Painted in 1958 when Rothko had first begun to engage with what is probably the defining project of his career—the creation of a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in Manhattan—No. 36 (Black Stripe) is a rare and imposing red landscape-format painting that exemplifies this extraordinary and culminating moment in the artist’s life and career. A concordance of three, vibrant, shimmering rectangles of dramatically contrasting colors, each asserting itself against an almost luminescent red ground, the work is a classic example of Rothko’s mature style of painting. It is also a work that, through its unusual, strongly horizontal, landscape format, its rich, deep colors and its pervasive sense of brooding drama, is one that evokes the same blend of somberness and tragic grandeur that was to characterize the epic series of murals that Rothko had begun to work on at this time.
This epic series of paintings, which preoccupied Rothko for most of the years 1958-9, was the group of works that would ultimately mark both a climactic turning point in Rothko’s career and, in retrospect, come to epitomize the unique mixture of romantic idealism, grandiose ambition and ultimate tragedy that so distinguishes the story of Rothko’s life and art, as well as its enduring legacy. For this and other reasons, the year 1958 was to prove a watershed moment in the history of Rothko’s life and work. While his paintings would continue to develop, deepen and evolve over the next twelve years, becoming, as many observers have noted, progressively darker throughout the 1960s, nothing Rothko was to make in that decade was to surpass the intensity and glory of his achievements in the 1950s. By 1958, Rothko was not only at the very height of his creative powers—painting, in addition to the now-famous Seagram Murals, many of the finest and most representative paintings of his career—he was also at the pinnacle of his influence and reputation. For the first time in his life Rothko was not only both financially and critically successful, but, in the wake of Jackson Pollock’s recent death, he was also widely thought to be the greatest living painter in America. The Seagram commission was in part a confirmation of this pre-eminent status and as if in an acknowledgement of this, Rothko took great pains in 1958 to make the rare step of preparing an extensive lecture about his work which he gave at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in October of that year.
As with so much that Rothko was to do in 1958, this lecture was also to prove pivotal. The most comprehensive statement to date that Rothko had given about his mature work since his great breakthrough to complete abstraction in 1949, his Pratt Institute lecture was also to be the artist’s last public statement about his work. Rothko’s ultimate decision, in 1959 and on ethical grounds, to walk away from and abandon the great Seagram Mural project—which he had worked so hard on and had had such high hopes for—was to mark a turning point in his life. This experience, allied to the sudden appearance on the American art scene of “Pop”—a new art not at all rooted in an elemental language of human feeling, but in the soulless, mechanically produced ephemera of popular culture—was seriously to damage Rothko’s always fragile self-confidence and to instill in him a prolonged sense of embattlement, resentment and existential despair that was to persist until his eventual suicide in 1970.
Few artists have taken their work more seriously or had such high hopes for its ability to speak directly to the human spirit and change the world for the better than Mark Rothko. Consequently, the story of Rothko’s work on the Seagram Murals and of his ultimate abandonment of the project has become the central legend of the artist’s career. Rothko’s epic attempt, between 1958 and 1959, to create a sequence of vast somber paintings of such overwhelming power and tragic effect that they would, he hoped, cause their audience of wealthy diners to choke on their food and acknowledge the sinfulness of their gluttonous ways, is one that typifies the Romantic vision of the eternal and heroic battle between the human spirit and the corrosive evils of materialism.
The conferring of the prestigious Seagram commission on Rothko was, in 1958, the crowning glory of the artist’s long, over thirty years, struggle. More importantly, this project provided him with the chance to create the one thing he had always wanted, but until then, never been able to attempt; the making of a complete environment—a sacred “place,” as he called it—to be created solely by his paintings. Towards this end, when the commission was first officially conferred upon Rothko in the spring of 1958, the artist set himself to work like never before on what he intended to be the most important and ambitious project of his life.
From the very first, however, the commission also threw Rothko’s ego and artistic ambition into conflict with his sense of ethics and his deep-rooted socialist principles. Designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van de Rohe, the Four Seasons restaurant was both chic modernist architecture and the place “where the richest bastards in New York come to feed and show off,” Rothko said (M. Rothko, quoted in S. Schama, The Power of Art, London, 2009, p. 248). Rothko wanted the “place” that his paintings created to overpower the sleek architecture and engage his audience with the essentially tragic nature of the human condition. After dining one night in the restaurant with his wife, Mell, in 1959, however, the luxury of the restaurant and the brashness of its clientele proved too offensive to Rothko’s conscience and this, alongside the fact that he feared that the solemn paintings he had made for the restaurant would be dominated and come to be seen as mere decoration, convinced him to pull out of the project. “Anyone who will eat that kind of food for that kind of money will never look at a painting of mine” he is said to have declared (ibid, p. 431). He returned the large advance on the unprecedented $35,000 fee for the murals that the Canadian distillers, Seagram’s, had offered him and kept the entire sequence of paintings for himself.
