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 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 were almost certainly produced following the smaller works and before or in tandem with the large-scale “sketches” on canvas for the Seagram cycle.
The design of the current work, with its vertical red portal frame on a red background, relates to a trio of Seagram mural sketches on canvas dating from 1959 (fig. 1–3). The more attenuated forms and the inversion of the palette (dark form on brighter background) of the current work as compared to the canvases, however, suggests 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. The number assigned during Rothko’s inventory of 1968/1969 erroneously signifies a creation date of 1968 for this work.
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.