In June 1958, Rothko accepted a commission to paint a series of canvases for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, New York, the skyscraper designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson and completed that year. In 1958 and 1959 Rothko painted about thirty large-scale canvases for the project, of which seven would likely have been installed had he not abandoned the project in 1959. Rothko also made six small studies—three in crayon and three in a water-based medium, likely poster paint—and five larger paintings on paper, of which this is one, that relate to the Seagram canvases (see Related Works on Paper). The smaller works on paper were almost certainly made prior to the works on canvas [Dore Ashton, About Rothko (New York, 1983), 153] and explore a frieze-like scheme of architectonic forms suggestive of the framed portals that eventually manifested in the canvases. The larger works on paper almost certainly follow the smaller works and were likely executed prior to or in tandem with the large-scale “sketches” on canvas for the Seagram cycle.
The design of the current work, with its horizontal black screen punctured by two vertical slits on a red background, relates to a Seagram mural sketch painted on canvas in 1958–1959 (fig. 1). The wider openings and the subdued maroon palette of the canvas suggest that this and the other related works on paper might best be understood as constituting an exploratory phase of the mural work rather than one-to-one preparatory studies for the canvases themselves.
Mark Rothko: Works on Paper will ultimately document approximately 2,600 works from public and private collections worldwide. Cataloging is ongoing, and works and information will be added to the site during the coming years.