Rothko’s Seagram paintings comprised a series of fully fledged mural paintings, several large “sketches” and an unspecified number of other paintings related to the project. Of these related paintings, only the vast thirteen foot long canvas titled White and Black on Wine was ever identified by Rothko as being a part of the Seagram Mural project. Like No 36 (Black Stripe), this extremely large painting is one of nine red-ground, landscape-format paintings that Rothko made throughout 1958. Because of their rich red grounds, powerful brooding nature and their unusual use of a landscape rather than a more typical vertical format, these works can, in varying degrees, be seen to relate to the also predominantly landscape-format murals and Rothko’s broad conception for the Seagram project as a whole. In particular, in this respect, No 36 (Black Stripe) is a work that, like the paintings White and Black on Wine, Red Brown and Black (Museum of Modern Art, New York) Four Darks on Red (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Black Area in Reds (Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo), concentrates and develops the theme, first taken up by a number of more traditional vertical-format paintings made on a dark red-ground in late 1957, of exploring the potential of three large, imposing rectangles of starkly contrasting color against a rich red ground. Like these paintings, it is both a stand-alone work and one that attempts to further and develop the central theme he intended to employ in the murals.
Rothko’s chief concept for the Seagram Murals was to create works on an epic scale with an overridingly tragic theme —one that he described in his Pratt Institute lecture as a “single tragic idea”—that would speak directly through its fields of color to the inner feelings of all who saw them. For Rothko the color red was the obvious choice with which to carry this heavy sense of the tragedy and drama of the human condition. As Diane Waldman has written about Rothko’s strong relationship with the color red, “Red fascinates Rothko above all colors as a carrier of emotion. No other color appears so insistently in his oeuvre from the time of the multiforms. 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, as Mondrian did, with equally strong colors, such as black and white, or the other primaries yellow and blue. But Rothko frequently uses it alone, altering its tonality according to the emotion he wishes to express. Perhaps Rothko was so drawn to red because of its powerful and basic associations: it is identified with the elements and ritual—with fire and with blood—and thus with life, death and the spirit. The Existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard, whom Rothko and his friends deeply admired, wrote movingly of red, in terms that call to mind Rothko’s painting: ‘The result of my life is simply nothing, a mood, a single color. My result is like the painting of the artist who was to paint a picture of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.’ To this end, he painted the whole wall red, explaining that the Israelites had already crossed over, and that the Egyptians were drowned” (D. Waldman, Mark Rothko, London, 1978, pp. 57-58).
Red, in the form of a rich, deep, blood-red and then as an ever-more somber and perpetually darkening maroon, became the predominant color of the cycle of murals that Rothko painted for the Four Seasons between 1958 and 1959. These paintings were, in one respect, merely continuing and deepening the general tendency of his predominantly red paintings of these years to become ever darker—a tendency that Rothko was to later observe had first begun in 1957 and then “persisted compulsively” in his work ever after (M. Rothko quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko; A Biography, London, 1993, p. 328).
With its richly varied but universally radiant, almost joyous, red surface dramatically held in check and darkened by a strongly opposing and even ominous central black rectangle, No 36 (Black Stripe) is a work that epitomizes Rothko’s concerns during this dramatic period. Following on from ideas first established in a group of red-ground paintings made towards the end of 1957 and then both broadened and simplified in his landscape-format canvases of 1958, Rothko, in No 36 (Black Stripe), and as in the related works White and Black on Wine, Red Brown and Black, Four Darks on Red and Black Area in Reds, began to explore and experiment with the emotional power of a single dominant black rectangle operating on a red ground. Later to be effectively turned on their side to form a sequence of temple-like columns of red, black and maroon in some of the Seagram Murals, this complex play or struggle between a threatening dark or black form and a somber but vibrant, more life-affirming red has come to be seen as a kind of defining characteristic of Rothko’s most typical work. In an extremely simplified form for example, this play between an ominous black and a visceral red even became the central leitmotif of John Logan’s celebrated 2009 play about Rothko. Titled “Red” and based on this period in Rothko’s career, the play even has the character of “Rothko” exclaiming at one point that “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend. …One day the black will swallow the red” (J. Logan, Red, London, 2009, p. 28).
