Signalling the artist's final break with Surrealism, Mark Rothko's Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red), painted in 1949, is an iconic work in mid-twentieth century art and a crucial transition painting in Rothko's unique oeuvre. Clyfford Still's abstract paintings had made an indelible impression on the artist's style and, flexing his creative muscles by teaching a summer class at the California School of Fine Art, Rothko joined up with Still to draft a new curriculum. Setting up classes to remedy what they felt to be the ills of abstract painting, the partnership was short lived but left an indelible mark on Rothko's style. Fresh from the new ideas that emerged from devising a new curriculum, Rothko began contributing to new art journals, using the platform to challenge the value of the late 1940s art scene. Finally eliminating any hints of figurative reproductions in his canvases, the artist aimed to free himself from association with any organism - either real or imagined.
The year Rothko painted Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red) the Museum of Modern Art acquired Matisse's Red Studio and, upon encountering the work, with it the final ingredient was added to produce his iconic color fields. Arriving at a point of startling maturity and ambition, Rothko would explore the potential of these rectangular building blocks of shifting shade for the next two decades. A visionary of the post-war era, the artist understood the emergence of an increasingly secular world and reflected in paint the search for universal values and emotional charges stripped of any religious iconography. As the subject of endless interpretations, Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red) has variously been compared to the structural topography of Romantic painting, an entirely abstract detachment of the Passion of the Christ, and a humanist harbinger of the coming of death. Yet, most importantly, Rothko's works must be approached, experienced, and felt to be understood; their towering imagery an emotional reproduction of the individuality of human wonder.
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