Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Black on Maroon, Rothko’s Dark, Post-War Multiform

Black on Maroon is an uncharacteristically dark piece by acclaimed modern artist Mark Rothko. Famous for his ‘multiforms’, where colorful rectangles are layered on a canvas, almost blending into the luminous background, Black on Maroon reflects a more somber period of Rothko’s art. The painting has a convoluted history; originally created as part of a series to hang in the Four Seasons, Rothko decided he did not want his paintings to be reduced to the background of a restaurant for privileged rich people, and instead donated the piece to the Tate Gallery in London, where it was subsequently defaced in 2012. Singulart will be delving into the drama surrounding Black on Maroon, as well as exploring the techniques Rothko used to create the seminal piece. 

Black on Maroon 

In 1958, Rothko was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant located in the Seagram Building in New York. Working in a large studio, in order to emulate the experience diners might feel when surrounded by his paintings, Rothko set out to capture what he had felt when he viewed Michelangelo’s vestibule in Florence, stating, “I was very much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo’s walls in the staircase room of the Medicean Library in Florence. He achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.” This could explain why the rectangles in Black on Maroon are positioned to call to mind the shape of a window, causing an almost trompe l’oeil effect, as opposed to the abstract shapes Rothko was so well-known for painting.

Black on Maroon 1958 Mark Rothko 1903-1970 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1968
Black on Maroon 1958 Mark Rothko 1903-1970 Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1968

The colors of Black on Maroon appear quite flat compared to the luminosity Rothko championed in earlier works such as Orange and Yellow or No. 61 (Rust and Blue). Black on Maroon is painted onto a tightly stretched cotton canvas, which was first covered in maroon paint made from powdered pigments mixed into rabbit skin glue – the glue shrank as it dried, giving the color its flat, matte effect. Rothko then painted a second layer of paint onto the canvas, which he then scraped off with a brush to leave a thin layer of paint. The black rectangular forms were then painted using a large brush and broad, sweeping brush strokes, intended to give texture to the piece. Similarly to Rothko’s previous work, the edges of the rectangles are not a straight line but appear to blend into the background, giving a sense of life and movement. Some accents of red paint visible at the lower corner have become more apparent over the years, as they have faded at a different rate to the maroon color used in the artwork. 

Black on Maroon, Red, and the Four Seasons

Rothko became increasingly dissatisfied with the work he was doing for the Four Seasons. While it is unclear why, exactly, he had taken the commission, calling the restaurant “a place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off”, he allegedly took on the project with an ulterior motive in mind. Speaking to Harper’s Magazine editor John Fischer, Rothko revealed that he saw his murals as a “savage aesthetic revenge”, with the intention to offend and upset the clients of the Four Seasons in a deliberately subversive act. Rothko stated, “I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.” 

Clearly Rothko had doubts about whether his work would be appropriate in a restaurant setting. He abruptly pulled the works from being sent to the Seagram Building, instead choosing to donate them to the Tate Gallery. The day the murals arrived at the Tate in 1970, the gallery received word that Rothko had committed suicide in his studio. 

The incident inspired the play Red, written by American playwright John Logan in 2009. Originally featuring Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his (fictional) assistant Ken, the play details Rothko’s time painting and ultimately discarding his series of murals, challenged by Ken, who champions the pop artists towards whom Rothko shows much disdain. The play was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won six, including Best Play, Best Featured Actor in a Play (Eddie Redmayne), and Best Direction of a Play (Michael Grandage).  

Vandalism and Restoration 

Black on Maroon was hung in the Tate Gallery with the other murals from the series. In 2012, another of the series, also titled Black on Maroon, was vandalized by Wlodwimierz Umaniec, also known as Vladimir Umanets. Umanets tagged the photo with a black felt-tip pen, writing his name, the number 12, and the sentence “a potential piece of yellowism”. Yellowism is a movement defined not as art, and not as creativity; creator Marcin Lodyga stated, “Yellowism is not about art, it is about yellow.” When speaking to the BBC after the incident, Umanets compared himself to surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp, saying “Art allows us to take what someone’s done and put a new message on it.”

Umanets was arrested the following day and ended up being jailed for two years as a result of his actions, with the repair of the canvas estimated to cost £200,000. The presiding judge said that it was “wholly and utterly unacceptable to promote [yellowism] by damaging a work of art” he described as a “gift to the nation”. 

The restoration of the canvas took 18 months, due to the efforts from the Rothko Conservation Project. The project was broken down into three sections: preparation and testing, ink removal, and surface restoration. Because Rothko’s murals in this series were so heavily textured, each layer had to be examined from microscopic samples. Unfortunately the pen used by the vandal had soaked through to the back of the canvas, requiring a chemical solvent that would remove the marks without damaging the canvas. Patricia Smithen, head of conservation at Tate, stated that the ink was “designed specifically to be very black, very quick drying, very highly staining and permanent.” Eventually, after extensive research, the treatment team were able to create a sample that accurately represented the layers in the original, using a mixture of techniques to reproduce a sample similar to the 1958 piece. 

However, the work was far from over. Rachel Barker, Paintings Conservator at Tate, worked for nine months to remove the ink from the surface of Black on Maroon, using a combination of benzyl alcohol and ethyl lactate applied with a zero-sized brush. Barker would work on areas as small as 2mm at a time, under a microscope set at twenty times magnification. She later moved on to restoring the paint on the surface. The piece was returned to the gallery in 2014. 

See work by similar artists in Singulart’s Inspired by Mark Rothko collection.

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