Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Orange and Yellow and Rothko’s Multiforms Aesthetic

Mark Rothko is one of the seminal figures of the abstract art movement, renowned for his ‘multiforms’: two or three bright blocks of color, separated by soft edges that blend into the color of the background. Singulart will be looking at the history of Rothko’s multiforms, and in particular at how he created Orange and Yellow, a seminal artwork from the multiform period. 

Rothko’s Early Work and Influences

Early in his career, Rothko was heavily influenced by his mentor, Cubist artist Max Weber. Following Weber’s modernist style, Rothko began to use art as a way to express his emotions and religious ideals. He was further influenced by the work of the German Expressionists, and artists such as Paul Klee and Georges Rouault. 

His paintings in the 1930s were inspired by the Expressionists, like Jackson Pollock, who used bright colors to create emotive, even chaotic canvases. In the 1940s Rothko began to lean more towards a surrealist style, demonstrating a particular interest in mythology. This can be seen in works such as Underground Fantasy, which shows figures standing on a subway platform. Although the scene could be said to be mundane, the figures in the painting present a kind of otherworldliness – they have elongated forms and are not quite human in their presentation, almost recalling figures seen in Ancient Egyptian art. 

However, it turned out that surrealism was a field that Rothko was not comfortable with. He stated: 

“If I have faltered in the use of familiar objects, it is because I refuse to mutilate their appearance for the sake of an action which they are too old to serve, or for which perhaps they had never been intended. I quarrel with surrealists and abstract are only as one quarrels with his father and mother; recognizing the inevitability and function of my roots, but insistent upon my dissent; I, being both they, and an integral completely independent of them.”

Rothko broke away from surrealism to create what critics would call multiforms; pieces featuring block-colored rectangles with edges that softly blurred into their background. In Rothko’s opinion, these artworks, free of landscape or human figures, contained a “breath of life” that other paintings of the period were lacking, allowing the viewer to create their own interpretations. One of the first examples of his multiforms was his work Untitled (1948); although it does not reflect his mature period, it does show his first deviation into modern art, with formless patches of color dissolving into the background of the canvas. 

Rothko deliberately created large scale pieces in order to fully encapsulate the viewer. He said: 

“I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however… is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!”

Orange and Yellow and Rothko’s Multiforms Aesthetic

Orange and Yellow was created in 1956, when Rothko’s multiforms had been fully realized and began to be known as his ‘sectionals’, a style which he would continue to paint until the end of his life. 

Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956
Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956

Orange and Yellow depicts a warm, yellow rectangle atop a larger, orange rectangle, with the edges blurred so they appear to be a part of the glowing background behind them. In order to achieve this effect, Rothko would use a brush or rag to apply thin layers of paint onto a blank canvas, which allowed to colors to seep through and interact with each other. The ‘layered wash’ that Rothko utilised conveyed a kind of luminescence, that gave the piece a breath of life and an enigmatic quality – it could be said that Orange and Yellow is one of the finest examples of Rothko’s use of this technique, with the painting seeming to contain some kind of inner glow. Rothko’s aim was to offer his paintings as a portrayal of raw human emotion; or as he stated, “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, between the idea and the observer”. 

The Rothko Case

Despite Rothko’s lauded career and acclaimed work as an artist, he took his own life at the age of 66 in his studio. He had been diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, but ignored his doctor’s advice and continued a lifestyle that left him “highly nervous, thin [and] restless”, his friend Dore Ashton described him. 

Even with his success, Rothko felt an increasing sense of seclusion, feeling misunderstood as an artist. He explained, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you… are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”

The aftermath of Rothko’s death became notorious. Rothko’s daughter Kate took the trustees of Rothko’s estate – three of Rothko’s closest friends – to court, after they sold more than 800 of Rothko’s paintings to the Marlborough Gallery for a fraction of their market value. The lawsuit, which continued over a span of ten years, became known as the Rothko Case, with the trustees’ actions described by the New York Court of Appeals as “manifestly wrongful and indeed shocking”. The case became infamous for exposing the sometimes shady dealings rife in the art world. In 1975 the trustees were found guilty of negligence and conflict of interest, and ordered to pay $9.2 million in damages. 

The Rothko Foundation donated half of the artworks to galleries in the United States and abroad. 

See artists Inspired by Mark Rothko on Singulart.

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