift of The

Mark Rothko Foundation,

Inc., 1986.43.159

© 1998 Kate Rothko

Prizel & Christopher

Rothko / Artists Rights

Society (ARS),

New York

Image Courtesy

National Gallery of Art,

Washington.

148 the Decisive DecaDe

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150 the Decisive DecaDe chapter 151

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MARK ROTHKO

The Decisive Decade: 1940–1950

Essays by David Anfam, Brad R. Collins,

Harry Cooper, Ruth Fine, and Christopher Rothko

Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc.

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New York, NY 10010

www.rizzoliusa.com

ISBN: 978-­‐0-­‐8478-­‐3900-­‐1

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Can: $52.50 UK: £ 32.50

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176 pages

100 color and B&W illustrations

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or any other publicity information about this title please contact:

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