Mark Rothko's Orange, Red, Yellow from 1956 is a radiantly beautiful and monumental masterpiece in the artist's oeuvre. In this work the master abstract painter reduces colors to their essence while transforming them into form, space, and light. As with many of his paintings from 1950-1956, the present work has a compelling sense of harmony as Rothko's stratified color achieves its highest level of success. Rothko's absolute authority over color, surface, texture and composition was never more commanding than in his paintings from the mid-1950s such as Orange, Red, Yellow. Experimentation in the balance of these elements, and the proportion of weight or suspension given to each field of color, created a majestic series of sensual, enigmatic masterpieces of gripping presence. Orange, Red, Yellow is amongst the most sensational of them all as it reverberates, optically and intellectually. Engaging us with the artist's desire to create a pictorial language that went beyond the boundaries of painting, it encompasses a transcendent relationship between the viewer and the object. Rothko's challenge, to himself and his audience, was to engage not only the eye, but also the mind and the spirit. This glowing canvas displays Rothko's elimination of all mythic imagery, providing us with a nonobjective composition of amorphous forms – here, soft-edged and luminescent rectangles and passages of red, yellowish orange, and reddish orange are stacked one above the other within a tonal background that unifies the whole. Yet complexity abounds as traces of white or violet can be glimpsed in the bottom rectilinear form as Rothko's diaphanous layering of color optically flirts with the viewer's eye.
Rothko's revolutionary abstract paintings are deeply seeded in an art historical understanding, as he both looked to the past for inspiration and forged ahead into an uncharted future. Rothko's recognizable color fields would not have existed without the example of the Modern master, Henri Matisse. Rothko admired Matisse's radical unifications of color planes and flattening of space. Matisse's painting The Red Studio from 1911 would help Rothko explore the possibility of creating paintings from color alone. Matisse's love for pattern and his deep understanding of the inherent elemental properties of color come to the fore with particular power in The Red Studio. In 1911, Matisse visited an exhibition of Islamic Art in Munich and responded to the decorative patterns. In The Red Studio, Matisse achieved a similar illusion of a completely filled space in which objects both near and far press forward to the picture plane with equal urgency – in this case, by the vibrant red monochrome that represents wall, floor, table and chair in the studio space. Robert Rosenblum notes, "it may be more than a coincidence that MOMA acquired The Red Studio in 1949, the very year in which Rothko achieved the full-scaled conviction of what was to become his signature format: tiered clouds of color magnetized before the symmetrical pull of horizontal and vertical axes." (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko 1903-1970, 1987, p. 22).
In Orange, Red, Yellow, Rothko's communion of form and color achieved a maximum level of luminosity that is characteristic of the artist's mature works from this period. Paint was applied loosely with a brushy, feathered technique. The edges are never clearly defined adding to the sense of weightlessness of form hovering before the viewer, alternately receding and projecting from the picture's surface. Within this reductive spatial plane, Rothko's stacked color forms and washy backgrounds create an inner light source. It is clear that Rothko also looked to Claude Monet's seductive colored light and atmospheric ``plein air'' landscapes that are a cornerstone of Impressionist Art. Monet focused on the optical properties and textural paint application of color to construct his compositions. Dabs of pure color, carefully juxtaposed, are merged by the viewer's eye into the scene Monet had witnessed in the fields, city streets, and parks that were his subject. Both texture and color tone captured a specific time of day and quality of light, thus enabling Monet to bring nature before the viewer with unprecedented immediacy. In Orange, Red, Yellow, Rothko wields color and light with equal ingenuity and even more economical means. The present work pulls the viewer into an almost dream-like environment in which space and subject dissolve into a unified composition, creating a visual sanctuary from the outside world much like Monet's veils of colored, misty light.
