Mark ROTHKO | Untitled

Latvia 1903 – United States of America 1970

Untitled 1944-46 watercolour, pen and ink, pencil on paper

verso: signed, upper right corner, in black crayon, 'MARK ROTHKO'
image 53.4 (h) x 37.0 (w) cm
sheet 57.4 (h) x 40.0 (w) cm Gift of American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia, Inc., New York, NY, USA, made possible with the generous support of Mark Rothko Foundation, 1986. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1986.1886 © Mark Rothko/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy

  • with the Mark Rothko Foundation;
  • by whom given by the American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia, New York, and Mark Rothko Foundation to the National Gallery of Australia, August 1986
  • Abstract Expressionism: the National Gallery of Australia celebrates the centenaries of Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis
    • 14 Jul 2012 – 24 Feb 2013

Untitled is a delicate watercolour, pen, ink and pencil drawing by Rothko that predates the artist’s paintings Multiform 1948 and No. 20 (Deep red and black)1957, both in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Whilst these paintings show Rothko’s celebrated painterly fields of colour, the comparatively unknown Untitled is dramatically different in style. Like many Abstract Expressionist painters in New York during the early 1940s, Rothko developed an early interest in Surrealism, mythology and spiritual symbols.

Untitled displays a thin sinuous line that curves from the upper left down to lower right and another which is centred and vertical. Both scroll-like marks cross a section of repeated horizontal lines in the lower half of the drawing. This arrangement can be recognised as musical notation—the symbols of a staff and clef. Furthermore, the large circular shape in the lower quadrant of the drawing appears as the sound hole in the base of a musical instrument, perhaps a mandolin, with its thin neck standing straight and embellished with strings, blue machine heads and an orange wooden scroll. As a young man, Rothko had taught himself to play both the mandolin and the piano; throughout his career as a painter, music was a constant source of inspiration and connection to the spiritual. By 1948 even the manner in which Rothko titled his paintings, by number or colour, had a distinct relation to musical composition.

Although the overall style of the drawing is representational, Rothko has taken special care in his selection of colour, contrasting the orange and blue of his forms against lightly washed, abstract fields that serve for the backdrop. The ghostly shadow along the upper section of the composition is a curious element; this geometric form hints at the rectangular slabs Rothko later established as his signature style. Whilst the watercolour hererefers directly to music through its figurative elements, Rothko’s later paintings make the same connection on complex abstract terms, displaying a synaesthesia that links the domain of the visual and the audible.

Jaklyn Babington

The National Gallery of Australia holds two paintings by Rothko, Untitled (Multiform) 1948 and No. 20 (Deep red and black) 1957, and a drawing Untitled c. 1944–46.