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On view  |  Painting and Sculpture II, Gallery 15, Floor 4

Mark Rothko. Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea. 1944

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Mark Rothko (American, born Russia (now Latvia). 1903–1970)

Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea

Oil on canvas
6' 3 3/8" x 7' 3/4" (191.4 x 215.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of Mrs. Mark Rothko through The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.
MoMA Number:
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Audio Program excerpt

Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture

, October 3, 2010–April 25, 2011

Curator, Ann Temkin: Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea expresses a lot of the conviction that Rothko shared with his fellow Abstract Expressionists at that time, which is that they were inventing a new art. Therefore, I think the imagery that they chose was oftentimes connected to birth, or fertility or generation. You definitely have the feeling of a connection to ancient art. And you also have a connection almost to some kind of pre-human life form springing into existence.

Director, Glenn Lowry: The artist's son, Christopher Rothko, has a personal relationship to this work.

Christopher Rothko: Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea is really the first painting I remember. It was hanging over the couch in the living room of the family brownstone in New York City. But it's also a very important piece in the family because my father painted it for my mother shortly after meeting her in 1944–45. It's subtitled, Mel Ecstatic, my mother's nickname was Mel and the painting shows two figures, presumably my father and my mother, at a surrealistically styled seaside. But they're twisted and distorted in the way that our mind does so in dreams and in the imagination.

He was in New York at that point and he was still living in very, very modest means. He and his first wife had recently divorced and not too long after that he had met my mother and I think this was actually a very joyful period for him because they had a very romantic courtship and married shortly thereafter. But he's really just barely, barely on anyone's radar in terms of being a known artist. He is really struggling to get his voice heard.

Early on in his career, Rothko saw art as "an adventure into an unknown world" and, like the Surrealists before him, sought to create universal symbols drawn from the subconscious. Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea shows two sinuous biomorphic creatures that seem to float between sea and sky, surrounded by arabesques, spirals, and stripes that can be read as musical symbols. Rothko maintained that the forms "have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms." He applied the paint in transparent layers—a practice he retained when he abandoned representational images and began to develop his large–scale color field paintings a few years later.

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