An even more profound kinship exists between the work of Pierre Bonnard and Rothko. Bonnard's sensuous colors and bright Mediterranean light are easily observed in Orange, Red, Yellow. As Bernice Rose wrote in her essay for the 1997 exhibition highlighting the two artists, ``[Bonnard and Rothko] are ultimately united by the idea that color itself – abstract color – functions as the direct path to emotion, ...'' (Exh. Cat., New York, Pace Wildenstein, Bonnard, Rothko: Color and Light, 1997, p. 5) Bonnard was instrumental in the modernist liberation of color from its representational function, and his sensitivity to light and compressed, often tripartite compositional planes had a profound impact on Rothko when he attended the 1946-1947 Bonnard exhibition at the Bignou Gallery in New York. Bernice Rose cites the experience as an ``immediate catalyst for change'' and a jolt of inspiration toward Rothko's own ``leap into color.'' (Ibid., p. 11) Rothko's great transition from symbolist and anthropomorphic painting to the ``Multi-forms'' of the late 1940s, such as Untitled, 1947 were the necessary threshold to the works of the 1950s which crystallized his mature style. The shimmering quality of Rothko's ``Multi-forms'' and the scintillating gestures appear to emanate from details of Bonnard's work, magnified to the point of abstraction. In her description of Bonnard's work, Rose could also be describing Rothko's great achievements. ``This remembered light, woven from a myriad of separate color sensations, now comes from within the picture, expands beyond the planes meant to enclose it and beyond the frame itself to become a palpable glowing presence, a luminous space in itself that unifies the picture.'' (Ibid., p. 8)
The most vibrant color in the present work is the top band of red, an integral and important color in Rothko's work as noted by Diane Waldman. "Red fascinates Rothko above all colors as a carrier of emotion. ...It dominates Rothko's work of the fifties and sixties and, in fact, was the color of his last painting. Red is so potent optically that it overwhelms or obliterates other hues unless it is diluted or controlled by juxtaposing it...with equally strong colors." (Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, 1978, p. 58). In Orange, Red, Yellow, the red dominates the upper portion almost as a lintel atop a portal. Rothko dilutes the related tonal colors of orange to create a soft enveloping background aura and unites the composition with a tactile yellow, the color that transforms red into orange. As observed from the edges of this painting, yellow is the underlying layer upon which Rothko built subsequent color forms. In the hierarchy of color in this painting, yellow is therefore an underlying optical component that juxtaposes with the red to create the sense of optical vibration so key to Rothko's aesthetic allure.
The monumentality of this canvas and its overwhelming effect on the viewer solidify Rothko as one of the greatest painters of his generation and of the 20th century. His turn to full-fledged abstraction separated him from many American artist's of his time, however, Rothko's innovations share many cross-currents with his contemporaries at critical junctures. Clyfford Still was a friend and colleague from 1943 and they both appear in the historic 1951 photograph in Life magazine of the Irascibles – the group of artists who protested the traditionalist Metropolitan Museum of Art show titled American Painting Today in 1950. Through an investigation of ritualistic symbols and archaic forms, both artists eventually arrived at a totality of abstraction. Both possessed strong independent spirits and chose to remain separate from any particular movement. Rothko admired Still's skillful manipulation of color and shape and his ability to create flickers of light with small areas of contrasting colors at the edges of his canvases. Yet, Rothko eschewed the raw physicality of Still's paintings and the two artists are compelling opposites: Still's structured impasto is all about surface that is dense with texture, while Rothko's canvases are about transparency and atmosphere in a manner foreign to Still.
Franz Kline is also an intriguing comparison to Rothko that initially appears to be all contradiction but subtly reveals correlations. Kline was also more expressionistic in paint application and his abstractions were built from heroic gestures, yet he shared Rothko's interest in the rectangular form, often monumentally expressed. Kline's canvases do not have the spiritual element and are not as precisely balanced as Rothko's paintings, yet they give a clear dominance to geometry. Orange, Red, Yellow is also completely frontal and the balance of form forces the viewer to observe it head on. Its altar-like character has a symmetry that defines Rothko's quintessential and vibrant equilibrium.
Orange, Red, Yellow has a refined sense of balance and an astounding blend of color. Viewing the painting is an intimate and emotional experience, heavy with a sense of human passion. Rothko masterfully encompasses the viewer in a larger-than-life canvas that is both aesthetically direct and spiritually powerful. The heroic scale of Abstract Expressionist paintings by Still and Kline are also a reference in this regard. As Rothko wrote, "I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however – I think it applies to other painters I know – is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, ...However you paint the larger picture, you are in it." (Mark Rothko, "A Symposium on How to Combine Architecture, Painting and Sculpture", Interiors, vol. cx, no. 10, May 1951, p. 104.)
Oil on canvas
Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Önskemuseet (The Museum of our Wishes), December 1963 – February 1964, cat. no. 161, p. 72, illustrated
London, Marlborough New London Gallery, Mark Rothko, February – March 1964, cat. no. 2, illustrated in color
Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art, The Art of Collecting Modern Art, February – March 1986, cat. no. 24, illustrated in color
79 1/2 x 69 in. 202 x 175 cm.
Ian Bennett, A History of American Painting, London, 1973, p. 213, illustrated in color
Dictionnaire de l'art et des artistes, Paris, 1982, p. 514, illustrated in color
Frank Maubert, La peinture moderne, Paris, n.d., p. 130, illustrated in color
Michael Mayne, This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey, London, 1995, illustrated in color on the cover
David Anfam, Mark Rothko: the Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, cat. no. 556, p. 427, illustrated in color
Marlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc., New York
Mr. and Mrs. Young M. Smith Jr., Litchfield Plantation, S.C. (acquired from the above in 1969)
Sotheby Parke Bernet, Inc., New York, October 26, 1972, lot 18
John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco (acquired from the above sale)
Galerie Denise René/Hans Mayer, Düsseldorf
Private Collection, Milan (acquired from the above in 1973)
Harriet Griffin Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1981)
Private Collection, United States