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Mark Rothko: Classic Paintings (1949 – 1970)

On view now

Opened in September 2016, the East Building’s Tower 1 gallery features a rotating series of paintings by Mark Rothko.


1949 – 1959

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1949

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1949, pigmented hide glue and oil on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.138

Mark Rothko largely abandoned conventional titles in 1947, sometimes resorting to numbers or colors in order to distinguish one work from another. The artist also now resisted explaining the meaning of his work. "Silence is so accurate," he said, fearing that words would only paralyze the viewer's mind and imagination.


By 1950 Rothko had reduced the number of floating rectangles to two, three, or four and aligned them vertically against a colored ground, arriving at his signature style. From that time on he would work almost invariably within this format, suggesting in numerous variations of color and tone an astonishing range of atmospheres and moods.  


Mark Rothko, No. 2 (No. 7 and No. 20), 1951 (alternatively dated to 1950), Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia

Now applied in thin washes (often composed of both oil- and egg-based media), Rothko's color achieved a new luminosity. The artist's technique appears simple, but on close examination is richly varied in its range of effects. At times, paint can be seen running upward across the surface; this is because Rothko often inverted a picture while working on it, sometimes changing the final orientation at a late stage.


Mark Rothko, Untitled [Blue, Green, and Brown], 1952 (alternatively dated to 1951), Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia

In these paintings, color and structure are inseparable: the forms themselves consist of color alone, and their translucency establishes a layered depth that complements and vastly enriches the vertical architecture of the composition. Variations in saturation and tone as well as hue evoke an elusive yet almost palpable realm of shallow space. Color, structure, and space combine to create a unique presence. In this respect, Rothko stated that the large scale of these canvases was intended to contain or envelop the viewer—not to be "grandiose," but "intimate and human."


Rothko in his West 53rd Street studio, painting what may be a version of Untitled,1952-1953 (Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao), photograph by Henry Elkan, c. 1953

In 1954 Rothko asked that his largest pictures be installed "so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture." He said:

"Since my pictures are large, colorful, and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls. This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are intimate and intense, and are the opposite of what is decorative; and have been painted in a scale of normal living rather than an institutional scale. I have on occasion successfully dealt with this problem by tending to crowd the show rather than making it spare. By saturating the room with the feeling of the work, the walls are defeated and the poignancy of each single work . . . become[s] more visible.

"I also hang the largest pictures so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture. This may well give the key to the observer of the ideal relationship between himself and the rest of the pictures. I also hang the pictures low rather than high, and particularly in the case of the largest ones, often as close to the floor as is feasible, for that is the way they are painted. And last, it may be worthwhile trying to hang something beyond the partial wall because some of the pictures do very well in a confined space."

(Quotation courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Rectangular fields of magenta pink, black, and a band of flame orange nearly fill this abstract, vertical canvas. The narrow edges around the fields are sky blue. The magenta rectangle takes up the top third, and the black field below takes up most of the rest of the canvas. The narrow band of orange lines the bottom edge. The edges of the pink and black are blended, giving the forms a blurry look.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1953, pigmented hide glue and oil on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.135

Through his pursuit of a deeply original pictorial language, Rothko maintained a commitment to profound content. Although he rarely specified a precise interpretation for these works, he believed in their potential for metaphysical or symbolic meaning. In a lecture at Pratt Institute, Rothko told the audience that "small pictures since the Renaissance are like novels; large pictures are like dramas in which one participates in a direct way."


1959 – 1970

Rothko's work began to darken dramatically during the late 1950s. This development is related to his work on a mural commission for the Four Seasons restaurant, located in the Seagram Building in New York City. In the Seagram panels, Rothko changed his motif from a closed to an open form, suggesting a threshold or portal. This element may have been related to the architectural setting for which these works were intended.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Seagram Mural sketch), 1959, oil and mixed media on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.156

Here Rothko turned to a palette of red, maroon, brown, and black. The artist eventually withdrew from this project, due to misgivings about the restaurant as a proper setting for his work. He had, however, already produced a number of studies and finished canvases, two of which are included in the present installation.

Mark Rothko, No. 4, 1964, mixed media on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.152

With some exceptions, the darkened palette continued to dominate Rothko's work well into the 1960s. He developed a painstaking technique of overlaying colors until, in the words of art historian Dore Ashton, "his surfaces were velvety as poems of the night."

Rothko in his 69th Street studio with Rothko Chapel murals

Rothko in his 69th Street studio with Rothko Chapel murals, c. 1964, © Hans Namuth Estate, courtesy Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona

His work on the Rothko Chapel paintings, originally commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil for the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, occupied Rothko between 1964 and 1967. In turning away from the radiance of the previous decade, Rothko heightened the perceptual subtlety of his paintings, making distinctions between shape and ground more difficult to discern. He also transformed the impact his canvases have on the experience of space, which is now characterized by a sensation of enclosure. This quality, which lends itself to meditation, can be clearly related to the spiritual nature of a chapel.


Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968, Private Collection

Rothko's reading of Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher, suggests that his work could represent the opposition between a rational or abstract element and an emotional, primal, or tragic one (referring to Nietzsche's discussion of the polarity between an Apollonian and a Dionysian principle). Certain qualities, such as radiance or the duality of light and dark, have a symbolic meaning in Western culture from which Rothko clearly drew. An impression of vast space is said to represent the historical concept of the "sublime," a quasi-religious experience of limitless immensity. The installation of these canvases also produces its own sacrosanct environment.


Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1953, Private Collection

At different times during the 1950s and 1960s, Rothko produced a substantial quantity of small works on paper. It is not certain whether these are studies for larger paintings or simply smaller variations employing a similar dynamic of form and color. Rothko had many of them mounted on panel, canvas, or board in order to simulate the presence of unframed canvases. The smaller format especially suited Rothko in 1968, when his physical activity was dramatically curtailed by a heart ailment. Rothko continued to work predominantly on paper even after he returned to a relatively large format in 1969.


Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969, John and Mary Pappajohn, Des Moines, Iowa

In a series of brown- or black-and-gray paintings produced from 1969 to 1970, Rothko divided the composition horizontally and framed the image with a white margin (created by masking the edges of the paper or canvas with tape that was later removed to expose the bare support). The serene dark zone stands out against the turbulent brushwork of the gray section, an area further modulated by the addition of ochre or blue. The sharply defined edge establishes a complex interplay between the work and the viewer, who is drawn into the painting by its sensuous surface, yet kept at a distance by the stark framing device. 




Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969, Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel

In another series from this period, Rothko used a softer range of pink and blue for compositions that sometimes recall smaller works from the mid-1940s. A certain ascetic quality suggests that Rothko had embarked on a new direction, one which may have been related to the reductive work of younger artists at that time. Unlike the minimalists, however, Rothko never abandoned his conviction in the ability of abstract art to be experienced in emotionally expressive terms.


Mark Rothko in his studio, c. 1964, © Hans Namuth Estate, courtesy Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona (provided by Archives of American Art, Hans Namuth Photographs and Papers)

Physically ill and suffering from depression, Rothko committed suicide on February 25, 1970. At the time of his death, he was widely recognized in Europe and America for his crucial role in the development of nonrepresentational art. His vibrant, disembodied veils of color asserted the power of nonobjective painting to convey strong emotional or spiritual content. With an unwavering commitment to a singular artistic vision, Rothko celebrated the near-mythic power art holds over the creative imagination.

This web feature originally was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Mark Rothko, on view at the National Gallery of Art from May 3 to August 16, 1998. Sponsored by Mobil. The exhibition traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September 17–November 29, 1998, and to the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, January 14–April 18, 1999.

The following notice appears at the request of the artist's heirs: Works by Mark Rothko © 1998 Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel.

Exhibition Credits (1998)

 Jeffrey Weiss, associate curator, 20th-century art, National Gallery of Art. Consultants for the exhibition are Mark Rosenthal, curator of 20th-century art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and David Anfam, author of the forthcoming Rothko catalogue raisonné.   

Publication: A fully illustrated catalog has been copublished by the National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, with contributions from John Gage, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Barbara Novak, Brian O'Doherty, Mark Rosenthal, Jessica Stewart, and Jeffrey Weiss. It also includes interviews with Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman, and George Segal about Rothko's artistic legacy.

Organization: The exhibition has been organized by the National Gallery of Art.

Sponsor: The exhibition is sponsored by Mobil.

Schedule: National Gallery of Art, May 3–August 16, 1998; Whitney Museum of American Art, September 17–November 29, 1998; Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, January 8–April 18, 1999


Works by Mark Rothko in the National Gallery's Permanent Collection

The National Gallery of Art maintains the largest public collection of art by the American artist Mark Rothko (1903–1970). In 1986 the Mark Rothko Foundation determined that its mission to conserve its collection of Rothko's art and to enhance and promote the artist's legacy through scholarly research and exhibitions would be best served by strategically placing his canvases and works on paper in selected major international museums. Before disbanding in the same year, the Foundation designated 35 institutions to receive the art. As the principal recipient of the Mark Rothko Foundation's largesse, the National Gallery of Art received more than 1,100 works—paintings on canvas and works on paper—as well as research materials, including conservation records and exhibition reviews.

View a complete list of works by Rothko at the NGA.