Some Like it Big: Mark Rothko, ‘Untitled’ 1952

Mark Rothko, ‘Untitled’, 1952-53, oil on canvas, 299 x 443 cm. Guggenheim Bilbao Museum.

One of the central figures of the New York School, Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is best known for his compositions featuring rectangular fields of luminous color, stacked or hovering over each other. Rothko emphatically rejected the reading of his work in merely formal, insisting that he was “not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else.” Rather, he used abstract means to express “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” earnestly striving to create an art of awe-inspiring intensity for a secular world. And indeed, viewers are known to break down and weep before his paintings, as if they were struck by sort of religious epiphanies.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s Untitled was featured prominently in a 1954 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, the first solo exhibition of Rothko’s mature work in a major American museum. The show comprised eight paintings carefully arranged in a relatively compact and low-ceilinged gallery. Hanging freely from the ceiling near the entrance, Untitled established the prevailing tone, greeting visitors with an inescapable frontality that allowed them no refuge in distance. 

Scale was an enormously important factor for Rothko. As he explained in a 1951 symposium, he painted on such a large scale not to produce something grandoise and pompous but rather “precisely because I want to be intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.”3

This monumental piece—one of only two paintings from this period on such an immense scale—might be considered among the first of Rothko’s true murals. The painting is somewhat unusual in its horizontality, as Rothko tended to prefer a vertical format. Here, horizontality and the size of the mural succeed in drawing the viewer’s attention at whatever distance they look at it as Rothko intended.

Mark Rothko (1903-70), standing in front of his art in his New York studio.

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