Like all of Rothko’s mature paintings, No 36 (Black Stripe) is essentially an emotive play of purely abstract color and form aimed at instilling a specific set of feelings in its viewer. Through the all-enveloping openness, simplicity and directness of its medium and its establishment of a tense and ultimately surprising equilibrium between all of its contrasting parts, No 36 (Black Stripe) is a painting that expresses an emotional and psychological reality, which, like a pictorial music, both resonates in and is unconsciously understood by the human psyche. In his evolution of this idea of communicating directly with the inner emotions of the viewer through the purely abstract medium of color, Rothko had been inspired, not just by Matisse, but by his love for and deep appreciation of music, especially the music of Mozart. Like a musical composer, Rothko was attempting to use the radiant hues of his color fields as distinct tonal vibrations that would resonate in such a way as to instill a specific emotional response in his audience. “I am not interested in relationships of colour or form or anything else,” Rothko once famously asserted. “I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted by my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them” (M. Rothko, quoted in Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York, 1957, pp. 93-94).
In addition to music, Rothko’s approach to his work was also profoundly influenced by his reading and rereading of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and, most especially by, Nietzsche’s first treatise on the roots of the Western tradition of art, The Birth of Tragedy. In this book Nietzsche had outlined how the ancient Greeks had found the ability to affirm a meaningful existence in an ultimately meaningless world through the invention and development of the dramatic art of tragedy. Following Nietzsche’s philosophical lead, Rothko’s abstract paintings concern themselves solely with elemental matters and play essentially on a sense of the innate dualism inherent within all human nature that Nietzsche had identified and classified in this book as being either Apollonian or Dionysian forces. For Nietzsche, the Apollonian was the force of forming, of becoming, of precise definition and the ideal. It was the force of universal order and was best exemplified in the arts by the formal refinement of Ancient Greek sculpture. The Dionysian, by contrast, represented an inexorable, unstable, wild and untamable energy, such as fire or fury, for example. The universal force of disintegration and chaos, it was the Dionysian that, Nietzsche believed, in the arts could best be discerned at work in the formless drive and emotive power of music. Elements such as the “noble” and the “sublime,” so often invoked in the tradition of Romantic painting to which Rothko’s art also clearly belongs, are, the artist said, “hollowed unless they hold, to the bursting point a core of the Wild” (M. Rothko, quoted in Mark Rothko, Retrospektive, exh. cat., Munich, 2008, p. 18, n. 50).
With its rich luminescent field of red punctuated and articulated by three distinct and powerful shimmering rectangles of contrasting color, No 36 (Black Stripe) is a work that seems to vibrate with just this sense of a burgeoning wild energy compressed into a tightly organized whole. In this, it is a picture that, through its strong repetitive emphasis on a broad horizontality within a comparatively small frame, seems to both invite a Romantic sense of longing towards some sublime vista while at the same time simultaneously to rebut it. The grandiose nature of the painting’s three strong radiating tones of deep red, black and fiery orange appear here to invoke the wild and conflicting Dionysian forces of nature being temporarily mastered and miraculously held and contained by some mighty ordering force into a dynamic and harmoniously structured, Apollonian, whole. As the artist Sean Scully has said of Rothko’s paintings such as this one, they articulate a space where the emotion instilled by the vast open horizons of the American West appears to meet the urban compression of the New York grid.
In No 36 (Black Stripe) the intensity and radiance of each of the painting’s colors have been painstakingly balanced in accordance with the picture’s scale so that together each of the picture’s three dominant forms resonates within a febrile and fascinating collective equilibrium. Rothko himself referred to this dynamic sense of balance attained in his work as a kind of “push and pull” between the forms that he manipulated in order to prompt the precise kind of emotional impact upon the viewer that he sought. As the eye responds to this pull and push between such all-enveloping open-form color, the struggle and play between the shapes stimulates an emotional ambiguity in the viewer—a battle between longing for the mysteries of the sublime and a visual enjoyment of the material, factual, actualities and reality of the physical present as witnessed in the brilliant painterly play and apparent drama of the picture’s surface.
