This audio tour features highlights from the American Masters exhibition, drawn exclusively from the Gallery's outstanding collection of American art, and celebrating that nation's artists from the 1940s to the 1980s. From Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field, Pop, Neo-Dada and Photo-Realism, to Conceptual, Land and Performance Art, American Masters examines how a generation of young Americans, inspired by European émigrés, challenged local traditions and reinvented modern art.
Mark Rothko’s painting 1957 #20 depicts three soft-edged rectangular forms, which appear to float over a field of deep maroon. The forms appear weightless and at times seem to hover above or behind the canvas itself. There is an intrinsic sense of luminosity created by the thin layers of paint.
In previous years Rothko had employed brighter colours in harmonious combinations. But in 1957, the year this work was painted, a noticeable shift occurred in his work. Fewer and darker colours were used, reflecting a more limited range of moods. Here Rothko has reduced his palette to dark red, brown and black—two different blacks, one washed out and one much stronger. The painting is intentionally un-framed, so that there is nothing standing between the viewer and the paint.
There is a mysterious beauty to this work that evokes different experiences and emotions in different viewers. Rothko described the subject matter of his paintings as 'dramas', using colour as his 'instrument'.
Rothko aimed to paint the full spectrum of human emotion and used musical terms to describe his practice as ‘playing on any string of his existence.’ However, during this period of Rothko’s career there was 'a clear preoccupation with mortality and death’ in his painting. To writer and art critic, Dore Ashton, a regular visitor to his studio at this time, Rothko claimed that 'he was creating the most violent painting in America'.
Ashton interpreted this as referring to the conflict inherent in the association of colours that Rothko conceived of as the symbolic equivalents of emotions. The 'dark' emotions that permeate this painting are, with certain exceptions, the basis for all subsequent works Rothko painted until he took his own life a little over a decade later.
Rothko’s paintings are fields of colours, rich with emotion. Rothko believed that ‘A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.’
Opening Acknowledgment of Country
The National Gallery acknowledges the First Peoples of this land and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country