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Mark ROTHKO, 1957 # 20 ENLARGE | ZOOM 1/1


European & American Art
Abstract Expressionism gallery

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Latvia 1903 – United States of America 1970

1957 # 20
[Black,brown on maroon' or 'Deep red and black' are alternative titles'] 1957 New York, New York, United States of America
paintings, oil on canvas
Technique: oil on canvas
Primary Insc: signed and dated verso u.l., maroon oil paint, "Mark Rothko / 1957"
Tertiary Insc: '1957 # 20' inscribed on crossbar on back of stretcher.
233.0 h x 193.0 w cm
Unframed 233.0 h x 193.0 w x 4.5 d cm
Purchased 1981
Accession No: NGA 81.729
© Mark Rothko/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy

  • estate of the artist;
  • from whom bought, through The Pace Gallery, New York, by the Australian National Gallery, February 1981
  • Mark Rothko’s paintings are fields of colour. He reduced his palette in this instance to dark red, brown and black—two different blacks, one washed out and one much stronger. Three blocks of fairly sombre tones float over the field of dark red.

    In the early 1950s Rothko employed bright colours in harmonious combinations but in 1957, the year this work was painted, a perceptible shift occurred in his work. Fewer and darker colours were used, reflecting a more limited range of moods, including a preoccupation with death and mortality.

    Rothko is an emotional artist, evoking many different feelings in viewers. One of the contradictions of his work is how beautiful the paintings are when he may have been making a despairing gesture about human behaviour. ‘A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience,’ he said.

    The layers of thin paint can create a sense of light coming through. One’s appreciation of the apparent depths in the colours is influenced by the way the painting itself is lit, with Rothko himself alternating between bright and dim. The work is not framed but is just stretched canvas, so there is really nothing between the viewer and the paint.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

  • Brown, black on maroon is characteristic of Rothko's mature style, composed of soft-edged blocks of colour that float above each other. Throughout the early 1950s he had employed bright colours-reds, yellow, oranges and blues-in harmonious combinations. But in 1957, the year this work was painted, a perceptible shift was occurring in Rothko's paintings. Fewer and darker colours were used, giving a sombre expression of his work. Rothko was still painting 'dramas', a term he had used to describe the subject of his paintings of the 1940s, using colour as the 'instrument': 'I exclude no emotion from being actual and therefore pertinent', he said in 1957. 'I take the liberty to play on any string of my existence. I might as an artist, be lyrical, grim, maudlin, humorous, tragic.'1 At that moment, however, Rothko's paintings reflected a more limited range of mood; among the 'ingredients' of his art listed in a lecture he delivered at the Pratt Institute in 1958, was 'a clear preoccupation with death. All art deals with intimations of mortality'.2 To Dore Ashton, a regular visitor to his studio at this time, Rothko claimed that 'he was creating the most violent painting in America'.3 Ashton interpreted this as referring to the conflict inherent in the association of colours that Rothko conceived of as the symbolic equivalents of emotions. The 'dark' emotions that permeate Brown, black on maroon and other paintings of 1957 were, with certain exceptions, the basis for all the works Rothko painted until he committed suicide in February 1970.

    Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.250.

    1. Elaine de Kooning, 'Kline and Rothko: Two Americans in Action', Artnews, Annual XXVII, 1958, pp.88-97; 174-9, cf. p.177
    2. Taken from notes made at a lecture by Rothko at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, in 1958, and published by Dore Ashton in an New York Times, 31 October 1958 and reprinted in 'The New York School', Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1965 (exhit p.142.
    3. Dore Ashton, About Rothko (exhibition catalogue), New York: Oxford University Press, 1983, p.138.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010