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European & American Art
Abstract Expressionism gallery

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Mark ROTHKO

Latvia 1903 – United States of America 1970

Multiform 1948 paintings, oil on canvas
Technique: oil on canvas
Primary Insc: no inscriptions
155.0 h x 118.7 w cm
Purchased 1981
Accession No: NGA 81.730
© Mark Rothko/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy

Provenance:
  • estate of the artist;
  • from whom bought, through The Pace Gallery, New York, by the Australian National Gallery, February 1981
  • This is one of the paintings in which Mark Rothko confirmed his shift to abstract painting. More than 20 years earlier he began painting realistically, and 10 years before that had moved to Surrealistic mythological scenes. By 1947 his work had become completely abstract in compositions such as this, of irregular areas of colour.

    Here he has painted the most beautiful bright blue, a bright turquoise and orange, and a darker red and browns. Brightness and hue cause some of these colours to stand out and others to fall back, but the changes in tone between darker and lighter areas are so gradual that depth within the painting remains indeterminate. This is a new kind of picture plane. Which forms are figures, and which background? The clear evidence that so many colours have been painted over others adds to the viewer’s indecision.

    Of special interest are the three large rectangular blocks of colour forming gradually around the edges. In the following year the artist made these the subject of all his subsequent paintings, but here he is just moving towards perceiving their power.


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

  • Multiform 1948 is one of a small group of untitled works collectively known as 'Multiforms' that Rothko painted during the years 1947-49 immediately preceding the mature works for which he is best known. In these transitional paintings Rothko abandoned the Surrealist-inspired imagery of his earlier works to develop a fully abstract vocabulary. Writing in 1947, he described his paintings as 'dramas', but added that the use by contemporary artists of figurative subject-matter to convey emotions and experiences was no longer practicable; 'with us the disguise must be complete', he asserted. 'The familiar identity of things has to be pulverised in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment'.1

    The title 'Multiform' does not seem to have been used before Rothko's death. It appears for the first time in the catalogue for the Rothko exhibition at the 1970 Venice Biennale. It is thought by the staff of the Marlborough Gallery, who prepared this catalogue, that Rothko used the term 'Multiform' generically when referring to his transitional paintings of 1948-49.2

    Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.248.

    1. Mark Rothko, 'The Romantics Were Prompted'. Possibilities no. 1, Winter 1947-48, p.84.
    2. The authors are grateful to Bonnie Clearwater, Curator of the Rothko Foundation, for providing this information. (Bonnie Clearwater, correspondence with the Australian National Gallery, 12 July 1984).

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010