Mark Rothko’s No. 17 is a dazzling manifestation of the painterly tussles which the artist played out across the surface of his canvases. Painted in 1957, its vibrant, verdant hues are emblematic of the experiential nature of Rothko’s art—a manifestation of what one critic called the “immediate radiance” of the paintings from this period of the artist’s career. Exhibited at Rothko’s seminal exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1961 (one of the artist’s first solo shows in Europe), this painting spent several decades out of the public realm in a private European collection before making a triumphal appearance in 2001 when it was publically exhibited for the first time in over 30 years. A central part of an exhibition of Rothko’s paintings organized by the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, No. 17 becomes an important work in the canon of Rothko’s paintings from the mid-1950s. Produced at the dawn of his mature period, and just a short time before he embarked on what would become his magnum opus, the Seagram Murals, this painting encapsulates all of the drama and psychological intensity of an artist who became one of the most celebrated and influential artists of the twentieth century.
Across the surface of this large painting, Rothko lays down a multitude of diaphanous veils of color, which results in a series of chromatic veneers of luxuriant blues and verdant greens. Rothko’s chromatic field is segmented into three passages that appear to hover gracefully on top of a sea of cobalt blue—a body of color which gradually shifts in intensity from deep hues along the upper edges to more muted tones as the eye journeys down the picture plane. A large square of lush green sits on top of a smaller, yet seemingly more solid passage of royal blue. Sandwiched between both these blocks is a strip of high-keyed azure blue, the active edges of this thin strip increasing their impact by bleeding into the neighboring areas with intoxicating results. Rothko always insisted that it was here, where the edges of his painterly passages meet, that the true essence of his paintings could be witnessed.
Rothko’s surfaces are rich in the subtle nuances of his painterly practice. In No. 17 the traces of the many layers that the artist lays down can be seen in the softly undulating layers of underpainting that constantly bubble up towards the surface. These surging strata result in a delicate shifting of color, as areas of darker pigment give way to saturated passages of high-keyed intensity. This sensation is also enhanced by Rothko’s use of both matte and gloss paints and this very specific method of paint application helps to capture the sense of drama that Rothko wished to convey with his mature paintings. It was Hubert Crehan, in one of the first reviews of the artist’s paintings from this period, who wrote about the “immediate radiance” of Rothko’s paintings. “We have in our time become aware of the reports of the great billows of colored light that have ripped asunder the calm skies over the atolls of the calmest ocean. We have heard of the terrible beauty of that light, a light softer, more pacifying than the hues of a rainbow and yet detonated as from some wrathful and diabolical depth. The tension of the color-relationships of some of the Rothko paintings I have seen has been raised to such a shrill pitch that one begins to feel in them that a fission might happen, that they might detonate” (H. Crehan, “Rothko’s Wall of Light: A Show of His New Works at Chicago,” Arts Digest 29, November 1, 1954, p. 19).
Although Rothko never acknowledged himself as a colorist, the chromatic intensity of No. 17 clearly demonstrates his innate understanding of the power of color. In 1961, Robert Goldwater, whom the artist acknowledged was one of the few critics who actually understood his work, wrote “Rothko claims that he is ‘no colorist,’ and that if we regard him as such we miss the point to his art. Yet it is hardly a secret that color is his sole medium… Rothko’s concern over the years has been the reduction of his vehicle to the unique colored surface which represents nothing and supports nothing else” (R. Goldwater, quoted by J. Gage, “Rothko: Color as Subject,” in J. Weiss, Mark Rothko, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 247). Even Duncan Phillips, one of the artist’s greatest patrons who arranged a handful of paintings in “a little chapel for meditation” at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., acknowledged that it was Rothko’s natural affinity with color that marked out his greatness (Ibid., pp. 247-248). Rothko was adamant, though, and continued to insist that it was not color per se that was instrumental to his work, more it was a vehicle which helped him to achieve what he was really trying to accomplish, that of initiating an intensely, innately emotional reaction when one stood before his work.
No. 17 was produced at the height of Rothko’s painterly powers. One of the artist’s rare “blue” canvases, this work belongs to a select group that marked the culmination of a short period during which he executed a number of brightly hued works and just a few months before he embarked on a series of paintings that have become widely regarded as the pinnacle of his career, the Seagram Murals (Tate Gallery, London). While Rothko’s choice of colors should never be considered in any figurative sense, the artist’s upbeat mood during this period might have contributed in some way to their vibrant hues. In a letter to Herbert Ferber written in March 1957, Rothko wrote of his positivity following a spring trip to New Orleans, “We have been ensconced in a suburb called Metairie, which is an exact equivalent of plush Westchester. We have a house, a garden of proportions, manicured lawns and manicured neighbors… We have been fortunate enough with the weather. There have been a number of benign days of early summer, sun, warmth and lush growth” (M. Rothko, quoted by M. López-Remiro (ed.), Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New Haven, 2006, p. 121). However, Rothko was always at pains to explain that his paintings were not paintings of an experience—they were the experience. In 1956 he wrote, “I am only interested in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!” (M. Rothko, quoted by M. López-Remiro (ed.), Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New Haven, 2006, pp. 119-120).
