Mark Rothko, American, 1903–1970: No. 3 / No. 13, 1949. Oil on canvas, 216.5 x 164.8 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Bequest of Mrs. Mark Rothko through The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. (428.1981) © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

PRINCETON, NJ.- The loan of Mark Rothko’s (1903-1970) 1949 painting, Magenta, Black, Green on Orange (No. 3/No. 13), from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, brings a rare opportunity to experience a work from the beginning of the artist’s mature period to the Princeton University Art Museum. The painting is a reciprocal loan for Princeton’s Willem de Kooning painting Black Friday (1948), which is included in the artist’s retrospective at MoMA. No. 3/No. 13 will be on view in Princeton through Sunday, January 8, 2012.

Rothko belonged to the New York School, a loose group of painters and sculptors active in the 1940s and 1950s. Also known as Abstract Expressionists, Rothko and his colleagues – Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and Lee Krasner, among others – were indelibly shaped by the Great Depression and World War II. Convinced that earlier styles of painting were no longer appropriate in a world of concentration camps and atomic bombs, these artists developed a style of abstraction that eschewed narrative and representation and prioritized expression.

Myth, ecstasy and tragedy were recurring themes in the group’s work, as was the sublime, a concept that Rothko in particular sought to translate into paint. Sublimity is pronounced in No. 3/No. 13, in which a sense of boundlessness and spatial plenitude trigger feelings of awe and wonder. “I think of my pictures as dramas,” Rothko wrote in 1947, “the shapes in the pictures are the performers.”

Mark Rothko is recognized as a colorist of extraordinary skill. Works such as No. 3/No. 13 rely in large part on the orchestration of hue – as well as value, contrast, transparency, saturation and luminosity – for their visual impact. Almost all of Rothko’s attention was focused on the surface of his paintings – more specifically, on creating surfaces with considerable expressive power. To this end, the artist exploited not only color but also facture and composition.

“No. 3/No. 13, one of Rothko’s early large-scale artworks, is an important painting made at the height of his career,” said Kelly Baum, the askell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Princeton University Art Museum. “It complements paintings by other Abstract Expressionist artists and invites us to see these artists in a different and essential context.” Baum went on to explain: “No. 3/No. 13 features a compositional format that Rothko developed in 1947 and whose possibilities he continued to mine for the next 23 years. A stack of horizontal bands (rectangular but not rectilinear) stretches outward, flirting with the edges of a vertical canvas. Limning the bottom edge is a whisper of yellow. Its identity is ambiguous: does it lie underneath or on top of the orange? Or is this, perhaps, the top edge of another, partially invisible, band, one that continues, so to speak, beyond the canvas? If the yellow highlight is indeed meant to suggest something we perceive only in part, it violates the sense of enclosure and autonomy that the horizontal bands, contained as they are within the composition’s top, left, and right edges, otherwise respect.
In the case of No. 3/No. 13, therefore, two very different spatial scenarios present themselves: either a closed aesthetic ecosystem or a fragment of a larger environment, one that encompasses the viewer.

“If the latter is true, instead of representing a space or creating the illusion of space, No. 3/No. 13 becomes a space,” Baum concluded.