Mark Rothko ‘Blue over Red’ 1953

Mark Rothko, Blue over red, 1953. Oil on canvas, 162 x 89 cm. Private collection. Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art, American Contemporary Art from Local Collections, October – November 1958.

Mark Rothko’s ‘Blue over Red’ from 1953 marks the peak of the artist’s most critical period of development in the first half of the 1950’s when he pioneered his signature style of abstraction.

A year before it was painted, Rothko moved his studio to West 53rd Street, down the block from the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Sunlight poured into his new studio, bathing it in shifting hues of intense yellow and orange, which may have inspired ‘Blue over Red’ and his other brightly-colored paintings of that period.

Henri Matisse could have been another influence on Rothko. Matisse’s ‘The Red Studio’ (painted in 1911) went on permanent display at MOMA in 1949 and can still be viewed today at the newly-opened museum. Although perhaps a coincidence, Rothko’s titling of his painting highlights the artist’s commitment to color and may be nod to Matisse’s own masterpiece.

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911. Oil on canvas, 181 x 219 cm. Museum of Modern Art.

Typical of Rothko’s paintings, ‘Blue over Red’ occupies a large canvas of slightly more than six by seven feet and should be viewed from a distance. While one may be enthralled by the bright colors of the work, Rothko often reminds his viewers that color is merely a means for him to express ‘basic human emotions’ that are existential even religious in nature.

People who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.

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