Watercolor was a medium Rothko favoured in particular in the forties and which influenced his technique of painting in oils. Untitled is an abstract work created during the period of transition in Rothko's career from the mythical, Surrealist works of the early forties to the block-like compositions of his mature style. In the early forties Rothko abandoned the direct portrayal of contemporary scenes in favour of subjects related to mythology. Although the works were frequently given mythological titles the images portrayed were of Rothko's invention and were not necessarily easily related to known myths. In a joint letter of 1943 written by Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74) to Edward Alden Jewell, the art editor of the New York Times, Rothko stated that such paintings were ‘a poetic expression of the essence of the myth; the presentation of the concept of seed and its earth with all its brutal implications; the impact of elemental truth' (quoted in [Michael Compton (ed.)], Mark Rothko 1903-1970, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1987, p.77). According to Rothko and Gottlieb, art is ‘timeless' and the subject of a work of art is ‘crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless' (quoted in ibid., p.78). In the same year Rothko and Gottlieb were interviewed on Radio WNYC where, once again, they explained the reasons for dealing with myth in their paintings and for creating new mythical symbols. Both artists expressed awareness of the wartime climate in which they were working and justified their actions as a response to this. Rothko stated: ‘Those who think that the world of today is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring, are either not aware of reality or do not wish to see it in art' (quoted in ibid., p.80). In the same interview Gottlieb remarked:
That these demonic and brutal images fascinate us today, is not because they are exotic, nor do they make us nostalgic for a past which seems enchanting because of its remoteness...
If we profess a kinship to the art of primitive men, it is because the feelings they expressed have a particular pertinence today. In times of violence, personal predilections for niceties of color and form seem irrelevant. All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life (quoted in ibid., p.81).
According to Serge Guilbaut (How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Chicago 1983) ‘Gottlieb and Rothko believed that myth and primitive art could be used to express contemporary anxieties (though only as a conceptual point of departure, there being little formal direct influence): in 1943 the source of anxiety was the war, in 1946 it was the atomic menace' (p.113). For Guilbaut the adoption of myth and a primitive vocabulary was a way of reacting to the social situation but in a manner less overt than in earlier social realist work and one which artists thought had universal implications. He regards the formlessness and incandescence of Rothko's and Pollock's painting in this period as representative of a reaction to the atomic blasts of 1946.
Rothko thought of his works as ‘dramas' in which the shapes were ‘performers' (quoted in [Michael Compton ed.] 1987, p.83). While it is possible to interpret the configurations in the paintings of the early forties as personages it becomes increasingly difficult to do so from the middle of the decade onwards, although it should not be forgotten that throughout his career Rothko favoured the portrait format and that the configurations in a number of his paintings relate to a ground in the same way as conventional figures. In 1947, in an article published in Possibilities, Rothko wrote that ‘The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment' (quoted in ibid., p.84). As a transitional painting T04147 still retains vestiges of the figure particularly if the painting is reorientated so that the top becomes the bottom; the blue vertical shape then becomes a figure with a head. It is well known that Rothko often decided on the orientation of his works once they were completed. This shape is reminiscent of the central male personage in ‘Subway', painted in the thirties (National Gallery of Art, Washington, repr. ibid., p.93 in col.), and the two scratched marks above the head, when viewed upside down, relate closely to the ceiling supports above the columns in the earlier painting. Rothko had not banished the figure in 1946-7 but was gradually effacing direct reference to it. As Irving Sandler has written:
In 1946, Rothko began to think that specific references to nature and to existing art conflicted with the idea of the ‘Spirit of Myth' or what he began to call ‘transcendental experience'. The two terms are related but not the same in meaning. The one seems to issue from some deep, barely accessible stratum of being - one thinks of Jung's collective unconscious; the other is more readily available and directly apprehended. Rothko did not specify what transcendental experience was, but his writing as a whole suggests that it involves the release from banal, everyday existence, the rising above the self's habitual experience into a state of self-transcendence' (Mark Rothko Paintings 1948-1969, exh. cat., Pace Gallery, New York 1983, p.6).
The transition towards complete abstraction, according to Karen Tsujimoto, ‘began in 1947 and was prompted by two major influences. The first was [Rothko's] growing awareness of the contradiction in attempting to evoke a universal spirit through an art that employed familiar, finite images. The second was the importance of Clyfford Still, whom Rothko became friends with in the mid-forties' (‘Mark Rothko: Transitional Paintings' in Mark Rothko 1949: A year in Transition/Selections from the Mark Rothko Foundation, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Art 1984, p.8). In 1946 Still took up a teaching appointment at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco but Rothko, who had met Still in 1943 at Berkeley, and developed his friendship when Still moved to New York in 1945, kept in contact with Still and visited him on the West Coast in 1947. In addition, Rothko wrote the introduction to the catalogue of Still's exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Gallery, Art of This Century, in February 1946 in which he stated that ‘Still expresses the tragic-religious drama which is generic to all Myths at all times, no matter where they occur. He is creating new counterparts to replace all the old mythological hybrids who have lost their pertinence in the intervening centuries' (quoted in [Michael Compton (ed.)] 1987, p.82). By 1947 Still was already realizing his mature style but in 1945 his works anticipated the biomorphic, vague forms of Rothko's paintings of 1946 and 1947 (see for example ‘1945-H', San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, repr. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exh. cat. 1984, fig.2) in which forms shift in and out of a ground. Rothko wrote of these paintings in his introduction that: ‘every shape becomes an organic entity, inviting the multiplicity of associations inherent in all living things. To me they form a theogony of the most elementary consciousness, hardly aware of itself beyond the will to live - a profound and moving experience' (quoted in [Michael Compton (ed.)] 1987, p.83). This statement is also a pertinent description of Rothko's own works. As Rothko put it in the article published in Possibilities in the winter of 1947, his paintings ‘begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space', that is they were not premeditated. ‘It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur' (quoted in ibid., p.83). Thus like Still's paintings, Rothko's make oblique reference to the living world but the forms within them transcend the world of mundane appearance. Regarding the shapes in his paintings Rothko wrote in the same article:
They are unique elements in a unique situation.
They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion.
They move with internal freedom, and without need to conform with or to violate what is probable in the familiar world.
They have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognises the principle and passion of organisms. (quoted in ibid., p.84)