This painting was exhibited in a retrospective of Rothko’s work organized by the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York which travelled widely throughout Europe beginning at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1961, and traveled to Amsterdam, Brussels, Basel, Rome before finishing at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in January 1963. This major exhibition not only championed the cause of Abstract Expressionism across Europe but it also confirmed Rothko’s status as one of its vanguards. Visitors to the exhibition described their reaction to the artist’s paintings as “Shocked… Spellbound… Transformed (quoted in “How Rothko Won Over Britain,” Huffington Post, February 2, 2012 via http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mutualart/mark-rothko-whitechapel-exhibit [accessed March 23, 2016]) and a current curator at the Whitechapel, Nayai Yiakoumaki, called this exhibition one of the artist’s most significant. “This exhibition is very important because it introduced his work to the British public for the first time, in such a large volume and a public gallery… [From] this exhibition on, the art world was captivated by Rothko and subsequently, [Tate Director] Norman Reid, approached the artist to discuss a purchase of works…culminating with the substantial donation of eight of the Seagram Murals to the Tate in 1970” (N. Yiakoumaki, ibid.).
Between 1961 and 2001, No. 17 (also in the past known as Green on Blue on Blue) was part of a private Italian collection and its exhibition in Basel was the first time the work had been on public display for nearly thirty years. It is perhaps fitting that a painting such as the present example should reside for so long in Italy, a country with which Rothko had such a particular personal and professional affinity. Rothko made three visits to the country during his lifetime, beginning in 1950, then again in 1959 with the final trip being made in 1966, after which he reminisced, “The memory of Italy is glorious” (M. Rothko, quoted by G. Carandente, “Mark Rothko’s Three Italian Journeys,” in Rothko, exh. cat., Palazzo delle Esposizini, 2008, p. 33). During their visits, Rothko and his family travelled extensively throughout the country and met a number of collectors, critics and curators who would become loyal supporters of his work including Peggy Guggenheim and Carla Panicali, then director of the Rome branch of the Marlborough Gallery. His travels led him to witness for himself the magnificent mosaics of the Last Judgment in Torcello, and the splendors of Florence, Siena and Arezzo. Never one for hyperbole, Rothko was nonetheless moved by his visits to the country telling students at the Pratt Institute in 1958 that “When I went to Europe and saw the Old Masters, I was involved with the credibility of the drama. ...My current pictures are involved with the scale of human feelings the human drama, as much of it as I can express” (M. López-Remiro, op. cit., p. 124).
Just as Rothko fell in love with Italy, many Italian collectors and critics fell in love with Rothko. The artist’s work was first shown in the country as part of the 1948 Venice Biennale, but it wasn’t until the 1958 Biennale that his work caused such a stir. For the exhibition, the art historian Sam Hunter selected ten paintings from 1957-1958 to be hung in the American Pavilion, resulting in what he considered to be an almost “transcendental experience” (S. Hunter, quoted by C. Terenzi, “Rothko: Exhibitions and Critical Reception in Italy,” in Rothko, exh. cat., Palazzo delle Esposizini, 2008, p. 57). Perhaps because their minds were not as contaminated by the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, Rothko felt the Italian critics were more attuned to what he was trying to accomplish with his paintings. He received what he regarded to be some of the most perceptive reviews of his work for the paintings that were displayed in Venice. Among them was this insightful notice by Gillo Dorfles who opined, “Thus we no longer have red and blue from a tube, or merely their ‘sign’ value, but we will have the entity of red or the entity of blue, in whose universe we shall feel exalted or inhibited, numb or excited…” (G. Dorfles, quoted by C. Terenzi, ibid.). Another particularly perceptive observation was made by the noted critic Luciano Pistoli, who said that “The outlines of the visitors in front of Rothko’s works are blurred by the luminous signals that these paintings transmit to each other. Here our eyes perceive a malaise that is actually dizzying” (Ibid.). As Terenzi notes, “Pistoli not only grasps the dramatic quality of Rothko’s work, but also the suggestion of oneness and, at the same time, of interference, in his works” (Terenzi, op cit., p. 60).
Due to its rare, lush palette and grand scale, No. 17 seems to encompass the vastness and drama of Rothko’s universe. The power, potency and depth of these elements are echoed through the gravitas of the swift but also light brushstrokes that he used to make the painting’s radiant and shimmering surface. Seeming to express an inexplicable but also overwhelming human experience, a painting like this nonetheless illustrates the emotive power of pure color to articulate a deep and innate human language. It is a work that responds to the demand that Rothko first asserted in 1948 when he wrote that “Pictures must be miraculous...a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need” (M. Rothko, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” Possibilities, No. 1, Winter 1947/8).