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The Sublime and the Spiritual

Abstract Expressionists used color and scale to create a sense of spirituality and the sublime

No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black)

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

1958. Oil on canvas, 8' 10 5/8" x 9' 9 1/4" (270.8 x 297.8 cm)

In 1943, Mark Rothko, with his friend and fellow painter Adolph Gottlieb, wrote several philosophical statements that would guide their art for years to come. They wrote, “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”1

The scale and surface of No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black) reflect these ideas. A brilliant colorist, Rothko ranged from working with bright to dark colors throughout his career. In No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black), he creates a sense of atmospheric depth with shadowy, nocturnal hues of rich purples, maroons, and browns. The artist sought to awe viewers into silence and contemplation when standing before this work. At once luminous and weighty, it reflects his nuanced mastery of the formal elements of painting: color, composition and pictorial space, surface gloss, and brushwork. Here he used generous amounts of turpentine to create a hazy, matte surface. To soften the geometry of this and his other Color Field paintings, he would use a small brush or a turpentine-soaked rag to blur the corners and edges of his rectangular forms. This reduction of clear lines foregrounds the perceptual effects of his colors, creating the illusion of depth on an otherwise flat surface.

James E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 193.
Mark Rothko in Glenn Phillips and Thomas Crowe, Seeing Rothko (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2005).

An unreal, deceptive, or misleading appearance or image.

The virtual, illusionary plane created by the artist, parallel to the physical surface of a two-dimensional work of art; the physical surface of a two-dimensional work of art, e.g. a painting, drawing, or print.

A particular gradation of color; a shade or tint.

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

The manner in which a painter applies paint with a brush.

The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.

The ratio between the size of an object and its model or representation, as in the scale of a map to the actual geography it represents.

A long mark or stroke.

Relating to the shape or structure of an object.

The shape or structure of an object.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

Paintings of large areas of color, typically with no strong contrasts of tone or obvious focus of attention.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

Paintings Like Nightfall
Rothko once said to a friend, “Often, towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration—all of these at once. I would like my paintings to have the quality of such moments.”2


VIDEO: The Painting Techniques of Mark Rothko