Between 1949 and 1950, Rothko simplified the compositional structures of his earlier, Surrealist-inspired paintings to arrive at what would become his signature style. Here he divided the canvas horizontally into three dominant planes that softly merge into one another, their large passages of warm and cool colors creating a subtly pulsing field. Rothko wanted his paintings to awaken viewers to human emotion: “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing,” he argued. He also wanted viewers to get close to his paintings, becoming enveloped in their compositions and immersed in the emotions they expressed and evoked.
Gallery label from "Collection 1940s—1970s", 2019
The irregular patches of color characteristic of the artist’s Multiform paintings of 1948 seem to have settled into place on this canvas, which Rothko divided horizontally into three dominant planes of color that softly and subtly merge into one another. Between 1949 and 1950 Rothko simplified the compositional structure of his paintings and arrived at this, his signature style. He explained, "The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer." MoMA acquired No. 10 in 1952. The painting—the first by Rothko to enter the collection—was so radical for the time that a trustee of the Museum resigned in protest.
Gallery label from Abstract Expressionist New York, October 3, 2010–April 25, 2011.
As refined and radical as was Rothko’s formal language, he saw his paintings as means to a much more essential end: to awaken viewers to the full force of human emotion. “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing,” he argued with fellow artist Adolph Gottlieb in 1943. “We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” In No. 10, large passages of warm (yellow) and cool (blue, white, and gray) colors create a subtly pulsing field meant to envelop viewers. These effects reflect Rothko’s interest in the “push/pull” color theory of German painter Hans Hoffman, who described warm colors as appearing to advance (“push”) towards viewers and cool colors as appearing to recede (“pull”) away. Rothko wanted viewers to get close to his paintings, so that they would be dominated by his compositions and immersed in the emotions they expressed and evoked.
Additional text from In The Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting online course, Coursera, 2017