The White Border on Rothko’s Untitled (Black on Gray)

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black on Gray), 1969/70

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black on Gray), 1969/70. Acrylic on canvas, 203.3 × 175.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 86.3422. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the final years of his life, Mark Rothko produced the Black Paintings, a series as bleak and powerful as its title suggests. The paintings have the form of Rothko’s other late works, diaphanous rectangles of pigment that appear to float atop a solid ground, but they are either devoid or with only the slightest hint of color. Because of their starkness, the Black Paintings, such as Untitled (Black on Gray) (1969/70), bring to the fore the formal tension that Rothko sought to imbue in all of his work, but which some viewers, he felt, lost sight of, seduced or distracted by the luminous colors he employed elsewhere.

Curatorial assistant Carmen Hermo describes the significance of the painting’s white border:

“It’s almost imperceptible at first glance, but one of the most crucial elements of this composition is the thin white border that surrounds the two fields of color. That white enclosure signals a departure from Rothko’s preceding and best-known style, marking his purposeful constriction of the expansive, all-encompassing fields of radiant color. Because of that margin, the viewer is unable to perceive the painting as a kind of abstract landscape: on the contrary, it firmly restricts one’s viewing experience to the tense area where the black meets the gray. The black, much more serene and flatly applied, stands out in contrast to the uneven, vigorous, and at times translucent field of gray. It’s a wonderful example of Rothko’s painterly prowess.

Although the colors of Rothko’s paintings began to darken in the late 1950s, white edges like those in this painting date from 1968, when Rothko fell gravely ill and could no longer work on the grand scale that he, in many ways, had pioneered. While he was recovering, he worked on paper, and on smaller supports. A lifelong proponent of easel painting, Rothko would tape paper to his easel, filling the space with his rich, sensuous colors and forms, and then remove the tape, revealing a pristine white border. When he had returned to canvas, he brought with him the demarcation of the border and utilized it as a literal and figurative break from his renowned, richly colored rectangles and grounds.”

Read more about Untitled (Black on Gray) and Rothko’s other works in the Collection Online.

  • MichaelJWilson

    While it’s clear that Rothko’s “Black Paintings” are nowhere near as bluntly monochromatic as their title suggests, they still resonate with other black or near-black canvases scattered across the history of mid-to-late 20th-century art. From the late 1940s into the ’60s, for example, Rothko’s efforts were echoed—to a greater or lesser extent—by those of four other New York painters: Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg. Most made dark paintings en route to new visual languages; Reinhardt alone presented them as statements of finality.

    In the 1960s and ’70s, Conceptual artists sometimes made use of all-black canvases, exploiting the various connotations of blackness, colorlessness, and blankness according to that movement’s rule-obsessed and aridly humorous style. In Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting (1967–68), for example, a small all-black panel is paired with a framed photocopied text that reads: “The content of this painting is invisible; the character and dimension of the content are to be kept permanently secret, known only to the artist.”

    In the 1980s, postmodernist Allan McCollum introduced a new level of self-referentiality into the all-black game with his “Plaster Surrogates,” a series of “handmade but standardized” cast plaster panels painted to resemble framed black canvases of various proportions. In McCollum’s project, the black painting seems to come full circle—“Plaster Surrogates” is a collection of “unexpressive” but still-unique objects that are painted without being “paintings.” Is this a beginning or an end, both or neither?

    • Carmen Hermo

      A lovely and thought-provoking journey through all that lies beyond the precipitous horizon of our Rothko. Thanks Mike!

  • demuseologue

    Thanks for this way of looking at Rothko’s paintings! I made a strategy for looking at Rothko, but this is a new insight. (