In “Greek painting of the great period,” Rothko told his friend Alfred Jensen, “two kinds of specialists were known—the vase painters and the mural painters. They really monopolized the field. The vase painter was dealing with a relatively small three-dimensional object in a decorative vein. The other was working on a large two-dimensional surface, creating a new reality. Maybe you have noticed two characteristics exist in my paintings; either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inwards in all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say” (M. Rothko, “Conversation with Alfred Jensen,” June 17, 1953, quoted in J. E.B. Breslin op cit, p. 301).
No. 36 (Black Stripe)
Oil on canvas
TO BE SOLD TO BENEFIT THE MUSEUM FRIEDER BURDA, BADEN-BADEN
Signed, titled and dated 'MARK ROTHKO #36 - 1958' (on the reverse)
Mark Rothko , 1950s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
London, Tate Gallery, Painting & Sculpture of a Decade: 54-64, April-June 1964, pp. 100-101, cat. no. 86 (illustrated).
Tokyo, National Museum of Modern Art; Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art; New Delhi, Lalit Kala Akademi; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria and Sidney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Two Decades of American Painting, October 1966-August 1967, pp. 50 and 71 (illustrated).
Barcelona, Fundacio´ Joan Miro´, Mark Rothko, November 2000-January 2001, p. 103 (illustrated in color).
Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Mark Rothko, February-April 2001, pp. 115 and 173, no. 44 (illustrated in color).
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Eröffnungsausstellung Sammlung Frieder Burda, October 2004-February 2005, p. 37 (installation view illustrated in color).
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Bilderwechsel III - Amerikanische Malerei, September 2005-January 2006.
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Bibel-Bilder: Arnulf Rainer - Gustave Doré / Einblicke. Werke aus der Sammlung Frieder Burda, November 2006-January 2007.
Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? Positionen der Farbfeldmalerei, July-September 2007, pp. 147 and 165 (illustrated in color).
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Deutsche und Amerikanische Malerei. Aus der Sammlung Frieder Burda, October 2007-January 2008, p. 9, no. 1 (illustrated in color).
Munich, Kunsthalle der Hypo Kulturstiftung, Mark Rothko Retrospektive, February-August 2008, no. 79 (illustrated in color).
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, "Die Bilder tun was mit mir..." Einblicke in die Sammlung, March-June 2010.
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Lebenslinien. Stationen einer Sammlung, March-May 2011.
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, 40 l 10. 40 Jahre Sammlung - 10 Jahre Museum Frieder Burda, July-October 2014, pp. 48-49 (illustrated in color).
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, 40 l 10. Bilderwechsel, November 2014-February 2015.
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
61 7/8 x 67 in. (157.1 x 170.1 cm.)
D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 1998, no. 631, p. 493 (illustrated in color).
F. Nikolaus, "Der Sammler hat den Himmel auf Erden," art. Das Kunstmagazin, 1998, No. 7, p. 54.
G. Schehl, "Im Rausch der Farbklänge," Badisches Tagblatt, 19 February 2001 (illustrated).
Der Neubau von Richard Meier, exh. cat., Staatlichen Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, 2002, p. 20 (illustrated in color).
A. Zweite, Mark Rothko: Amerika und Europa Ein Dialog, Baden-Baden, 2004, pp. 4 and 13 (illustrated in color).
Brockhaus Enzyklopädie in 30 Bänden, 21st edition, Mannheim, 2006, p. 400 (illustrated in color).
art. Das Kunstmagazin, No. 8, February 2007, p. 88 (illustrated).
Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 2 December 2007, p. 9 (illustrated).
"Art Kompakt, Kunstsaison Januar-Juni 2008," art. Das Kunstmagazin, No. 1, January 2008, p. 5 (illustrated).
art. Das Kunstmagazin, No. 8, February 2008, pp. 82-83 (illustrated).
Munich Found: Your Ultimate Guide to City Life, no. 2, February 2008 (illustrated on cover and title page).
D. Michel, Harenberg Kulturfu¨hrer Malerei, Mannheim, 2008, p. 613 (illustrated in color).
G. Adriani, Unternehmer Kunst Sammler: Private Museen in Baden-Wu¨rttemberg, Stuttgart, 2009, p. 43 (illustrated in color).
Chefs-d'oeuvre du Musée Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, exh. cat., Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet, 2012, pp. 167 and 200 (illustrated in color).
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Chester Beatty, London, 1960
Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London, 1983
Thomas Ammann Fine Art A.G., Zurich, 1984
Acquired from the above by the present owner
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