Materials and Process

Mark Rothko. No. 10. 1950 437

Oil on canvas, 7' 6 3/8" x 57 1/8" (229.6 x 145.1 cm). Gift of Philip Johnson. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The artist's son, Christopher Rothko: He would often start with pen-and-ink sketches, working out proportions.

And then he would paint a background color and probably paint several over that in a very thinned-out stain of paint so that these different colors that are layered one over the other will shine through.

Then he would paint rectangles over that. And oftentimes these paintings would be painted relatively quickly or at least stages of them would be painted quickly but then he would stop and look at the painting for a very long time before proceeding with the next step, or before deciding that it was done.

Typically, in the '50s, the canvasses were propped up on blocks. Near the floor and he would be up on ladders. Sometimes he would actually turn the painting upside down so as to be able to paint the top section more easily, which, of course, makes us all crazy when we try to figure out which way is up and the drip marks are going both directions.

I really do see space as the defining element in my father's classic abstractions. My father frames the work, he controls the action, he basically sets the stage via the forms and via the space.

You have to look really hard for a true rectangle. They're always rounded, softened, cut off suggestions of rectangles. And I think in doing that, he is always emphasizing the humanness of the painting. This is no machine-age painting. This is painted by a real painter, really by hand and if the artist sort of dreams a rectangle that isn't really a rectangle, that's what it's about.

I think it's in those transition points between the rectangles where you have the sort of feathery end of one rectangle, and the feathery beginnings of another, and juxtaposed with the background color. That's where the real electricity is.

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